July 21, 2004
On the Roof and Under the Bridge
DAY 272: In the early 14th century, there was a civil war in Italy between those who supported the emperor and those who supported the Catholic Church. Until the smoke cleared, the popes of the Catholic Church picked up their robes, hats and little communion wafers and took refuge in Avignon, France, a town governed by one Charles II, who was also King of Naples and Sicily and friend to the Church. For about seventy years, the popes lived in Avignon and continued performing their duties of the Catholic empire until 1376 when Gregory XI brought the papacy back to Rome after another scuffle between Catalan Rodriguez and the Italians in the Cataluyan War. If not for this decision to move back to Rome, "Roman Catholics" as we know them today might have been known as "Avignon Catholics."
The center of Avignon's stint as the capital of the Catholic Church was Le Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes), a huge stone complex that still exists today. This palace was the first half of a two-UNESCO World Heritage site tour ticket I bought for the day.
With a free electronic audioguide held to my ear, I wandered the palace's major rooms -- its courtyards, its treasury halls and its dining hall -- most of which were very spacious, made with stone walls and high-arched ceilings. I followed the room numbers in chronological order alongside others holding audioguide wands to their ears, passed the smaller papal bedrooms where daily ceremonies where performed for waking up and going to bed, the Grand Chapel, the windows looking outside, and up the stairs to the roof for a view of the village houses below. It was a much quieter, less hectic than the streets of Rome; perhaps the popes should have stayed after all.
After a glass of Chardonnay at a sidewalk cafe and a croque monsieur (the French grilled ham and cheese sandwich with melted cheese on the outside) from a local pannerie, I walked through the Rocher des Doms, a quiet and scenic park to relax for a bit with a view of the Rhône. At the other end was a tower of the ramparts with a path that led to the reason I came to Avignon in the first place.
Her teaching tactic obviously worked because to this day I still remember "Sur le Pont d'Avignon" (MIDI music file) even though I didn't grow up in France. The song, with a popularity equivalency of "London Bridge is Falling Down," goes like this:
Sur le Pont d'Avignon
My new fellow bridge walkers were a wisecracking Lousiana State University law student named David doing a summer study abroad in Lyon, and his friend Cindy, an American physicist who had just landed a job in Paris. The two of them were in Avignon for the weekend for a little sightseeing, and eventually made their way to the legendary bridge.
I say "legendary" because according to the electronic audioguide held to my ear, the bridge was created by a miracle performed by a shepherd named Bénezet -- in fact, the famous "Pont d'Avignon" is actually the "Pont Saint-Bénezet." According to legend, shepherd Bénezet had been summoned by God via the message of an angel to build the bridge over the Rhône. The royal courts called him crazy and laughed at him when he said it needed to be done. "[If you aren't crazy, the lift that boulder over there and place the foundation stone,]" was the gist of their response. But with the Divine Intervention of God, Bénezet lifted the stone and did as he was requested, causing everyone to gape in awe.
By 1185, his 2950-ft. long bridge of twenty-two arches had linked the east bank of the Rhône with the west, providing a great service to those on pilgrimages between Spain and Italy, as well as helping businessmen and sailors prosper -- in the end Bénezet acquired sainthood for his divine service. The bridge extended above the Ile de la Barthelasse in the middle of the river, and it was here that people danced under the bridge and sang songs about it. The children's song as it is known today in American French classes didn't come until much later in history.
While the legend of the Pont d'Avignon survived for centuries, the actual complete bridge did not. In 1226, Louis VIII destroyed it during a siege of the city, and since then it had been repaired and destroyed, repaired and destroyed from the flooding of the river. In the 17th century, the townspeople of Avignon gave up spending money on repairs and just started using other bridges, the way someone gives up an old car and gets a new one. I guess they just don't make bridges like they used to, huh?
Since the 17th century, the legendary bridge has remained a ruin which pays homage to its past -- it also draws the tourist dollar from people like me to see it.
DAVID, CINDY AND I WALKED with audioguides to our ears from the Châtelet at the beginning of the bridge, across to where it ended abruptly halfway across the river towards the Ile de la Barthelasse. In the center of the remains of the bridge was a chapel with a lower level, which served as a meeting place for boatmen and pilgrims. Inside was the scene of the Nativity -- hey, what's that KKK guy doing there? -- and a side view from the just under the bridge (picture above).
After fourteen years I had finally made it to the bridge that I had sung about over and over (much to my chagrin) in French class. Thankfully I didn't have to sing it one more time; track number 8 of the audioguide in my hand played it for me.
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