Monday, June 2, 2014

Trip to Southern France - Avignon

Wow, it's taken me a long time to write this post! Things have been pretty busy since the last post: lots of work for both Bob and me; a working holiday to northern Denmark; my 30th birthday trip back to France (hopefully there will be a blog about that trip before I turn 31!); friends visiting us in Copenhagen; and the best spring we've ever had in Denmark! But let's first finish talking about our trip to southern France waaaay back in April. The last part of our trip to southern France took us to Avignon.
Avignon is an old city and was occupied by Gallic tribes, the Romans, and the Holy Roman Empire. In 1309, the Catholic church's pope Clement decided to move the seat of the Papacy away from Rome to Avignon. Avignon thus became the seat of the Papacy until 1377. In 1377, the Papacy returned to Rome. This return to Rome caused quite a bit of political turmoil, which became known as the Papal Schism. During the schism, several men claimed to be the pope. Avignon once again because the primary residence for two of these 'antipopes': Clement VII (antipope from 1378-1394) and Benedict XIII  (antipope from 1394-1403).
The Avignon residence for the popes and antipopes was the Palais de Papes (Palace of Popes). Construction on the palace, which was built over an existing palace for the Avignon archbishop, began in 1335 and was completed by 1354. The palace is huge; at 15,000 sq. m (161,500 sq. ft), it is the largest Gothic palace in Europe.
In this room, the Consistory, the Pope would sit at the end of the big hall, which served as a receiving room for ambassadors, cardinals, and public audiences. The Pope would sit in a chair that was placed just so the light from the window would illuminate him.
The huge Banquet Hall sits directly above the Consistory. This room is unbelievable large (11m/36 ft by 48m/158 ft), with a giant fireplace at the end.
Close to the Banquet Hall is the Pope's bedchamber. Because of the 14th century painting in the room, it's not possible to take photos inside, but I snuck this photo from outside of the room. It gives you a sense of the beautiful painting that decorates the entire room. Interestingly enough, this room, plus the adjoining study (known as the Stag Room) feature non-religious paintings of natural scenes (the bedchamber has lots of birds and foliage, while the Stag Room has hunting scenes).
The Grand Chapel is also an enormous room at 15m/50 ft by 52m/170 ft. When the palace was the home of the Papacy, new popes were first anointed here. During the 19th century, when the palace was occupied by French troops, this room was converted into a 3 story barrack!
This beautiful door leads to the Grand Chapel. After a newly elected pope was anointed inside the chapel, he would exit these doors and address the masses for the first time via the balcony on the other side. If you look closely, you can see that all of the figures surrounding the arch are beheaded. This beheading of statues happened during the French revolution.
Here you can see the newest pope, Pope Bob, addressing me from the balcony.
On top of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame-des-Doms is a huge golden statue of Mary.
Oh so beautiful.
Directly across the river Rhône is what looks like a very large fortified palace. When the Palais de Papes was constructed, the French royalty felt threatened. So they built just the facade of a grand palace across the river to intimidate the Popes.
Leading into the fortified palace is (or, rather, was) the Pont Saint-Bénézet, or Saint Benezet bridge. Built between 1177 and 1185, the bridge once spanned the Rhône. Forty years later it was destroyed by King Louis VIII. It was rebuilt, but was very expensive to maintain (the bridge tended to collapse when the river flooded). By the 1600s, the bridge was abandoned. All that remains are the 14th century-built 4 arches.
The town of Avignon is not just made up of papal palaces; in fact, Avignon has a population of around 90,000 inhabitants, 12,000 of which live within the old city surrounded by these 14th century ramparts.
Avignon is the birthplace of composer Olivier Messiaen, one of Bob's favorites. Here is a plaque commemorating the place where Messiaen was baptized.
Avignon also has a fantastic food hall, where we bought lots of yummy local items for a dinner we cooked. Fresh radishes dipped in fantastically salty butter, arugula salad with beets and fresh, soft goat cheese, roasted asparagus with butter and lemon, and thinly sliced steak rolled with spinach and goat cheese, rounded off by a nice bottle of Gigondas wine.
The area around Avignon is a fantastic wine growing region. We visited several different vintners in two different regions/appellations: Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas. Here you can see where Châteauneuf-du-Pape gets its name: the castle built by Pope John XXII in the early 1300s. More of the small castle stood until the 1940s, when German troops detonated explosives in the castle as they retreated.
The Châteauneuf-du-Pape growing area covers 7,900 acres and is one of the most renowned appellations in the southern Rhône valley. The soil is extremely special: many of the grapes grow in large quartzite rocks, with vines that must reach very deep to retrieve water. The rocks retain the day's warmth and release the warmth at night, creating a very special condition for the vines.
Thirteen grape varieties can be used to create wine from Châteauneuf-du-Pape: grenache (the primary grape used, accounting for 72% of the vines), syrah (second most used grape, accounting for 10% of the vines), mourvedre (third most used grape, accounting for 7% of the vines), bourboulence, cinsaut, clairette blache, clariette rose, counoise, grenache blac, grenache pris, muscardin, picardan, piquepoul blanc, piquepoul gris, piquepoul boir, roussanne, terret noir, and vaccarèse.
We purchased several bottles in the area, most of which are to be kept in our 'cellar' for a few years before we drink them. It's exciting to start our own cellar, even if we lack an actual cellar.
After visiting Châteauneuf-du-Pape, we headed over to Gigondas. With 3,030 acreas, Gigondas is a smaller appellation and produces only red and rosé wines. Similar to Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the Gigondas reds are very powerful, full-bodied, and heavy on the tannins. The small village in Gigondas held this water fountain; Bob said the water tasted very fresh.

Over all, we had a fantastic trip to both Avignon and southern France in general. We ate well, drank well, got a good fill of history, culture, and wine knowledge, and discovered a new-to-us region of France. 

1 comment:

  1. Longest. Blog. Post. Ever. This must have taken you longer than the trip itself! Looks like a great time though!
    -Wes and Andrea