A small town that challenged the city of the Popes
Villeneuve-lès-Avignon offers its visitors an exceptional heritage.
Separated by the Rhone, History with a capital H, links it indisputably to the city of the Popes: Avignon. These two cities have been both rivals and allies.
We invite you, through these few lines, to learn more about these jewels of architecture and good living.
A city full of history
Once linked to Avignon by its famous bridge, Villeneuve-lès-Avignon has a remarkable historical, architectural and cultural heritage, unique in Provence. The city has succeeded in the difficult challenge of integrating a high quality of life in a preserved historical center. Villeneuve-lès-Avignon abounds in historical treasures at every corner.
During the stay of the papacy in Avignon (1316-1378), Villeneuve-lès-Avignon became the resort of the popes and cardinals. In order to retain them, the lord of the city and king of France authorized them to build sumptuous residences as well as vast properties raised in the hills dominating the Rhone.
The city has many buildings classified as Historic Monuments, highlighted by various cultural events taking place throughout the year.
Did you know ?
The city was formerly named Villeneuve-Saint-André, in reference to the Fort Saint André which dominates this small city. This is not the only name it has had!
Mount Andaon or Puy Andaon is a hill dominating the city of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon. It was, facing the rock of the Doms of Avignon of which it is the counterpart, a strategic position bordered on the east side by the Rhone and on the west side by strong slopes, which made it a secure place. The Rhone river bathed the eastern foot of Mount Andaon until the 18th century. Today, the river flows much further east of Villeneuve, its bed having receded some eight hundred meters, creating the rich alluvial plain of the Saint-André abbey.
Villeneuve in the Middle Ages
After 1181 and before 1200, a wall was built around the village, which became a castrum, probably in connection with the construction of the bridge over the Rhone (completed in 1185), the inhabitants of Saint-André wanting to protect themselves from the Avignonnais. It is probably also at this date that the abbot gave autonomy to the village and freed some of its serfs. However, the village of Saint-André was annexed by the commune of Avignon at the beginning of the 13th century, and in 1210, the Count of Provence Raymond V confirmed this annexation. In spite of a revolt of the inhabitants of Saint-André in 1213, this domination of the Avignonnais is again confirmed in 1222. In 1226, the army of the king of France besieged Avignon, as part of the Albigensian crusade.
In 1226, the king of France Louis VIII, fighting against the count of Toulouse, arrived with his army in front of Avignon. Avignon remained faithful to the count and refused the passage of the royal army. During the three months that the siege lasted, the king was the guest of the abbot of Saint-André, who proposed to sign a treaty of parage. This treaty placed the seigneury of Saint-André under the protection of the king of France. The terms of this treaty were never actually applied. At the end of the 13th century, geopolitical changes had consequences on the right bank of the Rhône. King Philip IV of France, who had inherited half of the lordship of Avignon, exchanged it with his cousin the king of Naples, another co-lord of the city. The king of France loses the control of the left bank of the river, he must then take the control of the right bank.
On July 11, 1292, a new treaty of parage was signed, which provided for :
the construction of two royal fortresses;
the sharing between the abbot and the king of all the revenues of the lordship of Saint-André and the royal land of Tavel;
the high justice returns entirely to the king;
the seal was henceforth common (hence the current arms of the city);
The construction of a fortress at the entrance of the bridge began immediately. The control of the access to the bridge was the real economic and strategic stake of this treaty. By building the Grosse Tour du Bout du Pont (today's Philippe-le-Bel tower), the king annexed the entire bridge and took over its revenues. Despite the protests of the people of Avignon, the state of affairs and the law of the strongest prevailed.
In order to promote the economic development of the co-lordship, a royal bastide was founded in March 1293 on the banks of the Rhone, called Ville Neuve-Saint-André-près-d'Avignon. Endowed with numerous privileges in order to encourage settlement, the new town was undoubtedly intended, in the mind of the king of France, to compete with and surpass its rival Avignon. A completely unforeseen event was to upset his plans and redirect the fate of the city.
The installation of the papacy in Avignon in 1316 had enormous consequences for the newborn city, which was to receive the vacation homes of cardinals and pontiffs. Fourteen palaces were built in Villeneuve, whose domains still mark the appearance of the city today. Some were country manors (Montaut and Montolivet palaces) built in the hills, others were urban palaces (Via, Pouget, Canilhac and Thurry palaces) built on the edge of the new town.
Later on, the second royal fortress was built, the Fort Saint-André, on Mount Andaon, as part of the 1292 treaty, to protect the abbey and the Bourg Saint-André from the bands of truck drivers during the Hundred Years' War and to fortify the border of the kingdom.
