No Dancing on the Bridge, Please

Wednesday, April 20, 2011 Road Junkies 0 Comments

From Arles, we made our way to another well-known Provencal city-- Avignon (ah-veen-yohn).  Yes, it's the one where people are said to be dancing on the bridge according to the French song, Sur le Pont d’Avignon, which dates back to the 15th century.  We located the bridge in question with no difficulty since there are many signs to direct tourists to-- not Pont d'Avignon, but Pont St. Bénézet.

We did not, however, find anyone dancing on the bridge, nor did we elect to pay the admission fee (more than $10 per person) to walk onto the bridge or dance on it ourselves.  Apparently the original lyrics to the folk song indicated that people were dancing under the bridge (sous le pont) where popular cafes were located in medieval times. 

Pont St. Bénézet
Construction of the bridge is said to have been inspired by a shepherd boy named Bénézet, who claimed that an angel came to him and told him to build a bridge across the Rhone River.  Legend has it that his inspiration was given the support of the town when he singlehandedly moved a tremendous boulder to the side of the river and declared that this was the spot where the span should be built.  Originally completed in 1185, parts of the hapless bridge had to be rebuilt numerous times due to flooding and were inevitably replaced with rickety wooden sections.  Finally the bridge was abandoned after a catastrophic 1668 flood swept much of it away.  Today only four of the original 22 arches remain and the bridge no longer spans the river.  A chapel on the bridge honors the memory of  Bénézet (never actually made a saint).
Place de l'Horloge
The real center of activity in Avignon, however, was the Place de l'Horloge (clocktower square), the central square of the city.  In addition to the local hôtel de ville (city hall), the square is lined with shops, cafes, and restaurant.  The opera house sits near a carousel, and street artists and performers provide great opportunities for people watching.  All the while, a Miquel Barcelo sculpture of an elephant executing a "trunkstand" watches over it all.

Barcelo's elephant isn't the only element of artistic whimsy in Avignon's main square.  Sculptures and paintings adorn buildings around this popular area, just waiting to be discovered.


Opposite the city hall and opera house is a structure much more serious and formal, the Palais des Papes (Papal Palace), one of the largest medieval Gothic buildings in Europe.  In 1305, Romans were outraged when a French archbishop became Pope Clement V.  To escape the chaotic reaction to his election, the pope accepted the invitation of the French king to move the seat of the papacy to Avignon in 1309, thus beginning a 75-year period when Avignon served as the headquarters of the Catholic Church.

Palais des Papes
By the time the Italians succeeded in establishing a Roman in the papacy in 1378, the Papal Palace had been recently completed, taking a total of some 30 years to construct, covering an area of 2.6 acres, and costing most of the papal income for the period.  The palace was lavishly furnished with frescoes, tapestries, paintings and sculptures.

In the ensuing years after it was vacated by the papacy, the palace underwent a series of misfortunes, including being sacked by revolutionary forces in 1789 during the French Revolution.  Later it suffered additional damage as it was used as military barracks and even stables.  Finally, in 1906, the palace became a national museum and has undergone a series of painstaking restorations since that date.  Most of the palace is now open to visitors, and it houses the International Conference Center of Avignon.

Medieval fortifications built in the Avignon Papacy period still encircle the city with 39 towers and seven gates.  Built to keep rogue bands of highwaymen out of the city, the walls were surrounded by a large moat 13 feet deep.  Today, the moat is filled and much of it serves as parking areas for 21st century vehicles, another example of the value of repurposing.

Hôtel de Ville
Avignon Stats
Population:  94,787
Founded:  something BC (too long for anyone to remember)
Claims to fame:  14th century seat of the papacy,
                          current annual Theatre Festival,
                          cradle of the renewal of Provençal culture
Letterboxes:  1