Avignon: Ghost Bridge of the Rhône

How a bridge turned a little shepherd boy into a hero.

The most striking sight in Avignon is the Bridge of Saint Bénézet, which juts into the Rhône River for four elegant spans then abruptly ends half-way, like a forgotten artwork. It may no longer have practical use today, but the truncated bridge is one of the most beloved structures in France, and surrounded by charming legend. Its story begins in the Middle Ages, when a shepherd boy named Bénézet declared that he had been told by angels to build a bridge across the mighty river. Locals scoffed, but Bénézet proved that God was on his side by lifting a giant rock above his head and laying it by the river as the first foundation stone. Eight years later, in 1185, the 2700-feet-long bridge was completed. Bénézet became a local hero. After his death he was declared a saint and buried in a small chapel that can still be visited on the riverbank. For centuries, the structure enjoyed enormous strategic importance as the only crossing of the Rhone in southern France, and it was immortalized in a popular nursery rhyme, Sur le Pont d'Avignon. But the bridge created by religion was eventually ruined by it. In the 1600s, Avignon was officially governed by the Pope from Rome. When the bridge was weakened by floods, no money for repairs was forthcoming, and the French king refused to help out a "foreign" town. The bridge had been teetering dangerously for years when around 1660 it finally collapsed, leaving the poetic stump we see today.