The Palace of the Popes, the largest Gothic palace in Europe, residence of the Sovereign Pontiffs during the 14th century, is in the centre of the city of Avignon. One time capital of the Christian world in the Middle Ages, home to outstanding architectural heritage and right in the heart of Provence.
Palais de Papes History
In 1305 the French-born Archbishop of Bordeaux became Pope Clement V. The new pope refused to leave France and transferred papal administration to Provence. Clement V believed it would be a temporary move to have the Papal centre in Provence but in fact it lasted for decades.
Avignon became the capital of Christianity. The town flourished and served as a place of refuge, attracting foreigners, merchants, artists, religious orders, bankers, and even political outlaws such as Petrarque, famous for his love for Laura.
The Palace of the Popes is the biggest Gothic palace in Europe. There is 15,000 m² of floor space – equivalent to 4 Gothic cathedrals.
The Avignon popes
Clément V (1305-1314): first pope of Avignon, known as Le Comtat Venaissin.
Jean XXII (1316-1334)
Benoît XII (1334-1342): Started the construction of a big tower, located to the south of the former bishop’s palace, followed by a two-level chapel. The bishop’s palace was gradually demolished to make room for a new construction.
Clément VI (1342-1352): Doubled the surface of the building and updated the decoration. He ordered an ambitious architectural program, with large and formal volumes, embellished with many sculptures of vegetable and animal inspiration.
Innocent VI (1352-1362): Finished off the works started by his predecessor and made many improvements to traffic, including a bridge which no longer exists.
Urbain V (1362-1370): Created the Galerie Roma in the higher garden.
Grégoire XI (1370-1378): He undertook maintenance work in the palace and primarily occupied himself with his return to Rome.
The Wine of the Pope and Chateauneuf du Pape
The most influential Pope for Provence was the second Pope, (Jean) John XXII – he loved the wines of Burgundy but as he was in Provence he resolved to make the most of wine production there instead. Regional wines gained fame as Vin de Pape, or “Wine of the Pope.”
John XXII lived a life of luxury and style and had a castle built nearby as a summer residence which became known as Châteauneuf-du-Pape or “New Castle of the Pope.”
Today, the village uses the name Châteauneuf-du-Pape and although only remnants of the original Papal vineyards remain, the famously robust red wine takes its name from the area.
After the popes returned to Rome, wine making remained an important regional product.
What to do and see at the Palais des Papes
Visitors can see over 20 rooms, scenes of historic events, in particular the pope’s private chambers and the frescoes painted by the Italian artist Matteo Giovannetti.
The Grand Tinel was the setting for papal banquets, great feasts where 5 courses of 4 dishes per course were served. The papal table stood on a raised dais. The pope dined alone seated on a throne under a canopy. Guests were seated on benches along the walls, and the food was served from the centre of the room.
The Great Chapel is a very impressive room 52 meters long, 16 meters wide and 20 meters high. Here, sumptuous ceremonies were held, including papal coronations and funerals.
Seven French popes presided in France until 1378, when Pope Gregory XI returned the papacy to Rome.
The Popes’ Palace also offers the visitor cultural activities throughout the year. A major art exhibit is displayed in the Great Chapel during the summer, and the most prestigious performances of the Avignon Theater Festival are given in the Honor Courtyard of the Popes’ Palace during the month of July.
The Wine Cellar at the Palace of the Popes: known as the “Bouteillerie” is today an education centre for the Côtes du Rhône where you can learn about the wines and buy some of the best.
Secret Palace: Take an off-the-beaten path tour of the Palace of the Popes. A special behind the scenes look at the residence of the Sovereign Pontiffs: private apartments, baths, wardrobe tower, chapels and gardens. Hidden stairways and secret corridors will take you from the cellars to the rooftops. This special tour comes with lunch (French only) and a discovery tasting of Côtes du Rhône wines from the Bouteillerie on the Grands Dignitaires terrace.
Visit in French with lunch: Saturdays at 12.30am and Sundays at 10.30am, September to May.
Visit in English (no lunch): Fridays at 3pm mid- April to mid-May and beginning of September to end of October
See the Palais des Papes website for details of opening times, tickets and travel.