No visit to Avignon is complete without a walk on the Pont Saint-Bénézet, also known as the Pont d’Avignon. So, on a beautifully warm and sunny December day we made our visit. It was interesting to stand on this iconic landmark and the subject of the famous French song and nursery rhyme, Sur le pont d’Avignon. One can’t help but sing the words that date from the 16th century when you look out over the Rhône River. Like so many times during this trip, it felt like we were making a connection to history, however small and however brief those moments might be.
According to legend, a 12-year-old shepherd boy, named Bénézet, was tending his flock one day in 1177 when God spoke to him and told him to go to Avignon and build a bridge. He traveled the 150 km (93 miles) from his village of Burzet in the Ardèche to Avignon where his story was met with much skepticism and ridicule. He proved his divine inspiration to the Bishop and the townsfolk by lifting a very large and heavy stone block and throwing it into the Rhône. That block became the foundation of the bridge and Bénézet’s amazing feat inspired benefactors to help fund the bridge-building effort. Unfortunately, Bénézet died of exhaustion at age 19 in 1184. However, he was sainted and the bridge was named after him for his efforts.
When it was completed in 1185, the bridge spanned almost 1,000 meters long, 4 meters wide, and had 22 arches. It was considered a marvel of its time and, for many years, this was the only stone bridge along the 300 km stretch of the Rhône between Lyon and the Mediterranean. In the Middle Ages, the Pont Saint-Bénézet was one of the most important pilgrimage routes between Italy and Spain.
Just forty years after its completion, the bridge was destroyed by Louis VIII of France during the Cathar Crusade. The bridge was rebuilt, but over many years and centuries, it was often damaged by the raging flood waters of the Rhone river. The cost of repeated rebuilding efforts became ruinously expensive for the town and, as of the 17th century, it was no longer rebuilt. Today, the bridge is a UNESCO world heritage site, but it only reaches half way across the Rhone and only four of the famous arches remain.
Visitor tickets include an audio guide or an interactive iPad guide that provides a 3D augmented reality of the bridge and its landscape in the fourteenth century.
Inside the 15th century guards tower at the bridgehead, there is a small exhibition space where visitors can learn about the history of the bridge. On the lower level you can view a computer-generated animation of the bridge as it would have looked on a spring day in 1550.
On a final note, we recently read an interesting theory about the song Sur le Pont d’Avignon (On the Bridge of Avignon). Supposedly, the song was originally called Sous le Pont d’Avignon (Under the Bridge of Avignon), because under the arches of the original bridge, on the Ile de la Barthelasse, which is an island in the middle of the Rhône River, there were popular cafés with dancing and other activities. Therefore, people would have been dancing round-and-round under the bridge of Avignon, not on it.