Sunday, 24 June 2018

The Bridge at Avignon

Everyone has heard of the famous bridge which does not cross the river Rhone at Avignon, in the south of France. The well-known song, "Sur le pont d'Avignon" dates back at least to the 16th century, in a number of differenr versions. 
  The bridge itself was constructed in the 12th century by Saint Benezet (the Provencal version of the name "Benedict"), a humble shepherd boy who, according to legend, heard angelic voices calling him to go to Avignon and build a bridge. Questioned by the local bishop, he proved his divine inspiration by lifting, single-handed, an enormous block of stone to start the project. Wharever the truth behind this story, work on the bridge began in 1177 and it was completed eight years later.
   The picture below gives a misleading impression of the vast scale of the project. What appears to be the far bank is in fact a long, narrow island in the middle of the Rhone, which did not exist in the 12th century. In fact the bridge ran all the way to the white tower seen on the right: almost a thousand yards long, with 22 arches, running in an S-shaped curve so as to base the piers on avialable shoals of gravel in the river bed. 
But currents in the river meant the shoals kept shifting, and arches in the bridge collapsed several times over the centuries. This problem was intensified in the 14th century, as temperatures began to fall in what is known as "the Little Ice Age". After 1680 the bridge was abandoned.
   The tower is all that remains of a castle built by Philip IV of France (Philippe le Bel) in 1302, to control the river crossing. He was, incidentally, the King who destroyed the Templar knights, and was responsible for bringing the Popes to Avignon.

   Halfway along what is left of the bridge today is the little chapel of Saint Nicholas. A lower chapel used to contain the relics of Saint Benezet, but these were lost in the French Revolution.

The bridge today provides a fine view of the cathedral and the Palace of the Popes; provided there are not too many crowds of tourists!

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