This popular children's song describes folk dancing, and the bridge of the song is the Pont d'Avignon, or more properly the Pont St-Bénezet. This famous medieval bridge spans less than half of the Rhône River between the old town of Avignon and Villeneuve-les-Avignon on the left bank. Technically, people would have danced beneath the bridge (sous le pont) where it crossed l'Ile de Barthelasse on its way to Villeneuve-lès-Avignon.
The bridge's construction was inspired by Saint Bénézet, a local shepherd boy who (according to tradition) was commanded by angels to build a bridge across the river. Although he was ridiculed at first, he dramatically "proved" his divine inspiration by miraculously lifting a huge block of stone. He won support for his project from wealthy sponsors who formed themselves into a Bridge Brotherhood to fund its construction. After his death, he was interred on the bridge itself, in a small chapel standing on one of the bridge's surviving piers on the Avignon side.
The bridge was built between 1171 and 1185, with an original length of some 900 m (2950 ft), but it suffered frequent collapses during floods and had to be reconstructed several times. Several arches were already missing (and spanned by wooden sections) before the remainder was damaged beyond repair in 1660. Only four of the bridge's original 22 arches remain today.
The bridge was also the site of devotion by the Rhône boatmen, whose patron saint was Saint Nicholas. They initially worshipped in the Chapel of Saint Nicholas on the bridge itself (where Saint Bénézet's body was also interred) but the increasing dilapidation of the bridge led to the clergy refusing to preside over services for fear of a total collapse. A new chapel was erected on dry land in the 18th century at the foot of the bridge, on the Avignon side.
Due to the bridge's great strategic importance as the only fixed river crossing between Lyon and the Mediterranean Sea, it was closely guarded on both sides of the river. The French crown controlled the left bank and erected the Tour Phillippe le Bel to oversee its entrance on that side.
On the Avignon side, the bridge passed through a large gatehouse erected in the 14th century (with major modifications in the 15th century), passing through and over the city wall and exiting via a ramp (now destroyed) into the city.
Quick Facts on Pont St-Benezet
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||43.954070° N, 4.804652° E|
|Lodging:||View hotels near Pont St-Benezet|
- Personal visits (2000 and June 18, 2008).
- The Saint Benezet Bridge - Official Site of the Palais des Papes
- Photos of Pont St-Benezet - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of Pont St-Benezet, France
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