We began our exploration of Avignon with a walk to the Rocher des Doms, the Old bridge at Avignon high, rocky tor overlooking the Rhone and the town. "On a clear day you can see forever;" today was cloudy, but we still saw quite a distance up and down the Rhone valley. We found the most-photographed site, Le Pont d'Avignon, familiar to every child who has sung French folk-songs, and captured our own version of the view.
We descended the hill to see the 12th century Cathedral of Notre Dame des Domes, and then visited the Palace of the Popes (Palais des Papes). This is a huge, asymmetric stone building erected by the fourteenth century popes in Avignon.
Unfortunately, little of the interior decorations remain. The palace was under siege at the turn of the fifteenth century; allocated to the papal legates Le Palais des Papes in 1433; continued to deteriorate through the sixteenth century; pillaged and used as a place of massacre during the Revolution; used as a prison and barracks in the nineteenth century, when the soldiers cut off the frescoes and sold them to collectors; and evacuated in 1905. Theoretically it has been under restoration ever since, but not until recently have there been funds to do much by way of preservation. From the point of view of the tourist, the Palace is pretty much a shell.
The Palace is operated as a tourist attraction, apparently by the City of Avignon. Although it has been designated a World Heritage Site, it is not operated as a national museum; this is too bad, because to exploit the historical and educational value of the Palace fully would require the massive Old wooden door investment that only the treasury of the Republic could provide. The Michelin Green Guide devotes more than six pages to a description of the Palace and its history, but then advises the visitor to allow only one hour to visit.
We spent barely that, quickly walking through the huge empty chambers. The audio tours which were provided, in English, focused on the fourteenth century and the life of the Avignon Popes in the Palace. For example, some tapestries, which we guessed to be eighteenth century, were hung in the banqueting hall, but the audio tape didn't mention them. Nor were there any decent explanatory story boards from the curators. This is the second time we have been shocked at the quality of descriptive materials in a French museum. Courtyard restoration
And there is a lot to think about here: why did the papacy move away from Rome? Why were there two competing popes in the beginning of the fifteenth century? Why was so much lavished on a luxurious life style for spiritual leaders while millions were dying in plagues? Why did the Church engage in persecution of heretics rather than persuasion? And so on.
We have considered the matter of curatorship in French historical museums, and we remain puzzled. Historical museums in other European countries seem to be much more thought-provoking. Are the French less introspective? Are the well-curated museums all in Paris? Are the French more interested in Art than History? Does the heritage of Gaullism prevent a skeptical look at French history? Or is it just bad luck on our part in failing to find the best museums? (We tend to doubt this possibility, as we have been studying our travel guides assiduously with an eye to finding good historical museums.) Notre Dame altar
We continued exploring the city, wandering here and there on the shopping and business streets, pausing at various old buildings and the occasional church, debating whether to try another museum or just to wait for Lyon and Milan. Realizing that this is, in fact, a small city with a large building, we decided to enjoy the street scenes. We did discover several intriguing historic sites, including a former Templar chapel, currently privately owned but which retains exterior details like the frames of church windows and part of a decorative door frame.
For lunch we had Flammekuchen, which is like a pizza; a very thin crust is covered with tiny pieces of bacon, onions, and cheese in a cream sauce, then broiled and served on a wooden board.
We meandered back to the hotel. When we found the neighborhoods east of the main shopping street rather depressing, we returned west to more attractive (and more familiar) blocks.