Not so far from where we were originally staying at Provence, we decided to go further to visit other known medieval towns in the region. Though we came too early for the lavender season, with which Provence is known for, it was still fascinating to see the grandeur of the Pope’s castle and the vineyards surrounding it and the rustic, untouched beauty of a medieval town.
Avignon: City of the Popes
“Do you know this song, ‘On the bridge of Avignon’?” I was asked with this question several times as soon as we reached the centuries-old city in Provence. A children’s nursery song with very simple lyrics that’s so easy to follow, which is originally in French but got translated into English, still I cannot figure out what it is.
On the bridge of Avignon
They are dancing, they are dancing,
On the bridge of Avignon
They are dancing all around.
Like a child, I exclaimed, “Mother Goose! I know her and oh how I love her nursery rhymes…” and by then I started blurting out characters from the most to the least popular ones; from Jack and Jill to Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee. Then just like that, my hubby shot his cheeky, signature ‘you’re-so-American’ look at me, something which I usually get from him whenever I share things I know that are more American than Asian (supposedly it’s not surprising anymore).
Moving on then, I finally saw the infamous Pont d’Avignon, ruined but still standing strong after hundreds of years.
The bridge is actually called Le Pont Saint-Benezet (the bridge of Saint Benedict), as it was named after the local shepherd Benezet who got a divine calling to build this bridge along the mighty Rhone river. After numerous catastrophic floods, as well as a huge siege to Avignon, only 4 out of 22 arches remain standing.
As far as I can also remember what I learned from my Christian civilization class during my university years, Avignon is popularly known as the “City of the Popes,” to which the popes fled from Rome in the 14th century. Equally termed as the Avignon papacy which began in 1309 with Clement V, seven successive popes — all are French — reigned and resided in Avignon, rather than in Rome for the next 67 years; until Gregory XI moved his papal court back to Rome in 1377.
Le Palais des Papes was the enclave of these Avignon popes, which is nowadays considered as the largest Gothic edifice in the world. Nonetheless, the presence of the papacy gave Avignon such importance in the political and economic activity at such tumultuous time.
The city was teeming with activities and buildings as architects, builders, artists, and merchants flocked. Within the city walls, over 100 churches and chapels were built but now are transformed into shops; while along Avignon and across the river, wealthy cardinals built extravagant palaces.
A crush on Chateauneuf-du-Pape
Truth be told, I don’t fancy French wines in the same way I would with Italian wines. A few Bordeaux disappointed me several times with its stale, cork taste. Burgundy wines are generally couci-couça, while Beaujolais I find it overrated.
Of all the French wines that have come-and-go with my palate, Chateauneuf-du-Pape is an exemption.
Visiting wine villages has really become an interesting hobby of ours, if there’s a chance as always. France of course, never runs out of vineyards and I was pleased to get a rare visit to the village of my favorite French wine.
I thought at first that this village’s close proximity to Avignon was the reason it was named as such. Upon arriving, indeed, there was a medieval castle (now ruined) sitting dominantly at the top of the village. It’s easy to jump into that conclusion, but hold your horses! The current French name was apparently derived from its Latin name Castro Novo that is first found on a document from 1094, way before this castle was built in the 14th century for John XXII, the second Avignon pope!
Nonetheless, the popes seem to know how to live a really good life. Not only these popes had a grand castle sitting along the majestic Rhone River, they also cultivated lands with grapevines that have now produced delectable red wines.
And no questions asked, I bought my bottles of course.