Sur le Pont d’Avignon, l’on y danse, l’on y danse....It was the first French I learned, singing the merry little song as a child: On the Bridge of Avignon, everyone is dancing, everyone is dancing....
“It was my first French too,” said my husband, John, as we drove toward Avignon last spring. Funny how a song can impact a life: Loving the sound of the words, each of us had gone on to study French, meeting as students bound for the French-speaking University of Geneva. Our three children, our eight grandchildren, a lifetime of work together—all because of a song about a bridge.
So of course, on reaching Avignon, the bridge was the first thing we wanted to see. We parked outside the crenellated walls of the medieval city and stood gazing out across one of France’s longest, largest rivers. Here the Rhone is swollen and unpredictable. Watermarks on the city walls attest that even today’s dams and dikes cannot prevent the Rhone from periodically rampaging out of its banks.
But where was the Bridge of Avignon?
Signs for a pont had pointed us this way, but they were for a different bridge, the Pont St–Bénezet. We walked on outside the towering walls, the river on our left. And then, rounding a corner of the rampart, we saw the ruins of an ancient bridge so beautiful that we stopped short, staring. Four graceful stone arches, gleaming white in the afternoon light, extended a little way into the river, ending abruptly in midair. We followed a group of tourists up a stairway and stepped out onto the worn stones of the roadway. A few yards along, above the bridge’s second pier, was a small Gothic chapel. Underneath it, down stairs cut into the pier, we found a still older Romanesque chapel dedicated to the mysterious Saint Bénezet.
We climbed back up from the lower chapel and walked the rest of the way out to where the bridge ended, high above the fast-flowing Rhone. Three little French girls skipped past us on the way, singing a familiar song. Sur le pont d’Avignon...This was our bridge, all right! But who was Saint Bénezet?
Over the next few days John and I wandered around Avignon asking about him and getting energetic answers in lively Provençal French. Everyone we asked agreed on two things: Bénezet was a young, illiterate, penniless shepherd, and it was an angel who guided him to build the bridge at Avignon.
From the lady at the tourist information desk we learned that the Romanesque chapel on the bridge had once held the saint’s tomb. He died very young, she told us, while the bridge was still being constructed, his body placed there when it was completed. Many years later, when floods swept most of the bridge away, his casket was moved within the town. Following her directions, we located Bénezet’s final resting place in St. Didier, an austere fourteenth-century church. From the wall, the statue of a young man with a stone at his feet looked down at us; beside him an angel held a bridge in outstretched hands.
More and more intrigued, we went to the library and looked up Bénezet’s story. Here is the account as it has come down across 800 years, a mix of fact and legend—where the legend says even more to John and me than the historical details, fascinating as they are....
So Bénezet must have been 17 or 18 years old when his life took its sudden, stunning turn. One day as he watched his mother’s flock, he heard a voice call his name. Bénezet! Bénezet! The boy whirled around, but there was no one to be seen. Bénezet, I have chosen you to go to Avignon and build me a bridge across the Rhone. The shepherd lad stared in every direction, but all he could see were the peacefully grazing animals. Go to the great city of Avignon many days away? Nobody he knew had ever been there. And build...a bridge? All he had ever built was a sheep pen. He’d heard of the Rhone—everyone knew of the fearsome river, inhabited by a dragon, it was said, that time after time sent the river raging out of its banks to sweep away farms and villages. Pilgrims to the Holy Land might have to wait for weeks till the ferrymen could row them across. Everyone feared the deadly Rhone.