The town of Vallespir, Céret, formerly in the region Languedoc-Roussillon, now the newly created super region of Occitanie, has a beautiful stone bridge spanning the river Tech. Built over twenty years between 1321 and 1341, it had, at the time, the longest single stone arch of any in the world. Known as the Pont du Diable, it collapsed twice during construction before, legend says, the Devil approached the builder and agreed to help him build it in exchange for the soul of the first to cross it on completion.
As he laid the final stone the builder chased a cat across the bridge, and the Devil was last seen pursuing the cat in the direction of Le Boulou.
WHAT THE DEVIL?!
The Devil, though, was a busy chap when it came to claiming bridges. Apparently, there are 49 in France.
Also in Occitanie is a world-famous UNESCO listed Devil’s Bridge at Aniane on the river Hérault. It was built by Benedictine monks in the early part of the 11th century as part of the Route de Santiago de Compostela. In this case the Devil negotiated with Guilhem, the local Count, in the same way as he later did in Céret, but on this occasion, he was rewarded with a dog which had a cooking pot tied to its tail. In his rage, the Devil fell into the gorge at a place called “The Black Abyss”. Pilgrims on the Route of Santiago still throw stones into the gorge to ensure that he never re-emerges.
Other bridges in Hérault, Occitaine, date between the 12th and 14th centuries. Both the Villemagne-l’Argentière Devil’s Bridge and the one at Olargues were constructed in the 13th century, but the deal stuck by the Devil seems to have been lost in the mists of time.
Further north, on the Loire, the history of the Pont du Diable at Beaugency is magnificently recorded by the famous Irish poet and novelist, James Joyce, in a letter to his son Stephen in 1936, and incorporated into the text of “Finnegan’s Wake”.
Suffice it to say, the Devil returns to claim his hostage, and, once more – it is a cat! The cat is chased across the bridge, by being doused with a bucket of water, and leaps into the Devil’s arms. The Devil cursed the villagers, calling them all “cats” and took the poor puss home as a pet.
The Devil’s bridge at Valentré
The bridge at Foix came at the price of a cat too. But that at Valentré, built in the early 1300’s, revealed a novel approach. The Devil agreed to help the architect, at the cost of his soul, with the proviso that he, the Devil, would see it through to completion. Work went well until, just before the laying of the final stone, they ran out of mortar. The Devil was sent to fetch water and was given a sieve for the task. Of course he failed, the final stone was never laid and the deal was off!
By 1875 the demands of the Devil had progressed further, and after twice destroying the new bridge at Crouzet-Migette, he would only agree to it being built in exchange for the soul of the master mason. In desperation to maintain his 5-star rating as a builder, the mason agreed, and work progressed quickly. However, the stress of the fate awaiting him caused the builder to fall seriously ill. His wife, fearing that he was dying, called for the local priest to give him the Last Rites. To reach him, the priest had to cross the river, and the fastest route was the almost finished bridge. As he crossed, the Devil leapt to confront him. The priest raised his crucifix and shouted “Depart Satan” – and the devil jumped into the gorge, never to return to the village.
I won’t list the remaining 41 bridges, that would be a devil of a job, and anyway, as they say in France “Mieux vaut avoir affaire avec un diable qu’on connait qu’avec un diable qu’on ne connait pas” (Better the Devil you know than the Devil you don’t)….
Norman Lauritsen is a retired business man who splits his time between an apartment in Edinburgh and a house in the mountains near Perpignan. After 30 years travelling the world in senior management in the pharmaceutical industry, he and his wife “semi-retired” for 7 years to run their 4 star hotel in the Scottish Highlands.