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 y danse, on y danse. Sur le pont d’Avignon, On y danse tout en rond.” When I was growing up, French culture was very much ‘en vogue’ and this song was quite popular. Well, as it happens, le Pont d’Avignon (the Bridge of Avignon) from my childhood song is actually one of the two emblems of the city Avignon, the other one being the enormous Palace of the Popes. The famous medieval bridge was known as Pont Saint-Bénézet in its time, bearing the name of the one who inspired its construction.
The Legend Behind the Bridge
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 who told him:
“Bénézet, take your rod and go down to Avignon, the capital by the water: you will speak to the people and tell them that we must build a bridge. “
So Bènèzet came down from the mountains and started telling people of his dream. At first, the young shepherd was taken for a madman and badly ridiculed by the crowd. But as he insisted that he was send by God, one day the bishop of Avignon challenged him to lift a huge stone on his shoulder and throw it into the Rhône. According to the story, the stone was “too heavy even for 30 men to lift.” But Bénézet, helped by divine intervention, miraculously picked it up and threw it into the water without any effort. This removed all doubt from the people’s minds and so began the construction of the oldest bridge on the Rhône River.
The Construction of the Bridge
Legend aside, the Bridge of Avignon was in fact a necessity. Before it was built, people crossed the Rhône in small boats which was quite 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 place between Lyon and the Mediterranean to cross the Rhône. Surprisingly though, the bridge is quite narrow for and obviously not meant for vehicles or wagons. There isn’t much room to dance on it in a circle, like in the lyrics of the famous song.
Saint Nicholas Chapel
Saint Bénézet, as he was later renamed, didn’t live to see the bridge finished, as he died just a few years later. He was buried in the small chapel that was built on the Bridge of Avignon. His remains were later moved, when the bridge was threatened by flooding.
Over the centuries the Bridge of Avignon was destroyed and rebuilt many times, but in the flood of 1669 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. The Rhône River changed a lot too since the bridge was built, forming small islands and changing its course a few times. Today there is only one big island between the two channels, which may give you the impression the river is not so wide. But if you look at it from above, you begin to realize that Pont d’Avignon was in fact a marvelous achievement in its time.