When I think of Avignon, the first thing that comes to my mind is the traditional French song that we used to sing as kids: “Sur le Pont d’Avignon” (on the Bridge of Avignon). This was a very popular song at the time, and one of the first ones you’d learn if you took French lessons.
Well, as it appears the Pont d’Avignon from my childhood song is actually a real bridge and one of the two emblems of the city Avignon. The other emblem of the city being the enormous Palace of the Popes.
The Legend Behind the Broken Bridge of Avignon
In Medieval times, the famous bridge of Avignon was known as Pont Saint-Bénézet, bearing the name of the one who inspired its construction. So who was Saint Bénézet?
The story has it that in 1177, a young shepherd from the mountains of Ardeche named Bénézet, saw an angel in one of his dreams. The angel appeared to him with a mission:
“Bénézet, take your rod and go down to Avignon, the capital by the water. You will speak to the people and tell them that you must build a bridge.”
Obedient, Bènèzet came down from the mountains and started telling people of his dream. At first the young shepherd was taken for a madman and ridiculed by the crowds. But Bénézt wasn’t ready to give up so easily. He was determined to build a bridge in Avignon, as God instructed him.
Wanting to get rid of this nuisance, the bishop of Avignon called Bênezêt to a challenge: “If you have been sent by God, prove it!” And he asked the poor shepherd to lift a huge bolder on his shoulder and throw it into the Rhône River.
The stone was too heavy even for 30 men to lift. But Bénézet miraculously picked up the bolder and threw it into the water without any effort. This removed all doubt from the people’s minds, who considered that Bénézet could have only lifted the rock by divine intervention.
And so began the construction of Pont d’Avignon, the oldest bridge on the Rhône River. The bridge became know as Pont Saint Bénézet.
The Construction of the Bridge of Avignon
Legend aside, building a bridge in Avignon was in fact a necessity. Before the construction people used to cross the Rhône in small boats. Crossing the river was particularly difficult in spring, when the waters were high.
The construction was a difficult and expensive project that took 14 years to complete. But when it was done, the Bridge of Avignon was a real marvel, measuring around 900 meters in length. At the time it was the only fixed river crossing between Lyon and the Mediterranean Sea.
Originally, the bridge had 22 arches connecting Avignon with Villeneuve lez Avignon. When you see it up-close, Pont Saint Bénézet seems quite narrow, definitely not meant for vehicles or wagons. It’s not even wide enough to accommodate a group of people dancing in a circle, like in the lyrics of the famous song: l’on y danse tout en rond.
The Sad Destiny of Pont d’Avignon
Over the centuries the the Bridge of Avignon was destroyed and rebuilt many times. But during the flood of 1669 the bridge found its demise, when a huge wave teared off half of it. Only four of the 22 arches survived the flood.
The city of Avignon didn’t have the funds to rebuild it, so the bridge of Avignon was forever abandoned.
The Chapel on Pont d’Avignon
Bénézet, who later became Saint Bénézet, didn’t live to see the bridge finished. He died just a few years after the construction began.
After his death, Bénézet was buried on the bridge itself, in a small chapel dedicated to Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of mariners. His remains were later moved, when the flood of 1669 washed away part of the bridge.
Over the centuries the Rhône River changed its course many times forming small islands. Today there is only one big island between the two channels, which may give you the impression the river is not very wide.
But if you look at it from above, you can see how wide the Rhône actually is in this area. That will make you realize that Pont d’Avignon was in fact a marvelous achievement for its time.