When I think of Avignon, the first thing that comes to my mind is the traditional French song that I used to sing as a kid: “Sur le Pont d’Avignon” (the Bridge of Avignon). When I was growing up, French culture was very much ‘en vogue’ in Romania, so this song was quite popular.
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 one is the enormous Palace of the Popes.
The Legend Behind the Pont d’Avignon
The famous bridge was known as Pont Saint-Bénézet in Medieval times, 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 accomplish his mission, so he insisted that he was send by God.
Wanting to get rid of him, the bishop of Avignon called him 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 the oldest bridge on the Rhône River.
The Construction of the Bridge of Avignon
Legend aside, the construction of the Bridge of Avignon was in fact a necessity. Before being built, 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 Pont d’Avignon was a real marvel, measuring around 900 meters in length. At the time it was the only place between Lyon and the Mediterranean where you could cross the Rhône.
Surprisingly, the bridge seems quite narrow, definitely not meant for vehicles or wagons. There isn’t even enough room to dance on it in a circle, like in the lyrics of the famous song say: Sur le pont d’Avignon
l’on y danse tout en rond.
Saint Nicholas 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. He was buried in the small chapel that was built on Bridge of Avignon. His remains were later moved, when the bridge was threatened by flooding.
The Sad Destiny of Pont d’Avignon
Over the centuries the the Bridge of Avignon was destroyed and rebuilt many times. Sadly, the bridge was ruined in the flood of 1669, when a huge wave teared off half of it. The city of Avignon didn’t have the funds to rebuild it, so the bridge was completely abandoned.
Out of the 22 arches of the original bridge, only four survived the time. Since the construction of the bridge, 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 in its time.