The Popes’ Palace—Avignon, France (photo credit: Keith Vassalotti). The Popes’ Palace, located in Avignon, France, was once the center for Catholicism during unrest in Rome.

Listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the Popes’ Palace is among the top 10 visited monuments in France with more than 650,000 visitors yearly. The palace is a symbol of the church’s influence in the western Christian world in the 14th century. Covering nearly 162,000 sq. ft., the palace is the largest medieval Gothic building in Europe and the biggest Gothic palace in the world.

In 1305, Pope Clement V decided to relocate to Avignon, France in order to avoid political unrest in Rome. Settling in France, the construction of the palace began in 1335 and was completed in less than 20 years. As time passed, each new pope added to the palace, which now has 10 towers, and it came to symbolize the powerful influence of the Catholic Church. Europe’s most extensive library was located inside the palace, and it became a favorite spot for composers and musicians.

Despite its magnificence, many of the popes knew that the papal power would eventually be returning Rome. In 1376, Pope Grégoire XI managed to restore order in Rome, but two years later, upon his death, a new Italian Pope was elected in Rome while opposing cardinals elected another pope to rule from Avignon. The Popes’ Palace symbolized the rift in the Catholic Church.

The palace continued to embrace arts and culture, but it was diminishing as the headquarters of Catholicism. By the time Benedict XIII took power in 1394, the church was deeply divided, and many Catholics were uncertain if their loyalty was to Rome or Avignon. The palace endured two sieges, and then in 1403, the papal dynasty transferred permanently back to Rome.

Today, visitors can tour the site and see more than 20 rooms, scenes of historical events, the pope’s private chambers and the murals painted by the famous Italian artist Matteo Giovannetti. The Popes’ Palace also offers continuous cultural activities throughout the year. A major art exhibit is displayed in the Great Chapel during the summer, and the most prestigious performances of the Avignon Theater Festival are held in the courtyard of the palace during July.

The Popes’ Palace is open 365 days of the year and costs about $17 to tour the palace and bridge.

For more information, visit www.palais-des-papes.com/en.