On the Roof and Under the Bridge


This blog entry about the events of Friday, July 16, 2004 was originally posted on July 21, 2004.

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 audio guide 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.

BEFORE MY NEXT UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITE, I went meandering around town to feel the daytime energy of Avignon, through the main Place de l’Horloge, the trendy stores of Rue de la Republique and by a smiling old woman playing the accordion.  Crossing the street from the train station set the tone for the day; the audible cross-walking signal was a happy little tune with bells that make you want to walk like a jolly black and white cartoon character from the 1930s.  The town was full of whimsical characters wandering about, trying to pull in an audience for the night’s performance.  Since the plastering of promotional posters and flyers everywhere just blended into an ignorable mass wallpaper, actors did what it took bring attention to their show

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.

IT WAS MADAME POLLNER who first introduced the children’s song “Sur le Pont d’Avignon” to me, back in 1987 when I was in the seventh grade French class (if my memory serves me correctly).  Madame Pollner strongly believed in singing as a teaching method (much to our chagrin), for she knew that it’s songs that often stand out in your mind above anything else needed to be memorized for a vocabulary test.  She made up songs about French grammar that we’d have to embarrassingly sing in class and taught us the classics that kids in France learned to sing.

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
L’on y danse, l’on y danse
Sur le Pont d’Avignon
L’on y danse, tous en rond.

(On the Bridge of Avignon
There we dance, there we dance
On the Bridge of Avignon
There we dance, all in round.)

“IT SAYS HERE THAT ORIGINALLY it was sous le Pont d’Avignon, not sur,” I pointed out to two other Americans as I was reading an information display near the bridge.  “Under the bridge.”  Funny, we never learned that in French class — or perhaps we did and I just forgot because we never sang it that way.

My new fellow bridge walkers were a wisecracking Louisiana 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 audio guide 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 audio guides 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 audio guide in my hand played it for me.

Next entry: Three Flavors of Alps

Previous entry: To See The Bridge

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Comments for “On the Roof and Under the Bridge”

  • Apologies all for my ‘little’ tirade in the prior bloggies.

    ERIK: As usual great entries and pics. Is Italy next?

    MARKYT: I never saw a cartwheel performed so perfectly.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/20  at  08:25 PM

  • Avignon seems like such a quaint little town.  Great pics as always, Erik.

    Posted by Liz  on  07/20  at  08:28 PM

  • What a cute town!  I’ve never heard that song before.  In my friench class we sung the song by the French singing nun “dominique dominique..” and made crepes.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/20  at  10:06 PM

  • Erik….You are quite south in France.  Headed for Germany (via Switzerland) or Italy? 
    Avignon is such a pretty town as is all the smaller towns in France.  Ah, the breads, the wines, the creme bruille. Thanks for the pic’s!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/20  at  11:57 PM

  • Rose - noticed you are always making reference to the food! Especially the ones NOT on your Atkins diet! LOL

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/21  at  12:58 AM

  • Ditto on LIZ’s comment. Can’t wait to see pics from Italy!!!!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/21  at  01:15 AM

  • had some time to read your stories. sounds like you’re doing well, or at least reading up on your history lessons. and along w/ everyone else, very cute town! N smile

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/21  at  03:07 AM

  • Any pics of the TGV for geeks like me?

    Ahh… french baked goods.. yummm.. it’s been too long, I’m trying to remember their aroma. Avignon looks amazing! Glad to see you fulfill one of many childhood endeavors!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/21  at  06:19 AM

  • You look so enthralled in that last pic, Erik. smile So cute! I’d like to be there right now! Trees, water, more than LA!
    Question for you: is COKE or PEPSI more prevalent?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/21  at  09:49 AM

  • hey noelle, you’re in los angeles? Hello from a fellow Elayite!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/21  at  10:01 AM

  • Hey Melissa - yep, live near LACMA, work in Santa Monica - nice STICKY commute to and from there… UGH! Where are you? THe one thing I really, really dislike about Hell-Ay is the morning commute to SM!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/21  at  05:25 PM

  • Paul: LOL!!  I have to go to el doctor! El doctor profavor. “Charla, let’s do the bikes!”

    Erik: I always wondered about that Bridge. Thanks!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/21  at  05:40 PM

  • SORRY, I am still behind…  To keep you up to date, I left Avignon and went to Florence via Geneva and Milan.  Spent a couple of days in Florence with a side trip to Pisa.  From there, I went to where I am writing this now, Berlin (via Munich).

    Berlin rocks so far…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/21  at  06:02 PM

  • aaahhhhh!!!! don’t tell us where you are before we see the blog!  It totally spoils the surprise and intrigue of where you’re going until we actually read about it!  smile
    You rock, man!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/22  at  07:21 AM

  • DARCY:  Yes, I know… but lately people have been saying, “Oh, you could have looked up my friend there…” when it was too late already.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/22  at  12:20 PM

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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by BootsnAll.com. It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

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Next entry:
Three Flavors of Alps

Previous entry:
To See The Bridge


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