In 1356, Pope Innocent VI founded the Charterhouse of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, which became one of the largest and richest in Europe. In 1649, a project for a monumental portal, envisaged four years earlier for the Charterhouse, was finally realized by the architect François de Royers de la Valfenière. In 1660, Louis XIV crossed it with great ceremony when he came to visit the Charterhouse accompanied by a large entourage.
In the 14th century, the power of the abbot continued to diminish, until the revolt in 1388 of the inhabitants of Villeneuve, who refused to take an oath of loyalty to their abbot, who was always absent.
In November 1461, Louis XI confirmed the privileges of Saint-André-lèz-Avignon by his letters patent.
In the contemporary period
The Revolution was a relatively calm period in Villeneuve where many people from Avignon and Comtadins sought refuge from the civil war that was bloodying the Papal States. However this period was a radical break in the history of the city. Deprived of its privileges as a royal city and of its rich religious houses, it was reduced to the rank of chief town of a canton.
The population, composed of small merchants, craftsmen and farmers, was at the mercy of the Rhone River floods, silkworm diseases and the disappearance of madder.
The successive municipalities had to fight against the territorial claims of Avignon (the vast and fertile island of Barthelasse was transferred in 1852 from the territory of Villeneuve to that of Avignon), the silting up of the port which led in 1855 to the transfer of the Saint-André fair from Villeneuve to Avignon.
The creation of a bridge in 1820 and then the arrival of the train favored exchanges and stimulated the economy: a prosperous agriculture and a dense network of small factories made Villeneuve a town overflowing with activity. Its artistic treasures attracted many aesthetes, artists, painters and writers.
The landscape painter Paul Huet, on his return from Auvergne, according to his travel diary, arrived in Villeneuve-lès-Avignon on September 23, 1833, and returned on October 12. He painted a watercolor that is kept in the Louvre Museum: Vue de Villeneuve-lès-Avignon (View of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon) which represents a group of houses inside the walls of the Fort Saint-André, leaning against the fortified gate. To the right, the city of Avignon can be seen on the other side of the Rhône. He used this study to produce a painting presented at the Salon of 1834, in a broader perspective General view of Avignon and Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, taken from inside the Fort Saint-André, now preserved in the Cahors museum. The city was then the favorite subject of the painters of the Avignon School at the beginning of the 20th century.
Like the cardinals of the 14th century, the families of the Avignon bourgeoisie established their vacation homes in the hills of Montaut, where they enjoyed the most beautiful view of Avignon, while the middle classes enjoyed the tranquility of their mazets in Candau. Numerous inns and guinguettes contribute to this art of living.
Let's discover its unmissable sites
The Fort St André
When you arrive in Villeneuve, you are immediately attracted by this fortification which dominates the city.
Erected at the top of Mount Andaon, the fortified enclosure is its symbol!
While giving up his hopes on Avignon and Provence, King Philip the Fair decided to consolidate his presence in front of Avignon. He took advantage of the act of pledge signed between King Louis VIII and the abbot of Saint André in 1226 to build his fortress.
By fortifying his border along the Rhone, Philip the Fair sought to assert his power and that of the kingdom of France against his enemies.
He had a fortress built on the site of the abbey and founded the town of Villeneuve at the same time.
During the XIVth century, after a period of instability, the fortress was equipped with an entrance gatehouse: two cylindrical twin towers connected by a building. At the same time, the existing wall and the tower of the masks were consolidated.
During the following centuries, the fort will benefit from constant repairs. It loses very quickly its strategic importance because in 1481 Provence is attached to France...
Its defensive function was no longer useful. It becomes from then on a military stronghold. While it has been abandoned since the beginning of the XIXth century, the city of Villeneuve decides to buy the fort in 1889 out of fear of seeing this monument and its symbol disappear.
It was classified as a historical monument in 1906.
Today, the fort is open to the public and to visits and offers an exceptional panoramic view from the Mont Ventoux to the Alpilles!
The Gardens of St. Andrew's Abbey
Beyond the narrow streets of the city lies the garden of St. Andrew, a remarkable space where a royal Benedictine abbey founded in the 10th century sits, overlooking the Rhone River and facing the papal city.
The terraced gardens of Tuscan and Mediterranean style spread out between the ruins of Roman churches and early medieval tombs, revealing flowerbeds and old rosebushes, groves, ponds, pergolas as well as olive trees and hundred-year-old pines. At the bend of a path lined with cypress trees, you will have the chance to admire one of the most beautiful views of the Rhône and the Palais des Papes.
The Charterhouse of the Benediction Valley
The Carthusian monastery owes its origin to the will of Pope Innocent VI. After his election in 1352, Pope Innocent VI donated to the Carthusian Order his lands and his livery (private residence), which he owned in Villeneuve lez Avignon when he was a cardinal. He had the work of the first foundation, originally planned for twelve religious, carried out rapidly and granted it many privileges. He entrusted the decoration of his private chapel to Matteo Giovannetti, author of the frescoes in the Popes' Palace. Very attached to the Charterhouse, he was buried there at his request when he died in 1362.
