Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Sur Le Pont d'Avignon, we dance, we dance!

We go to Avignon fairly often and as we get there, we see Saint-Bénézet Bridge, also known as the Avignon Bridge, off to the right side of the road. If you don't know, Saint-Bénézet Bridge is a famous medieval bridge that spans the Rhone River between Avignon and Villeneuve-lès-Avignon.

Although we have seen and shot pictures of the Avignon Bridge quite a few times, we had never walked the bridge, or more accurately what remains of the bridge. So a few weeks back, we did just that. Before, all we knew was that the Bridge inspired the song "Sur le Pont d'Avignon" a French song about the Avignon Bridge that dates back to the 15th century.

The bridge was constructed between 1177 and 1185 with 22 arches and was 980 yards long. It was destroyed by Louis VIII of France during the siege of Avignon in 1226. It was rebuilt beginning in 1234. The bridge was only 16 feet wide, including the parapets at the sides. The arches were liable to collapse when the river flooded.

The bridge fell into disrepair during the 17th century. By 1644 the bridge was missing four arches and finally a catastrophic flood in 1669 swept away much of the structure. Since then, the surviving arches have successively collapsed or been demolished and only four arches remain.

As you can see below, the piers have cutwaters that are pointed in both the upstream and the downstream direction. These reduce the scour around the piers caused by rapidly moving water, one of the main threats to the stability of stone bridges.

Saint-Bénézet Bridge From the South

The bridge was very important strategically when it was first built because it was the only fixed crossing of the Rhone River between Lyon and the Mediterranean Sea. It was also the only river crossing between the Comtat Venaissin, an enclave around Avignon controlled by the Pope, and France proper under the authority of the kings of France.

As such, it was closely guarded on both sides of the river. 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) which led into the city.

Gatehouse on the Avignon Side of the Avignon Bridge

The right bank, which was controlled by Kingdom of France, was overlooked by the fortress of Philippe-le-Bel Tower which was built at the beginning of the 14th century. It is named after the French king Philippe-le-Bel (Philip IV "the Fair") who was responsible for its construction.

Philippe-le-Bel Tower

The View From the End of the Avignon Bridge to Notre-Dame des Doms Cathedral

The View Up the Rhone River to the North

Saint Nicholas Chapel sits on a platform on the upstream side of the second pier (between the second and third arches). The chapel has undergone a number of reconstructions and restorations. It is now divided into two floors, each with a nave and an apse. The upper floor is on a level with the platform of the bridge and reduces the width of the walkway to about 6 feet.

The Upper Level of Saint Nicholas Chapel

Shirley Pauses for a Picture from the Lower Level of Saint Nicolas Chapel

The lower level of Saint Nicholas Chapel is accessed by a set of steps that descend from the bridge. The lower level chapel with its apse decorated with five arches dates from the second half of the 12th century.

Lower Level Chapel of Saint Nicholas Chapel

The North Side of Saint Nicholas Chapel with Philippe-le-Bel Tower in the Distance

Visit to the bridge finished, we headed back into Avignon by way of the Porte du Rhone ("Rhone Gate").

Porte du Rhone With Notre Dame des Doms Cathedral in the Distance

The defensive walls of Avignon are among the best and most complete set of city walls in France. They are a UNESCO world heritage site. The population having spread outside the walls, Pope Innocent VI began in 1355 to construct new defensive walls which would enclose the new settlements. These are the present day walls. They were protected and restored in the nineteenth century.

Some of the Defensive Walls of Avignon

We walked along the defensive wall until we got to Place Crillon, seen below, then back to Place du Palais where the Pope's Palace and Notre Dame des Doms Cathedral can be found.

Place Crillon

Notre Dame des Doms Cathedral

Pope's Palace

Oh yes, the chorus to the song that made the bridge famous goes like this:

Sur le Pont d'Avignon
L'on y danse, l'on y danse
Sur le Pont d'Avignon
L'on y danse tous en rond

On the bridge of Avignon
We all dance there, we all dance there
On the bridge of Avignon
We all dance there in a ri

Have a great week and very Happy Thanksgiving, wherever you are.


  1. Thank you for the lovely photos -- and the sun! I have just been to Avignon a few times, but have pretty much seen and loved all of these places. Unfortunately, last time I was there it rained torrentially most of the time, so a planned walk on the bridge was cancelled...

  2. Happy Thanksgiving to you and Shirley and all the family - Michel, you are the best ambassador the Vaucluse could ever wish for - lovely photos!