Avignon is famous as it is the city to which the Popes fled when leaving the corruption of Rome in the 14th century. The palace they built, 'Le Palais des Papes,' or the palace of popes, is the world's largest Gothic edifice. It was largely emptied over the centuries, and its vast stone rooms are filled with little more than old frescos, but it is still an imposing building. The Ramparts themselves were erected to keep the plague and invaders out during the turbulent middle ages, when Avignon belonged to the papacy and not the French crown.
Its early history is much older than the popes, however. Avignon occupies a strategic location for several reasons - it is at the confluence of two once-mighty rivers: the Rhône, still one of the biggest rivers in France, and the now largely-dammed Durance. Both were important routes of trade and communication even in prehistoric times. In addition, there is a long island in the Rhone that made it possible to ferry people and goods across, and later bridge the river, more easily than in other places.
It is estimated that about 200,000 people live in Avignon, 16,000 of which live 'intra-muros,' or within the ramparts built in the 14th century. The city is now sprinkled with buildings and monuments ranging from the new to the old, the very old, and the ageless.
Avignon has been continuously inhabited since the stone age, when troglodyte inhabitations were built in caves in the Rocher des Dames, a massive outcropping of rock rising over the banks of the Rhône. Today, a public park with benches, views over the surrounding countryside, a café and playground is on top of the Rocher.
The Romans had a presence in Avignon, though the walls they built lie buried somewhere under the modern streets. Vestiges of the forum can still be seen, lying unassumingly near the Rue Racine and the Rue Saint-Etienne, to the west of the city.
Then, in medieval times, the town grew to an important center of communication and trade. The stone bridge spanning the Rhone was one of only three between the Mediterranean and Lyon. It was undoubtedly for its strategic location and ease of travel that it was chosen by the papacy as home within the then kingdom of Provence. The presence of the papacy made Avignon into a city of great political and economic activity.
The old city wall, now visible only as a street that circles the very center of the town (changing names 5 times in the process!) was much too small and a larger wall, still visible today, was necessary to protect its bulging population. Wealthy Cardinals built extravagant palaces known as livrées both within Avignon and across the river, in Villeneuve-lès-Avignon.
The city teemed with activity and building as architects, builders, artists flocked to the town. At that time, within the city walls there were over 100 churches and chapels - many of which have been transformed since then into everything from shops to a movie theater! The wealth and activity generated by the presence of the papacy spilled out into the region, so that even small villages nearby boast a rich architectural past.