Avignon Bridge viewed from Barthelasse island

The Pont d'Avignon - or Pont Saint Bénézet - stops suddenly half-way across the Rhône river but this dramatic medieval bridge remains an iconic landmark, inspiring a famous song.

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A THUMBNAIL HISTORY

It all began in the faraway village of Burzet in the Ardèche, about 150 km (93 miles) north-west of Avignon.

Here, a 12-year-old shepherd named Bénézet was tending his flock one day in 1177 when he heard a divine voice instructing him to go to Avignon and build a bridge.

On arriving there the youth was, naturally, greeted at first with ridicule. To mock him, the bishop told him to pick up a huge stone that was "too heavy even for 30 men", according to one historical account.

The legend maintains that Bénézet (pictured below, proudly holding a miniature of his bridge) hoisted the rock effortlessly aloft and threw it into the river, where it became the support for the bridge's first arch.

Funds from the faithful came flowing in and the project was built within eight years. Alas, Bénézet did not live to see it: he died of exhaustion, aged 19, the previous year in 1184.

Saint Benezet holding his bridgeA chapel housing his tomb was built on the bridge and his remains were kept there until, when the bridge was threatened by flooding, they were moved to Avignon's Célestine monastery in 1674, then moved again to Saint Dider of Avignon church, where they now repose.

Divine visions aside, there were very sound earthly reasons for building what would be, for many years, the only stone bridge along the 300 km / 186 mile stretch of the Rhône between Lyon and the Mediterranean.

It spanned the Rhône river between Avignon and Villeneuve lès Avignon on the opposite bank, was some 900 metres / 2950 feet long and four metres / 13 feet wide, and consisted of 22 arches (pictured below: the complete original bridge on a 16th century map).

These waters were difficult to navigate because of hidden sandbanks and many people had drowned while trying to cross the river by boat. The new bridge saved lives and, moreover, enabled Avignon to control and levy a tax on the east-west movements of merchants, pilgrims, herders (and, potentially, armies).

Map of the original 22-arch Pont d'AvignonWhen the papacy moved to Avignon in the early 14th century and the city became an enclave of the Vatican controlled by the Pope in the heart of France under that country's kings, the bridge's strategic importance continued to grow. Today the Palais des Papes, and, across the water in Villeneuve lès Avignon, the mighty Tour Philippe le Bel and Fort Saint André continue to stare each other down implacably.

But the bridge, which was regularly assailed by uprooted trees each time the river flooded, proved ruinously expensive to maintain and, despite constant repairs, it gradually weakened. It was finally put out of use after a major flood in 1668 undermined much of its structure. Since then, over the years, the surviving arches collapsed and now only four remain.

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THE VISIT

You can easily go around the bridge in half an hour, armed with the earphone guide in a choice of nine languages which is included in the price of admission.

View along the Pont d'Avignon to the Palais des PapesAs you go in, you pass through an open-air assembly area with a flight of steps leading up to the bridge; a lift / elevator and ramps offer wheelchair access.

Inside the 15th century bridgehead, or châtelet, that guards the entrance, there is a small exhibition of panels detailing the history of the bridge as well as photographs of other famous bridges from around the world (this continues on a lower level, down a part-hidden flight of steps that would be easy to miss).

The simple Chapel of Saint Bénézet sits on the third pillar, between the second and third of the four remaining arches. Above it, the Chapel of Saint Nicolas (which was added later) is dedicated to the patron saint of mariners.

If you walk to the end of the existing structure, you have views (somewhat obscured by trees in summer) of Villeneuve lès Avignon across the water. Looking in the other direction, you have a splendid photo opportunity of the Palais de Papes.

If you plan to take advantage of this, the best time to visit is the afternoon, when you won't (as in the photo, above) be shooting into the sun.

And that, really, is about all there is to see. The best views of the bridge itself are, of course, from the land (Avignon's hilltop park, the Jardin du Rocher des Doms, is an excellent vantage point), and from the next bridge downriver, the Pont Edouard Daladier.

THE SONG

The Pont Saint Bénézet has achieved world-wide fame thanks to the song Sur le Pont d'Avignon, originally composed (though with a different melody) by the 16th century musician Pierre Certon.

Illustration for the song Sur le Pont d'AvignonThe modern version dates from the mid-19th century, when Adolphe Adam - best known for his music for the ballet Giselle - included it in an 1853 operetta L'Auberge Pleine (The Full House).

The original title was Sous le Pont d'Avignon (Under the Bridge of Avignon), because in medieval times there were popular cafés with dancing and other activities on the Ile de la Barthelasse, under the arches of the original bridge.

The song was popularised by an 1876 operetta, Sur le Pont d'Avignon (On the Bridge of Avignon), which renamed the song as it is currently known, as in the 1883 edition of the song, pictured. In fact the bridge is too narrow for much dancing to have been done on it.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

Where: Pont Saint Bénézet, rue Ferruce, 84000 Avignon. Tel: (+33) 4 90 27 51 16.

The Pont Saint Bénézet is open all year round. Click here for opening times and admission fees to the Pont Saint Bénézet. It is cheaper to buy a pass to both the Palais des Papes and the Pont.

Cheaper still is the "Avignon Passion" pass. Pick it up on your first visit to a local monument and you will get discounts of between 10% and 50% to subsequent attractions both in Avignon itself and in Villeneuve. The card is valid for 15 days and can apply to up to five persons. More details from the Avignon Tourist Office.

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