"Exile of Avignon," as church historians call those 70 years or so during which the popes resided not in Rome but in the Rhone town in southeastern France. The arrival of Clement V. 700 years ago, on 9. March 1309, is a reason here to celebrate a bit – even if not too big.
When you ask the Provencal people about the "exile" or the "Babylonian captivity" of the popes, the answer is always the same: "Exile – what do you mean??", they say then, reflexively and disparagingly. After all, people literally live here like God in France. In the 90.000-inhabitant town of Avignon is enough for itself. A glass of pastis, a good meal – what to get upset about? After all, even the Vatican made an appearance on the weekend. Benedict XVI. sends its French Curia Cardinal Paul Poupard. The former president of the Pontifical Council for Culture can experience a colorful program on the forecourt of the Papal Palace. Huge, that is the impression of the visitor when he stands in front of the stone mountains. "Huge" should also be the medieval stew, which the organizers announce for Saturday at noon. Free stew and free entrance to the palace with its slender 15.000 square meters of usable space; in addition, medieval spectacles for all. Then, on Sunday morning, a festive service in the cathedral where Popes John XXII. and Benedict XII. are buried. In the afternoon, a temporary post office is set up in the palace, which ies a special stamp. All in all, a rather modest appearance, considering how radically the arrival of the Curia since 1309 has changed the destiny and the character of the city. About 90.000 people live today around the famous Rhone Bridge in Avignon. Just 6.000 were there when Clement V. 1309 brought the papacy to France. An ideal location for a secure residence: owned by the Counts of Provence, who were vassals of the Roman Church. In the kingdom of Arelat and thus on imperial territory, but on the border river to France, the Rhone. Surrounded, finally, by the county of Venaissin, already under papal rule since1229/1274. Clemens V. makes his first stop in 1309 at the Dominican monastery in Avignon – but in view of his failing health, the hot, overcrowded town does not seem to him to be the right place for a permanent stay. At first he stayed mainly in nearby Carpentras, later in a small palace at the foot of Mont Ventoux. First John XXII., Bishop of Avignon just a few years earlier, he took up residence as pope (1316-1334) in his old bishop’s house. From then on, the city is the permanent residence of the popes until 1367 and again briefly as of 1370. This is accompanied by a massive expansion of the administration. 600 curials and about 1.000 more people of the court had to be accommodated. Houses are rented, many also confiscated. Emergency shelters are replaced by ever more splendid new buildings. Buildings with magnificent oak ceilings, which today house the city’s public library, for example. Courtiers, merchants and banks, art and culture follow the power: Avignon takes a meteoric rise. All the deeper the fall: after the return of the popes to Rome the small town sinks back to the province. For more than three and a half centuries, from1433 until the French Revolution, papal legates resided in the decaying palace. A prison since the Revolution and an army barracks until 1906, the stone colos suffered countless alterations and damages that were not repaired until the 20th century. Century to be gradually eliminated.. With around 650.000 admissions annually, the palace is now one of the top ten most visited tourist attractions in France. In addition there will be about 570.000 visitors to the international theater festival, which has been held in the courtyard since 1947. Stars like Jeanne Moreau and Philippe Noiret started their careers here. Attractive, cozy, a bit sleepy, that’s how Avignon presents itself this spring 2009. The European Capital of Culture 2000, the city of theater, is once again Pope – a little bit at least.