To say the Palais des Papes is imposing is an understatement. With 15,000 square metres of floor space, it was the largest Gothic building of the Middle Ages, and it remains the largest (and one of the most important) of its kind in all of Europe.
Yet remarkably, for all its chapels, towers, arches and ornamentation, the complex took less than 20 years to build back in the 14th century, under the guidance of two of France’s most applauded architects, Pierre Peysson and Jean de Louvres.
When the popes come to town
Why the rush to build, you might ask? Avignon became the capital of Western Christianity from 1309 to 1377, after Pope Clement V moved his court here to avoid the time’s chaos in Rome. A total of seven French popes reigned in Avignon over the coming decades, and two commissioned palaces from 1335: Benedict XII, who built the Old Palace, and his successor Clement VI, who built the New Palace. The Palais des Papes is an amalgamation of the two structures. United, the vast complex appears more like a siege-prone fortress than the former papal residence.
LEFT: Interior view, Palais des Papes, Avignon, France
It's all in the palatial details
Those breakaway popes of the 14th century were well-funded and they dug deep to commission a warren of serpentine corridors, imposing stone halls and apartments frescoed with ornate hunting and fishing scenes, at the hands of famous Italian artists like Matteo Giovannetti and Simone Martini.
In Saint Martial Chapel, another fresco tells the marvellous story of Saint Martial, who was sent by Saint Peter to spread the word of the Gospel in the Limousin area of France – the pope’s native region.
RIGHT: Saint Martial Chapel, Avignon, France
After the Papal Curia moved back to Rome in 1377 in the face of growing stability, the Palais des Papes entered a long period of decline, in which it was besieged on multiple occasions by invading forces – it was even claimed by the Napoleonic French state, being used as a prison and army barracks.
The building was finally vacated in 1906, and was declared a national museum soon after. Since then, the palace has seen near-constant (and meticulous) renovations. Small wonder the 700-year-old edifice on the leafy banks of the Rhône, along with the historic centre of Avignon, has been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its outstanding architecture and historical importance.
LEFT: Aerial view, Palais des Papes, Avignon, France
Go behind the scenes with Scenic
Today’s visitors – there are around 600,000 of them annually – can admire some 25 rooms within the palatial walls, glimpsing the pope’s private chambers and some of those glorious frescoes.
But what if you had the entire place only for you and your fellow friends (up to 149 guests) cruising the Rhône with Scenic?
Choose the Spectacular South of France, Idyllic Rhône or Tastes of Southern France river cruise itineraries to witness the majesty of the Palais des Papes on a Scenic Enrich event. These exclusive experiences are designed to create once-in-a-lifetime moments, truly immersing you in your destination and taking you beyond what most travellers ever think is possible.
RIGHT: Exclusive Scenic Enrich Event, Gala Dinner, Palais des Papes
When the doors of Palais des Papes close to the general public, they open to you. Stepping into the Grand Tinel Room – with its domed roof, vast tapestries and original 14th-century stonework walls – Scenic guests are treated to an exclusive gala dinner of fine food and exquisite wine, all while being serenaded by classical musicians. Needless to say, the acoustics and ambiance are out of this world, the perfect setting for a memory that will stay with you forever.
LEFT: Exclusive Scenic Enrich Event, Gala Dinner, Palais des Papes