Dancing on the Rhône: Avignon Bridge

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St Benezet Bridge, Pont Saint-Bénézet (Pont d’Avignon), Avignon, France

Sometimes I’m a little baffled by life.  When I suggested to Mama-Chickpea that we go to Avignon in the summer, she randomly started singing at me.  Apparently, this song was “Sur le pont d’Avignon“, a tuneless ditty she’s been forced to learn some fifty years ago at school, and had inexplicably refused to forget.

I fancy that many of those English visitors of the same certain-age as my mother were also boring their families with this song, which I can’t for the life of me learn.

I found the bridge pretty boring too.

The bridge dates from the beginning of 1234, running across the Rhône from Avignon to Villeneuve-lès-Avignon.  There were 22 stone arches originally, but these arches tended to collapse when the Rhône flooded, and the expense of rebuilding was finally too much.  By the mid-17th century, the bridge was abandoned.  All that now remains is four arches and in 1995, along with the Palace of the Popes and the Cathedral, it was classified as a World Heritage Site.

Although there is academic debate as to whether the bridge is actually on the site of an early Roman structure, if we are to believe legends (which we should), then the bridge really came into being thanks to a little shepherd boy.  While tending his flock up in the mountains of the Ardeche, he heard the voice of Jesus instructing him to build a bridge across the river.  Though he was doubted at first, the young shepherd miraculously lifted a huge block of stone – the start of the foundations.  That feat, along with 18 further miracles, swayed the populace – a Bridge Brotherhood was formed to oversee the construction of the bridge.  After his death, the shepherd was buried in a small chapel on the bridge.  Now the remains of the shepherd, St Bénézet, are buried in the Church of St Didier.

One interesting feature of the bridge is the chapel – in this case dedicated to St Nicholas, on the original burial spot of St Bénézet.  There’s not much to see these days, but it does feel like a mini-church, which is slightly bizarre.  Apparently the Rhône boatmen worshipped at the chapel, since St Nicholas was their patron saint, but due to the generally dilapidated nature of the bridge, the confraternity of boatman also got their own chapel on dry land (though it was soon swept away by floods and not replaced).

Strategically the bridge was important – when it was first built, it was the only fixed river crossing between Lyon and the Mediterranean.  The French crown had authority over the right bank, while the left belonged to the Popes of Avignon, and to get through to the town you had to pass through a gatehouse.  This building now holds a small exhibition space.

So In Summary

I would say that unless you particularly care about dancing on the bridge yourself, or are desperate to see the views, or have a thing for bridges in general, you can probably skip this.  There really isn’t much to it, and there are other things to do in Avignon…

Further Information

If you are visiting the Palace of the Popes – an hey, why else would you be in Avignon? – then you can get a joint ticket which covers that and the bridge.

There is a website which has all the basic information you may need in bad basic English:  www.avignon-pont.com

How To Get There

As with the rest of Avignon, the bridge is easy to walk to from the train station and the other sites.  There is a website for the bus service which has information in English: www.tcra.fr

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