His mausoleum, a monument moved after the Revolution, was returned to the church in 1959. Innocent VI's work was to be continued by his nephew Pierre Selva de Montirac, Cardinal of Pamplona, who completed the construction of the cloister of St. John in 1372. Over the centuries, the Carthusian monastery increased its wealth, influence and beauty with embellishments by François Des Royers de la Valfenière. Its three cloisters made it the largest Charterhouse in France. Sold by lots during the Revolution, its library and works of art dispersed, the Charterhouse suffered serious damage. In 1835, the deterioration of the church and the frescoes drew the attention of the writer Prosper Mérimée, then inspector of historical monuments. He immediately set in motion procedures to save the church. In 1909, the State undertook the rehabilitation of the monastery with the overall survey of the architect Jules Formigé, the first restoration work and the decision to progressively buy back all the buildings of the original perimeter. Today, the Chartreuse, largely restored, seduces by its harmonious proportions, the softness of its cloisters and the breach of light that opens in the church a collapsed apse.
The current vocation of the monument (artists' residences) was born from its rigorous construction around open spaces, intended for lives of solitude and community.
Since 1973, a cultural center dedicated to hosting artists in residence has been installed within its walls with the support of the Caisse Nationale des Monuments Historiques et des Sites, the Ministry of Culture and local authorities: an original experiment in which restoration is carried out to host a national cultural program. Currently, the Centre national des écritures du spectacle is one of the major places in France and in Europe for residencies devoted to playwriting. It hosts nearly sixty residencies per year, for authors or companies, research and experimentation laboratories, training cycles and master classes, and is regularly open to the public during public rehearsals or events associating the residents and other invited artists, notably in July, in partnership with the Avignon Festival.
We also invite you to visit:
The Philippe-le-Bel Tower: Built at the end of the 13th century, the Tower is the only vestige of a fortress built to control the entrance to the bridge linking the two banks.
The Chapel of the Grey Penitents : A treasure of Baroque architecture, famous for the extraordinary stereotomy of its vaults, the chapel also bears witness to the major role played by the brotherhoods of penitents in the social history of the Midi. The chapel was built in the 18th century in a wing of the former palace of Cardinal Bertrand de Déaux (14th century), of which some interesting remains remain.
The collegiate church of Notre-Dame: A southern Gothic style church, it was built by Cardinal Arnaud de Via, nephew of Pope John XXII. It houses many works of art as well as a copy of the famous Pièta de Villeneuve lez Avignon, the original of which is in the Louvre Museum.
The Pierre de Luxembourg Museum: Housed in a beautiful 17th century mansion, the former palace of Cardinal Ceccano. It houses Enguerrand Quarton's masterpiece The Coronation of the Virgin dating from 1453-54, the famous Virgin in ivory (14th century), and also presents a panorama of painting from the 16th to the 18th century with Simon de Châlons, Nicolas Mignard, Philippe de Champaigne, Reynaud Levieux.
A typically Provencal lifestyle
You will have understood, with its art treasures, its privileged setting between the hills and the Rhone, its Provencal atmosphere and its location on the borders of Languedoc, Villeneuve-lès-Avignon is a unique place, as it was already the case at the time of the Popes ... A city where it is pleasant to walk on market days - a Provencal market is held every Thursday - Saturdays are reserved for flea markets - a must-do if you are passionate.
In July, the city embellishes its days with Villeneuve en Scène, this festival, since 2004, is dedicated to travelling theaters in partnership with the Festival of Avignon.
A few good addresses!
Le Prieuré, an elegant Relais & Châteaux nestled in a former convent. This magnificent establishment also houses a starred gastronomic restaurant!
L'Aubergine, a restaurant in the heart of Villeneuve, seasonal dishes and a nice decoration!
La Gelateria de Mamio, a sweet moment with good artisanal ice creams!
For art and theater aficionados!
Founded in 1947 by Jean Vilar, the Festival d'Avignon is today one of the most important international events of contemporary performing arts. Every year in July, Avignon becomes a city-theater, transforming its architectural heritage into various majestic or astonishing performance venues, welcoming tens of thousands of theater lovers of all generations. The Festival succeeds in bringing together a popular audience with international creation. Avignon is also a spirit: the city is an open-air forum, where festival-goers talk about the shows and share their experiences as spectators. For one month, everyone can have access to a contemporary and lively culture.
The program is composed of shows, but also of readings, exhibitions, films and debates, which are as many entries in the universe of the invited artists and intellectuals. Every evening at the Festival, there are one or more "premieres", which make Avignon a real place of creation and adventure, for artists and spectators alike.
This year, the 76th edition will be held from July 7 to 26!