By Pepinster, Catherine
The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
There's something about Avignon that attracts writers. Maybe it's the river, its majestic sweep of buildings or the view from the hill, or the papal palace, but they flock to it as they do to few other cities. Venice might compete with it, or Rome, but little else. It is not something which can just be described in terms of charm either, though plenty have been enchanted. For some it's a rotten, stinking place, and that's what they like to describe. To the poet Petrarch, 14th-century Avignon was a sewer where all the filth of the universe gathered, and Henry James, 500 years later, complained about the Mistral, though in time he came to love the place.
Today Avignon is very much a walker's town. Like many old cities in Provence, it's unsuitable for cars, and the visitor can wander at will along medieval cobbled streets without fear of horns hooting. And those narrow roads are overlaid with all manner of literary associations.
It was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that Avignon became firmly placed on the writers' map. The influence of the Grand Tour and the growth of the railways were part of the reason. So too were the warm climate and the extraordinary provencal light which also beckoned painters. But Avignon's own rich literary life may well have played a part. In 1854 the poet Frederic Mistral and six literary colleagues - Joseph Roumanille, Theodore Aubanel, Paul Giera, Jean Brunet, Alphonse Tavan and Anselme Mathieu - founded the Felibrige, a literary movement which sought to revive the ancient language of Provence and the traditional culture of southern France. Mistral, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1904, established a literary version of the various dialects of the medieval langue d'oc of the region, and wrote some of his best known works in the area.
If you wander along the main street of Avignon, the rue de la Republique, towards the central square of Place de l'Horloge, and then veer off to the left, you will come to the Palais du Roure, a palace now converted into a museum of provencal history and culture. It was here that Baron Folco de Baroncelli-Javon, a poet, established Aioli, the journal of the Felibrige. The name derives from the ancient Occitan word felibres, found in a song about Jesus disputing tradition with the learned men in the Temple.
If you return from the Palais du Roure to Rue St Agricol and go left along until Rue J Vernet, where you turn right, and then a short walk later, turn left, you will come to the Place Crillon, and the other main reason why so many writers came to Avignon: the Hotel Europe. In its heyday it was the Hotel Palais Royal, and among its visitors were Charles Dickens, Stendhal, George Eliot, and Robert and Elizabeth Browning.
Dickens relished the warmth of southern France. First port of call for him, as it was for nearly all Avignon's visitors, was the bridge we all know from the rhyme. This is not a bridge to use to cross right over the Rhone; it is, in Dickens's words, "a broken bridge", the greater part of it swept away during floods in the 17th century. What remains today of the 20 original arches are just four reaching out over the river, and the small Chapelle St Nicolas over the second pier. You can buy a ticket to wander along the bridge, before following in Dickens's footsteps and taking a short few steps to the cathedral. The church today is much as it was in Dickens's time: a distinctive exterior, with an attractive porch and square tower, and a bare interior illuminated by the candles of votive offerings.
But it is the Palais des Papes, or Papal Palace, which has changed most in the past 150 years. In the 19th century it was a barracks and a jail, with a prisoners' box where the philanthropic could leave their offerings. But what made Dickens shiver in the heat was the Papal Palace's history as the seat of the Inquisition, where heretics were interrogated during the 14th century when Avignon was the religious, political and cultural centre of Christendom. …