We left Italy and drove into Avignon, in southern France, for a couple of days en route to Spain.
Avignon is a fascinating place. The history books tell us that Pope Clement V, who was French, picked up and moved the papacy from Rome to Avignon in 1305, apparently because he enjoyed the support of the French King Louis V and felt more secure in Avignon than in Rome. This did not sit well with the Italian cardinals, and eventually led to the Great Schism of the late 1300s–a subject that the Church still officially pretends did not happen.
Things were apparently more complicated, though. This picture was taken from the garden behind the Papal Palace, an enormous and forbidding defensive castle. In the background you can see some vineyards and the famous Rhone river, which is world-renowned for its wines.
We learned that the Rhone, and the Bridge of Avignon celebrated by the children’s song, has a historical significance beyond fine vineyards: at the time of the Avignon papacy, the Rhone was the boundary between France (on the far side of the river) and the Pope’s dominion (on the Pope’s/Italian side of the river). The famous bridge was the ONLY bridge, and was therefore of enormous strategic importance.
But here’s the really ironic thing. As you can see in the picture, across the river (i.e., in France), stands another mighty castle. While not as big and impressive as the Papal Palace, it is impressive and intimidating by any standards. It was built by the King of France in response to the construction of the Papal Palace. Apparently, then, even though the Pope felt more secure being near his native France, the King believed the Pope was a serious threat.
Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer, I guess.
(Here’s a picture of the Papal Palace. Quite impressive, unless you have been to the one in Rome, which is about 25 times larger. It’s all relative, I guess.)