Advantages "The past is a foreign country..."
Disadvantages "...they do things differently there." (L P Hartley)
The aspiration to own a second home in France did not originate with the English middle class after the second world war. The idea also appealed to the ecclesiastical dignitaries who peopled the papal court during its sojourn in Avignon in the 14th century.
All in all, the citizens must have been quite relieved when the papacy settled in Avignon in 1309 and relations with their neighbours thawed. The Pope at the time – not by coincidence – was a friendly Frenchman, Clement V, and the French monarchy saw every advantage in keeping on good terms with the church. Whilst the left bank of Rhone remained the international frontier, crossing it became a pretty routine undertaking, at least for privileged personages, such as Cardinals or other VIPs in the Catholic hierarchy. For them the French side of the river became a favourite place to keep a mansion or villa, away from the insalubrious hustle and bustle of Avignon itself. Fifteen of these residences were even grand enough to be called palaces. The town that grew up around them became known as New-Town-beside-Avignon, or Villeneuve-lèz-Avignon in the local dialect, reminding us that everything that now seems old was once a novelty.It is still an attractive place to visit today.
Villeneuve is the first place you’d reach if you could still cross the Rhone from Avignon by the old, now-truncated bridge of St Bénézet. Ascending the hill on the far side you’d find yourself in the shadow of a tall, forbidding watch-tower.
The steep approach from Avignon
This tower was built at the behest of, and still bears the name of, Phillippe-le-Bel – “Philip the Fair”, the nickname of King Philip VI of France. Fair he may have been in appearance, but not in any other way. His hand is believed to have been behind the assassination of the previous Pope, Boniface VIII, and the installation of the more pliable Clement. He was certainly a tough ruler and ruthless enemy, and the tower named after him remains an appropriately harsh stone structure, with little decoration. Visiting it today is mainly memorable for the views it affords back across the river to Avignon, and in both directions along the Rhone.Even better views can be had by ascending the crest of the hill behind the tower, the Colline des Mourgues, which is a public park and worth a small diversion even if you are not pausing for a picnic, though this is certainly a good place for al fresco eating if the day is fine.
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