Sur, or is it Sous, le Pont d’Avignon Which is it?
The Rhone at Avignon is very wide and fast flowing and nowadays there are two modern bridges, or four if you include Eiffel’s box-girder railway bridge and the new TGV bridge further downstream. However, in medieval times crossing the river was very difficult as the only previous bridge, a wooden structure, was destroyed soon after the Romans left. Legend has it that in 1177 a young shepherd called Bénézet heard voices which told him to build a bridge. Soon volunteers formed a Bridge Brotherhood and by 1185 a 900m/2950ft bridge, resplendent with 22 arches, linked Avignon with Villeneuve-lès-Avignon on the opposite bank.
The Pont St-Bénézet had to be rebuilt a couple of times after floods damaged it during the Middle-Ages but the catastrophic inondation of 1668 finally swept away most of the structure leaving only the elegant ruin which can be visited today. It is possible to walk on this amazing bridge and visit the Chapelle St-Nicolas with its two sanctuaries, one of which is dedicated to St-Bénézet.
The well-known song which children the world over have learned is a little misleading however, as the lyrics suggest that people used to dance on the bridge – ‘Sur le pont d’Avignon l’on y danse tous en rond’ or ‘On the bridge of Avignon people dance in a ring’. However, the bridge was in fact quite narrow, wide enough only for a cart to pass and there was certainly not enough space for dancing in a ring. Today it is believed that people used to dance on the islands in the Rhone under the arches but perhaps changing the words to ‘sous le pont’ or ‘under the bridge’ wouldn’t be quite so romantic!