Le Pont d’Avignon, the Bridge of Saint Benezet

Sur le Pont D’Avignon, l’on y danse, l’on y danse

Sur le Pont D’Avignon, l’on y danse tout en rond

These words and the catchy little tune that goes with them always invade my head when I hear mention of the French city of Avignon.

On the Bridge of Avignon
On the Bridge of Avignon

So, when I set off on the TGV from Paris, bound for Avignon, the capital of the Département of Vaucuse, on the banks of the Rhone, in Provence, Le Pont d’Avignon, or the the bridge of Avignon  was on the top of my tourism “to dos”.

The bridge most commonly known as Le Pont D’Avignon, is, in fact, Le Pont Saint-Bénézet. It is named for Saint Bénézet, a local shepherd boy who, in 1171, was commanded by angels to build a bridge across the Rhone between Avignon on the right bank and Villeneuve-lès-Avignon on the left. At first he was mocked and his proposed bridge was seen as a foolish dream. However, when he miraculously lifted a giant rock and proved his divine inspiration, wealthy sponsors opened their purses and construction began.

Completed in 1185,   the bridge was originally 900 metres in length but it suffered several collapses during floods and had to be rebuilt several times. Over the centuries it became increasingly dangerous until, finally in the great flood of 1668, much of the structure was swept away. Le Pont Saint Bénézet was never repaired. Only four of the original 22 arches still stand and the bridge extends only about two thirds of the way into the Rhone.

Nonetheless, the Pont Saint Bénet remains a “must see” It is an Avignon icon and a shrine to the saint himself who lies buried there in a small chapel.

Chartres

Dating back to the time of the Romans, the ancient town of Chartres has a long and rich history.

The Cathedral at Chartres
The Cathedral at Chartres

Most of the stories of Chartres, however, are lost in the shadow of its most famous and most prominent landmark – the magnificent Gothic Cathédrale de Notre Dame.

Sited on a hilltop in the centre of Chartres, the cathedral dominates not only the town but the plain that surrounds it.

Building began on Notre Dame in 1193 and when it was finally completed in 1250, it was the largest cathedral in France. It still holds that claim.

In floor of the cathedral is a beautiful mosaic labyrinth, a typical feature of Gothic places of worship, which has visitors running round in circles as they follow its twists and turns.

The most striking features of Notre Dame de Chartres are its exquisite “vitraux” or stained glass windows which feature the incredible bright blue that has come to be known as “chartreuse”.

La Cathédrale de Notre Dame de Chartres is a UNESCO World heritage site.

Le chateau de Villandry

On July 4, 1189, in the keep of a feudal fortress on the banks of the Loire River, Henry Plantagenet admitted defeat to King Philip Augustus of France and signed the treaty known as “Le Paix de Colombiers”

Le chateau de Villandry
Le chateau de Villandry

In 1539, Jean Le Breton, Minister of Finance to François I, bought the feudal fortress, razed all but the famous keep to the ground and built Le Château de Villandry.

Le Breton had already overseen several of François Premier’s building projects, including the Château de Chambord and he brought all this experience to bear on Villandry. But instead of repeating or extending the style of other Loire chateaux, Le Breton simplified and refined it. The result was the distinctive, symmetrical harmonious French Renaissance style that was to provide the inspiration for later châteaux like Fontainebleau.

Le jardin de Villandry
Le jardin de Villandry

During his time as ambassador to Rome Jean Le Breton had developed a keen interest in gardening and he established the beautiful ornamental gardens at Villandry which, in the style of the times, made a gentle transition between the chateau and its natural surroundings.

The Le Breton family held onto the Château de Villandry for more than two hundred years, before it was sold to the Marquis de Castellane. It was confiscated during the French Revolution but fortunately survived in reasonable condition. Early in the 19th century, the Emperor Napoleon gifted the château to his brother Joseph.

In 1906, Joachim Cavallo bought Villandry and began the work of restoring it to its 18th century glory. The château is amazing, both as an example of French Renaissance architecture as well as a glimpse into the fascinating lives of several generations of Cavallos.

The Villandry gardens, however, are truly a work of wonder. Hailed by many as the finest Renaissance gardens in the world, they include water gardens, herb gardens, vineyards and French formal parterre style gardens. Best of all in my opinion is the jardin potager, or kitchen garden which, laid out in patterned plantings contained within low box hedges, extends like a patchwork quilt beside the chateau.

In 1934, le Château de Villandry was designated a “Monument Historique”. Like the other châteaux of the Loire, it is a World Heritage site.

Finally and remarkably, Villandry is still owned by the Cavallo family.