An Ancient Masterpiece: Pont du Gard
You know by now that I hold a fondness for the combination of architecture and water, along with a love of history. So you might guess that when planning our family vacation for this past December/January, I was determined to make a stop at the ancient Roman aqueduct bridge, Pont du Gard in southern France. Not easily accessible by train, visiting Pont du Gard became one of my supporting reasons for planning a road trip (of which my husband was not a fan). In the end, with the strikes ongoing in France and the trains not running, my planned road trip turned out to be the perfect choice.
In the first century AD, the Roman colony of Nemausus (or as we know it today, Nimes), was enjoying increased prosperity. Augustus had started a major building program within the city which was fortuitously located along the important Via Domitia, linking Italy with Hispania. With its population increasing, the local water supply could no longer meet its daily needs for drinking water, much less, for its baths, fountains and many gardens. Roman architects and hydraulic engineers solved the problem by designing the Nimes Aqueduct, which would transport water from springs near Uzes. Pont du Gard was built to allow the aqueduct of Nimes to cross the Gardon river.
This major public utilities project was also a work to demonstrate the superiority of Roman urban civilization. The construction of the entire aqueduct system (miles of tunnels, three basins and around twenty bridges) required between 10 and 15 years, under the reigns of Claudius and Nero. The Pont du Gard section, the most spectacular bridge in the system, was completed in less than 5 years.
The limestone blocks, weighing up to six tons, were cut precisely for dry stone architecture, to fit together without the use of mortar. Only the tallest part of the structure, the third tier of arches is made out of breeze blocks which are joined with mortar. These are then topped by a conduit designed to bear the water channel.
The highest of all ancient Roman aqueduct bridges and one of the best preserved, Pont du Gard descends by only one inch across its 900 feet length, I repeat one inch, allowing the flow of water to continue to Nimes. What precision the Roman engineers were able to achieve using simple technology! Both a technological and an artistic masterpiece, it was added to UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites in 1985.
The aqueduct carried around 10,000,000 gallons of water a day to fill the fountains, baths and homes of the residents of Nimes. The bridge for human traffic crosses on the second level (shown above). When the aqueduct fell into disuse after the collapse of the Roman Empire, Pont du Gard remained intact due to its secondary function. Serving as a toll bridge across the river, it was maintained by the local lords and bishops for centuries; They maintained it in exchange for the right to levy tolls on travelers.
Archeologists have uncovered evidence demonstrating how well organized the project was, including numbering on the stones and points of support for scaffolding, along with evidence of the use of hoists.
"Memories of the Garrigue", a walking route within the park, takes one on a journey through the history of Mediterranean agriculture and the local natural environment.
I must also admit an affection for aged and gnarly olive trees. Our son led us around the area and it was gorgeous.
Developed by a team of experts, the walk reconstructs the story of human activity in the region, helping us understand how humans shaped the landscape prior to the 19th century. The terrain is midway between dry prairie and forest. The walk also offers chances to learn about dry stone architecture and see numerous remains of the aqueduct. Our family loved walking this circuit. It was memorable and affords some of the best views over Pont du Gard.
One can also check out the natural cave and prehistoric sites within the park. Archaeologists have unearthed evidence of human habitation in several grottos. One of the first engravings of animal depictions on bone found in France was at the Salpetriere Grotto, pictured below.
This site has revealed in successive layers, over 20,000 years of human existence and is a major site of prehistoric France.
A modern multimedia museum on site takes one on a themed journey through the past, providing essential evidence to reconstruct the exceptional history of the Pont du Gard. The different areas focus on specific aspects of the history of the monument. Exhibits range from the day to day life in a Gallo-Roman town and the importance of water to the Romans, to the construction of the monumental bridge linking Nimes to Uzes. One can take a one hour walk through the museum or spend a half day fully inspecting all the exhibits. Other activities are also available including a cinema.
In the end, the road trip was perfect, allowing us to travel completely at our own pace and to venture to several spots not on the train routes. Pont du Gard turned out to be a highlight for each of us. And I thought I was planning that stop just for myself. Life is good.