Probably all French children learn the song “On the Bridge of Avignon” at a tender age, and most people learning French anywhere in the world also have to learn it — I know I did.
Sur le pont d’Avignon
L’on y danse, l’on y danse,
Sur le pont d’Avignon
L’on y danse tout en rond.
It’s all about people dancing on the bridge. There are verses about how the handsome gentlemen ‘go like this’, the beautiful ladies ‘go like this’, the officers ‘go like this’, etc. If for some reason you would like to hear the song, listen to this typically cutesy rendition on YouTube.
Since the bridge is actually quite narrow, there isn’t much room to dance on it, so the theory is that people used to dance under it (sous instead of sur in French) on the island or islands that the bridge used to cross between Avignon and Villeneuve lez Avignon, 900 meters to the north.
The bridge was built over eight hundred years ago. Since then the Rhône River has changed its course several times, rearranging the islands and destroying parts of the bridge. Currently there is only one big island between the two channels of the Rhône, and only a fragment of the bridge is still standing — slightly more than one-ninth of the original bridge.
The official name of the bridge is Pont Saint Bénezet. According to legend (or hagiography) Bénezet was a shepherd who lived from about 1163 to 1184 AD. The story goes that Bénezet had a vision during an eclipse of the sun in 1177, in which Jesus appeared and told him to build a bridge over the Rhône River at Avignon.
To check this, I had a look at the NASA Eclipse Website, which shows the exact details of all 11,898 past, present and future eclipses of the sun in the five-thousand-year period from 2000 BC to 3000 AD. I soon located an eclipse of the sun on the morning of April 16, 1177 — but on closer examination I realized I was looking at 1177 BC = Before Christ. In 1177 AD there were no solar eclipses that were visible from anywhere in Europe.
After further investigation, I think the most likely candidate for Bénezet’s eclipse would be one that happened the following year, on the morning of September 13, 1178 AD. This one was visible in Avignon as a partial eclipse from 10:13 until 12:50 — long enough for him to see his vision.
Since nobody believed Bénezet’s crackpot story, he started building the bridge all by himself. He began by lifting a huge stone into place, which was immediately hailed as a miracle by the gawking onlookers and helped him get funding for the completion of the bridge. He later performed seventeen other miracles (the blind could see again, the deaf could hear again, cripples could walk again, hunchbacks had their backs straightened — all the usual miracles), which qualified him for sainthood after his early death at age 21.
This is the entrance to the bridge, through a modern entrance building where you pay your admission (5 Euros as of 2017, or 4 Euros if you get a reduction, for example with an Avignon Pass), and get your audio-guide in one of eleven languages. You have your choice of German, English, Italian, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Dutch, Russian, Polish, Portuguese, and oh yes, French.
There are no people dancing on the bridge in any of my photos, but I did see a little girl dancing and singing the song, obviously quite thrilled to be right there on the bridge. And a group of teenagers also danced a few steps, but only long enough to get their pictures taken by their friends.
When you leave the bridge you of course have to “Exit through the gift shop” (which always makes me laugh because it was the title of a turbulent film by the street artist Banksy). On the wall of the gift shop there is a floor-to-ceiling sign with the tune and the refrain of the famous bridge song.
Location, aerial view and photos of the bridge on monumentum.fr.
In the entrance building leading to the bridge there is a small exhibit on an interdisciplinary research project, involving archeologists, historians, architects and geomorphologists, which is intended to fill in the gaps in the history of the bridge.
One thing they want to find out is why the Avignon bridge was repeatedly damaged and finally destroyed by the flood waters and the shifting channels of the Rhône River, while the Saint-Esprit Bridge, 40 km upstream, was able to survive intact through the centuries.
When the Bridge of Avignon was first built, it was the only bridge over the Rhône between Lyon and the sea, so it was very important for commerce and for the many pilgrims going to Santiago, Spain.
During the fourteenth century, when the Papal Court was located in Avignon, several of the wealthy Cardinals preferred to live on the other side of the river in Villeneuve lez Avignon, rather than in Avignon itself, because in Villeneuve the air was thought to be cleaner and safer. This was an important consideration in a century when the Plague might break out at any time. For the Cardinals it was convenient that the bridge was still intact at that time, since it still crossed the Rhône on 22 arches to connect Avignon with Villeneuve.
In the Calvet Museum in Avignon there are several paintings showing the condition of the bridge in various centuries. This one is from the year 1700 and was painted by Robert Bonnart (1652-1733).
This one is by Paul Huet (1803-1869). It shows Avignon in the year 1834, with some squalid but picturesque ruins in the foreground and a surprisingly intact bridge barely visible in the distance.
Also from the Calvet Museum, this painting by Isidore Dagnan (1790-1873) shows the four arches of the bridge that still exist today.
My photos in this post are from 2014. I revised the text in 2017.