Sur le pont d’Avignon…

Sur le pont d’Avignon
On y danse, on y danse;
Sur le pont d’Avignon
On y danse tous en rond.

pont d'Avignon

Truth to tell, there’s not much left of the famous bridge. The catchy tune is probably its best feature! Originally, its 22 arches spanned both arms of the Rhône river, as well as a substantial island. So the “dancing” went on “sous le pont” …under the bridge, rather than on it.

When the bridge was built in the late 12th century, it was – and remained for several centuries – the only road link between Lyon and the Mediterranean. It also connected the papal state of Avignon, and the Kingdom of France.

In fact, that’s why the Popes came to Avignon in the first place, eventually building the imposing Palais des Papes which we will visit. Avignon in the Middle Ages was not a particularly appealing place: it was cramped, dirty, dangerous and surrounded by marshland. But it was an area owned by the Vatican; so when a French cardinal was elected Pope in 1305 (Clement V) he declined to move to Rome, and instead set up his Papal court in Avignon where it remained throughout the reign of six subsequent Popes, until 1377. The Popes had, at best, an uneasy relationship with France. The monumental Palais des Papes was matched, at the other end of the Avignon bridge, by the Tour Philipe le Bel: a fortress built so that the French King could, at least symbolically, keep an eye on his troublesome Papal neighbours.

These French Popes were great lovers of wine (particularly John XXII, who came from Bordeaux). So it was natural to build a new palace in the hills outside the city walls, where vineyards could be cultivated, and where the Pope and his court could occasionally escape the squalor and politics of Avignon. This became the Châteauneuf-du-Pape – the “new home of the Pope.” The fortified palace is now in ruins, but the famous wine lives on.

Old vine, stony ground, tiny grapes: Châteauneuf-du-Pape

Old vine, stony ground, tiny grapes: Châteauneuf-du-Pape

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