Avignon is famous as the City of the Popes and for the children’s song which describes folk dancing on the Saint Bénézet Bridge, “Sur le pont d’Avignon” (“On the bridge of Avignon”) over the Rhône River. The ancient city attracted travelers, merchants and manufacturers throughout the ages, as it was the only place between Lyon and the Mediterranean to cross the Rhône.
In the Middle Ages, the Saint Bénézet bridge was part of one of the most important pilgrimage routes between Italy and Spain. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Avignon is one of the few French cities to have preserved its medieval fortifications, historic center, the palace of the popes, le Rocher les Doms, and the bridge of Avignon.
The legend of Saint Bénézet tells of a young shepherd hearing a voice commanding him to build a bridge over the Rhône in order to protect the citizens from the treacherous river crossing. Guided by an angel, the shepherd arrived in Avignon to start his project much to the merriment of the locals, however once he carried an enormous stone down to the Rhône they all jumped in to help. He founded the order of the Frères du Pont (Friars of the Bridge), who brought help to the sick and destitute. Originally built between 1171 and 1185, the bridge suffered frequent collapses during floods and had to be rebuilt, with three quarters of the bridge destroyed in 1226 during the siege of Louis VIII, until flooding washed away the arches in the 1600’s and the city could no longer afford to repair the bridge.
Only four of the original arches are still standing, one of them houses the small Romanesque chapel of Saint-Bénézet. Looking at the ruins, it’s hard to see where the dancers could have twirled, and local historians suggest the traditional folk dances took place under the bridge where it crossed the island at the foot of one of the small arches, in a small inn on the Ile de la Barthelasse. The Avignon Theatre Festival is held yearly since 1947, showcasing the the town’s historical monuments from the Palace of the Popes to street performances and traditional theatre combined with dance, music, and cinema.