Lifestyle of the Rich and Papal
The ancient papal city of Avignon protects many historic gems behind its 14th-century crenellated walls. It is known as the home of seven popes who broke with Rome, the first in 1309. Five popes lived and ruled for 100 years from the once-sumptuous fortress residence, the Palais des Papes.
Pillaged during the French Revolution of all its original finery, the palace today needs a willing imagination to envisage the luxurious living that once went on. This is partially possible in the Chapelle St.-Jean, known for its beautiful 14th-century frescoes by Matteo Giovanetti, and in the huge banqueting hall with its famous ceiling. It is easiest to imagine the papal tenants in their private chambers, the loveliest being the Chambre du Cerf, the pope’s private study, where the murals depicting hunting scenes were most likely the work of Giovanetti.
The nearby Petit Palais, the former archbishop’s palace begun in 1318, today houses a rich collection of 15th-century works from the Avignon School and 13th- to 16th-century Italian works whose highlight is the young Botticelli’s Madonna and Child.
If you visit Avignon in midsummer, you can enjoy one of Europe’s most important and exciting fetes, the Festival d’Avignon. Recognized as the country’s foremost theater and dance festival, it has outgrown its original venue, the courtyard of the Palais des Papes and “Off Avignon” (as the lively fringe scene is known) now involves the entire city
Any theater, church, cloister, square, or street comer may become the stage for national and visiting troupes that perform prose, comedy, opera, music, mime, and dance. The core of the festival continues to be theater, however; premieres by living playwrights intermix with the classics and occasional performances in English.
Meanwhile, do whatever you can to stay at Avignon’s boutique-hotel gem La Mirande. Only superlatives could be used to describe its location (almost all the rooms overlook the Palais des Papes); history (the Louis XIV sunburst over the hotel entrance indicates a more recent facade, though the 15th-century structure was built on the foundations of an earlier cardinal’s palace); taste (the look and feel of a genteel 18th-century home was deftly re-created by one of France’s premier designers); and impeccable decor (many of the choice antique pieces are straight from the art-loving owners’ family).
The superlatives continue with the hotel restaurant— one of the city’s best. A highly acclaimed chef is the creative force behind a softly lit dining room, with an Aubusson tapestry and double-coffered ceiling. These give way to a glass-topped central courtyard, the perfect spot for tea, and a garden color-splashed and scented with jasmine and honeysuckle. The effect is so sumptuous and theatrical, it brings to mind the make-believe quality of a Visconti movie set.