Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Popes and Bridges

Day 113
I was up early again and on the same train as the day before. However, this time I was going a bit further to Avignon. It's too bad that the day trips couldn't have been switched, meaning less time in Axe and more in Avignon.

When the train got there I was some ways out of town and had to take a bus in. At least I wasn't so confused this time around. After stopping by the tourist office and getting a map I headed straight to Le Pont Saint Benezet. Apparently everyone in the world learns a song about the bridge except for me. Still, I felt the need to check it out.

In 1177 a farmer had a vision from god that he was to build a bridge over the Rhone. Everyone thought that he was crazy. The local priest told him that they would build the bridge if he could move an impossibly big stone on his own. Somehow he did it and the bridge was built. St: Benezet's bones were placed in a chapel on the bridge, but later moved.

The bridge was partially destroyed in 1226 and then rebuilt. During the middle ages Avignon was a huge port and tolls were received on the bridge. Apparently salt was stolen by the locals in such large quantities that they became known for it. The bridge was also quite narrow, making it very dangerous to cross. Despite the large danger of falling people did cross it, they joked that upon crossing the pont you always passed 2 nuns, 2 prostitutes and 2 soldiers. I seemed to only pass other tourists. In 1633 part of the bridge collapsed and it was abandoned. It wasn't until the 19th century that it became a tourist attraction.

I think the most interesting part of the bridge was how it affected local history. The audio guide spoke more about Avignon history than the actual bridges history. Even though I didn't know the song I very much enjoyed the story.

During the 13th century Italy was a pretty dangerous place and the papal court was forced to spend about 100 years traveling around. In 1309 Pope Clement V (the same one to give the order to kill the Templars) got to Avignon and decided to stay. This move radically changed Catholic history. Over 100 years 9 popes reined from Avignon. In 1335 construction began on a new Papal Palace, this was my main reason for coming to Avignon. I was a bit disappointed to find out that there isn't very much left from the papal court, however a huge amount of research has been done so it is easy to see how the place looked and how it functioned.

The papacy essentially owned Avignon. They seemed happy there, but the Italian princes often tried to bring them back to Rome. In 1376 Gregory XI went for a visit and died there. Rome took this as their chance to reclaim the papacy and elected Urban VI as pope. France didn't want to loose the papacy and elected Clement VII. This began the great schism that lasted 40 years. Both sides wanted the other to step down. This never really happened. In 1423 the French pope died and they simply did not elect another one.

One the papacy had left Avignon they palace was left to the care of various cardinals. Some of them restored and even enlarged the palace, while others ignored it. Eventually there were a few fires and the building fell into decline. Napoleon actually used it as barracks. It's easy to see how so much was lost. Restoration began in the 1930's and continued until the 1960's.

It was really fascinating for me to be able to visit something that I had studied so often in school. I love how travel does this again and again!

The palace was huge and the free audio guide was very detailed. Basically the palace took up my entire day. There was no way that I could visit the art museum as planned. Instead I wandered the medieval streets for about 30 minutes before heading off to the train station.

Back at Nice I spent some time blogging before calling it a night.

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