Most people, even some Catholics, have no idea that the papacy has not always resided in the Vatican. It is, however, true. Conflict between King of France, Philip IV and Popes Boniface VIII and Benedict XI in the early 14th Century lead to the election of a Frenchman, Clement V as pope in 1305. Clement refused to move to the Vatican, and he eventually moved everything to Avignon in 1309. The six popes who reigned after Clement were all French, and they remained in Avignon and, more importantly, under the influence of the French crown. In 1377, Pope Gregory XI decided to move back to Rome.
Gregory passed away after arriving in Rome in 1378, and his successor, Urban VI and the cardinals of the church could not play well together. This conflict led the French to elect another "pope." Considered antipopes, Clement VI and Benedict XIII resided in Avignon from 1378-1423, causing what is called the Western Schism of the Catholic Church. The three antipopes (another Clement and two Benedictss) who followed Benedict XIII had no support from either the faithful or the cardinals, and they didn't reside in Avignon.
Palais des Papes, the Popes' Palace, still stands in Avignon. It is not, by any stretch of one's imagination, small as it has more than 161,400 square feet of floor space. (In truth, it is the largest palace in Europe.) The Church owned it until the French Revolution, and in the ensuing years, it fell into disrepair. In the 90s, UNESCO designated the Gothic structure a World Heritage Site, and today is a major tourist attraction and host of a variety of exhibitions, congresses, meetings, and so on.
The flat we're renting in Avignon is within walking distance of the Palais. Of course, I'm no quite sure what "walking distance" means since we could walk a mile or so to get there with no problem. While i'm not that interested in history, I am very interested in historical buildings and areas, so I'm quite excited to stay near this palace for a week. The dreamer in me likes to sit and wonder about those who walked the same paths hundreds of years before.
Given Pope Benedict's recent announcement of abdication/retirement/resignation, I'm even more interested now in the history of Avignon and the popes. I find it quite interesting that a number of the Avignon pontiffs were Benedicts. That, of course, means nothing in this case, but it's still fascinating to note that popes (or antipopes) with that name have historical significance in the Church.
I also find it amazing (and always have) that there is so much conflict and, if you will, war between men of religion or in the name of religion. There's the saying that those who don't learn from history are condemned to repeat it, and I think we see that all the time. I guess power is opium no matter who has the power, man of God or some secular schmuck.
At any rate, too bad the Church no longer owns the palace in Avignon. Benedict might have enjoyed spending a little downtime in Provence. A little wine. A little dance. A little lavender fra-grance. ;-)