In the 13th and 14th Centuries Avignon was at the wrong side of the border with France. The commune’s bridge, Pont Saint-Bénézet, linked the two sides of the Rhône River. It was a strategically important connection. On the left bank of the river Avignon built ramparts to guard against invasion. The right bank was also secured: Philippe le Bel, the king of France, arranged for the construction of Fort Saint-André on the hill above the Rhône at the site of the Benedictine abbey in the commune of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon.
In the 14th Century Avignon benefited from a building boom that was a consequence of the papacy’s move to Avignon in 1309. With the arrival of the popes came the construction of a grand papal palace and other structures. As Avignon boomed so did Villeneuve across the river. The popes and cardinals desired an escape from the pressures and intrigue of the new papal city. Villeneuve-lès-Avignon across the river provided the promise of some seclusion and the pope and his advisors had numerous sumptuous summer residences constructed there.
There’s deep history in both sides of the Rhône near Avignon.
Fort Saint-André is clearly visible from Avignon’s ramparts and bridge. While most tourists to the area confine their visits to Avignon, a few leak across the river to see Fort Saint-André and its surrounding commune. We joined them. With Wanderlust moored in Avignon’s port de plaisance, it was easiest for us to get t get to Villeneuve-lès-Avignon by bike. On a hot day we appreciated being able to take the free ferry across the river to cut the road distance.
In many ways Fort Saint-André and its surroundings are the anti-Avignon. The tourist infrastructure is less well developed; there are fewer bars, restaurants, and souvenir shops. It’s interesting to see but not compelling enough to distract day trip tourists from their exploration of Avignon. Consequentially Villeneuve is much less crowded, which is a good thing.
For the French cardinals in the 14th Century Villeneuve-lès-Avignon was a place to get away from the scene in Avignon. For 21st Century tourists Villeneuve is a place where Avignon tourists can take a break from the crowds.