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Sur Le Pont Avignon

The Pont d'Avignon, or Pont Saint Bénézet (its formal name)- might be a truncated version of its former self, but the dramatic medieval bridge remains one of the city's iconic, instantly recognisable landmarks, and the subject of a famous song.

It all began in 1177 in the faraway village of Burzet about 150 km north-west of Avignon. Here, a 12-year-old shepherd named Bénézet was tending his flock one day when he heard a divine voice instructing him to go to Avignon and build a bridge.

On arriving there the youth was, naturally, greeted at first with ridicule. To mock him, the bishop told him to pick up a huge stone that was "too heavy even for 30 men", according to one historical account.

Legend maintains that Bénézet hoisted the rock effortlessly aloft and threw it into the river, where it became the support for the bridge's first arch.

Funds from the faithful came flowing in and the project was built within eight years. Alas, Bénézet did not live to see it: he died of exhaustion, aged 19, just a year before its completion.

A chapel housing his tomb was built on the bridge and his remains were kept there until, the bridge was threatened by flooding in 1674. They were then moved to Avignon's Célestine monastery, then moved again to Saint Dider of Avignon church, where they now repose.

Divine visions aside, there were very sound earthly reasons for building what would be, for many years, the only stone bridge along the 300 km stretch of the Rhône between Lyon and the Mediterranean.

These waters were difficult to navigate because of hidden sandbanks and many people had drowned while trying to cross the river by boat. The new bridge saved lives and enabled Avignon to control and levy a tax on the east-west movements of merchants, pilgrims, herders and, potentially, armies.

It spanned the Rhône river between Avignon and Villeneuve lès Avignon on the opposite bank, was 900m long and 4m wide.

First made of wood, it was the dividing line between France and the Holy Roman Empire. Its reconstruction in stone dates from the end of the 13th century. If the bridge was divinely inspired, the Deity must have quickly changed his mind, because the bridge soon became unsafe and, following numerous floods, mostly derelict. It was continuously under repair until the 17th century when it ceased to be restored. Now only four arches survive of the original twenty-two.

The Pont Saint Bénézet has achieved world-wide fame thanks to the song Sur le Pont d'Avignon, originally composed (with a different melody) by the 16th century musician Pierre Certon.

The modern version is from the mid-19th century, when Adolphe Adam - best known for his music for the ballet Giselle - included it in an 1853 operetta L'Auberge Pleine (The Full House).

The original title was Sous le Pont d'Avignon (Under the Bridge of Avignon), because in medieval times there were popular cafés with dancing and other activities on the Ile de la Barthelasse, under the arches of the original bridge.

The song was popularised by an 1876 operetta, Sur le Pont d'Avignon (On the Bridge of Avignon), which renamed the song as it is currently known. In fact the bridge is too narrow for much dancing to have been done on it at all!

 

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Chorus

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
We all dance there, we all dance there
On the bridge of Avignon
We all dance there in a ring

First Verse

Les beaux messieurs font comme ça
Et puis encore comme ça.


Gentlemen go like this (bow)
And then again like this

Second Verse

Les belles dames font comme ça
Et puis encore comme ça.


The beautiful young ladies go like this (curtsy)
And then like that

Third Verse

Les militaires font comme ça
Et puis encore comme ça


The soldiers go like this (salute)
And then like that

Fourth Verse

Les musiciens font comme ça
Et puis encore comme ça.


The musicians go like this (play violin)
And then like that