This is what it sounds like when Popes cry – Avignon, France

Property 228 – The Historic Centre of Avignon, France

At the dawn of the new millennium I disembarked from a rattling SCNF train in Avignon, France. After three months of maximally cheap travel travel my energy levels were getting low. Months of budget eating, inadequate clothing and sleeping in hostels have a way of taking it out of you. Youth is robust, but only to a point.

I had never really planned to go there. I was mainly trying to get from Spain to Italy as fast as I reasonably could. That was what I had planned, but I changed my mind mid-afternoon due to a grimy internal hollowness fuelled by exhaustion and overthinking. My original idea had been to continue on to the sketchy Italian port city of Genoa but the prospect of navigating a port city after dark and possibly being propositioned by a sailor didn’t appeal. I disembarked at Avignon, intending to catch the next train after a decent night’s sleep.

I had a handful of francs left in my pocket from a previous visit to Paris and this seemed like a good time to use them, given the transition to the Euro was imminent. Easily the ugliest paper currency in Europe, I was almost pleased to hand over some brown scraps to a mildly dismissive hotelier in exchange for an indifferent room at the top of a rickety staircase. Having now plumbed the depths of anti-French stereotypes I decided to head out for a quick look around town.

In the centre of this fairly small Provencal city is a fortress, a slab of stone standing out from the surrounding buildings the same way Arnold Schwarzenegger stands out in Japan. Its vast sides and heroic fortifications are reminiscent of a Crusader castle in the Middle East. It looks like it could repel even modern armies.

And who is this fortress designed to protect? The Pope, actually. But why did he need six feet of stone around him in every direction, even if that stone is rather coyly referred to as a “palace”? Because in the 14th century, an awful lot of people didn’t like the Pope very much. He needed the protection.

The modern idea of the papacy is very different from older concepts. Modern Popes spend a great deal of time and effort trying to give the impression of being genial old men with some fairly conservative views on society, standing above and a little to the side of the secular rulers. Spiritual advisors you might say, perhaps even mildly irritating nags.

Things were quite different in the past. The Pope, being the spiritual ruler of all the Christians in Europe, had a huge influence on the continent’s politics. Earlier Popes, when cranky, could excommunicate monarchs or even entire countries and expect to be obeyed. In a culture where belief in the Catholic faith was universal and unquestioned, this was nothing to be joked about.

This spiritual authority was counterbalanced by the notional secular authority of the Holy Roman Emperor in Germany, and there was a thousand-year tussle between the two to determine who took precedence.  As it turned out, the answer was neither. The King of France ended up running the show,  which neither side was entirely happy with.

In the early 14th century, the Emperor was distracted elsewhere and the papacy was looking quite ropey due to corruption and general instability. The French king saw an opportunity to steal a march on both by making the pope his pet. After the death of the previous pope, the French King arranged for the election of a Frenchman as his new man in Rome, Clement V.

Clement was no fool. He could see who was calling the shots, but so could the Roman bureaucracy, and they opposed him at every turn. In light of that situation he decided that he would not like to live in Rome, thank you very much, but that Avignon would make a much better papal headquarters. This was a major break with a 1500 year old tradition of the “Roman” church, but Clement knew that it was the only way he could survive. This period of papal history was known as the Babylonian Captivity, both because the papacy had been “captured” in a foreign land by the French King, but also because the pope was virtually imprisoned inside his own home.

The result of this relocation was that a papal palace was built in central Avignon, and that it ended up looking like a crenellated kneecap. This is reportedly the largest gothic palace in Europe, and I believe it. Towers and vast halls are jumbled together in a way that denotes solidity rather than fragmentation, rather like some kind of fungus expanding outwards in every direction. The towers have names (“kitchen tower”, “garden tower”), but I suspect they are traditions rather than descriptions of function. The overall size is impressive – some of the larger rooms look like they could accommodate small armies, possibly with their cavalry as well.

Despite its sunny Mediterranean location, the palace in Avignon reminds me of the gloomy castle of Gormenghast in Mervyn Peake’s series of novels. Fortified from the inside and out against enemies physical and spiritual in a time of great-power manoeuvrings, it has a certain resonance today.

I spent the last of my francs buying a ticket onwards to Genoa in the mid afternoon. I was somewhat fortified by a decent rest in France, but I was still propositioned by a prostitute when I got there.

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