On a recent trip to the south of France I stopped in Avignon to check out the town’s renowned bridge. The Saint-Bénézet Bridge was built in the latter part of the 12th century to span the Rhône River in southern France. It was the only fixed river crossing between Lyon and the Mediterranean at this time, which meant that the river could only be crossed by boat. Tolls to use the bridge filled the coffers of the local council, and the bridge increased Avignon’s importance and development as a city.
Enormous oak tree trunks a yard in diameter were sharpened on one end, reinforced with metal bands, and driven into the river bed as the basis of support for the bridge’s structure. The bridge was destroyed forty years later when Avignon was under siege by Louis XIII during the crusade to rid that area of France of the Cathars. The original structure was thought to have been built of wood on the massive stone piers; when it was rebuilt entirely of stone it had twenty-two stone arches. Only four of the arches remain today, since periodic flooding of the Rhône caused the arches to collapse.
Saint Bénézet was a shepherd boy who, so the story goes, heard the voice of Jesus asking him to build a bridge across the river. The shepherd was mocked until he displayed supernatural strength by lifting an immense rock, thereby proving his divine calling and garnering support for his project. His remains used to be buried in a small chapel on one of the sections of the bridge but were moved to protect them from vandalism and damage should the structure suffer more erosion.
In recent years ago it cost nothing to walk the remainder of the bridge; now there is a fee … the city fathers are making money from the bridge, once again. The bridge was made famous by the diddy, “Sur le Pont d’Avignon …” (On the bridge of Avignon)