The Bridge of Avignon, also known as Saint Bénezet Bridge, is one of the top attractions in Avignon that together with the Palace of the Popes (Palais des Papes) and several other sites makes up the city’s Historic Center – a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The bridge, which connected the Papal City of Avignon with the Kingdom of France to the north, was originally constructed in the 12th century – as legend has it – by Saint Bénezet, a young shepherd boy.
In the years following its construction, the bridge – guarded on the right bank by the 14th-century Tour Philippe-le-Bel, and on the left bank by a châtelet, or gatehouse adjoining the ramparts of Avignon – was dismantled and rebuilt, partially destroyed by invading forces and inundated by floodwaters. Today, all that remains of the former 22-arch bridge that spanned the width of the Rhône River, are four arches, the gatehouse, and a chapel. (Tour Philippe-le-Bel still stands across the river, but is not a part of the bridge.)
Visits to the bridge include an audio guide providing commentary on the legend of Saint Bénezet, his bridge, and its construction.
Begin your visit in the ticket office – formerly part of the Saint Bénezet Bridge Hospital –
and make your way through the courtyard to the gatehouse,
which serves as an exhibition area where you’ll see several brief introductory films, as well as a few historical artifacts, such as:
wooden stakes used in constructing the arches and pillars;
and stone cannon balls of the type used during the Siege of the Pope’s Palace in the 15th century.
From here, stroll out onto the bridge where you’ll have access to the chapel.
Often referred to as one, the structure is, in actuality, two chapels; one on top of the other.
The older of these, built into the third pillar below the deck of the bridge, is the 12th-century Saint Bénezet Chapel. This simple chapel with barrel-vaulted ceiling, decorative corinthian columns, and narrow-pedestaled stone altar served as the original resting place of young Saint Bénezet, whose remains have since been relocated to Avignon’s Collegiate Church of Saint Didier. Access to this lower chapel is via a narrow stone stairway descending from the bridge.
Built above the Saint Bénezet Chapel, and level with the deck of the bridge, is the slightly younger Saint Nicolas Chapel. Dedicated to the patron saint of sailors and bargemen,
this tiny 13th-century chapel features a rib-vaulted ceiling, wide-stone altar, and an 18th-century stone statue of Our Lady of Good Journey.
Continue on to the observation deck, where the bridge dead ends midway between Avignon and Barthelasse, an island in the middle of the Rhône.
From here you’ll have a panoramic view of the area, including the skyline of Avignon dominated by the Palace of the Popes.