Pont du Gard

March 25, 2020

As I write this article France remains in the midst of a pretty tight lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. So far it’s just been a week, but everyone expects it to remain in place much longer. All the museums, monuments, châteaux and historical sites are closed and off limits. We can’t visit them right now but I can still write about them. I’ve been sort of obsessed with the Pont du Gard for a long time, since I first saw photos of it many, many years ago. There is something so majestic, so inspiring and just so damn exhilarating about this magnificent work of architecture that it fills me with wonder. I finally got the chance to first visit the bridge in 2013 and I’ve been back several times since. It is one of my very, very favorite places in all of France. There is so much about the Pont du Gard itself, the museum and the surrounding area to see and explore that I am always eager to return.

[more info after the photo gallery]

Roman History

When you first set eyes on the Pont du Gard it looks remarkably well preserved, considering it’s an ancient Roman aqueduct bridge built 2000 years ago. The aqueduct itself carried water over 50 kilometers to the Roman colony of Nemausus, what we now know as Nimes. Crossing the Gardon River required the Romans to build a bridge near the town of Vers-Pont-du-Gard in southern France. The Pont du Gard is the highest and most breathtaking of all the Roman aqueduct bridges and because of its historical importance it’s been on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites since 1985.

The bridge consists of three tiers of arches and stands 48.8 meters high (160 feet). There is much to admire about the skill and ingenuity exhibited by the Roman engineers who built it, but the most astonishing feature is the gradient. The bridge descends only 2.5 centimeters, about 1 inch, from one side to the other! It’s an amazing feat. It is estimated that the aqueduct carried over 10 million gallons of water a day (a trip that took around 27 hours) to Nimes where it was used in fountains, public baths and homes. It remained in use for at least 400 years but fell into disuse after the fall of the Roman Empire. The Pont du Gard itself remained intact even after the aqueduct was abandoned and was used to transport goods and travelers across the river.

Modern Times

As time passed some of the stone blocks from the bridge were looted and there was serious damage inflicted in the 17th century. It underwent a series of renovations between the 18th and 21st centuries and became an important tourist destination. In 1703 the local authorities renovated the bridge to repair cracks, fill in ruts and replace some stones that were lost in earlier years. From 1743 to 17476 a new bridge was built next to the arches of the lower level so that road traffic could cross easier. That’s the part that we walk on today. By 1835 the bridge had deteriorated to a point where it was in serious risk of collapse from the loss of stones and natural erosion.

Napoleon III visited the Pont du Gard in 1850 and approved plans to repair the bridge which were carried out from 1855 to 1858. A number of projects have since been completed to stabilize the bridge and improve the drainage. Over the years the Pont du Gard has survived several serious floods, including one in 1958 that submerged the entire lower tier and washed away many other bridges in the area.

I’m not the only one in love with this site, it’s one of France’s most popular tourist attractions. In 2000 a new visitor center was opened and buildings and traffic around the bridge were removed.

The Aqueduct

The Pont du Gard was just one small part of a much longer aqueduct that ran from the Fontaine d’Eure (a natural spring) near Uzès to the city of Nimes. The Fontaine d’Eure is located at 76 meters above sea level, 17 meters higher than the basin in Nimes to which the water flowed. It doesn’t seem like a lot but it was enough of a gradient to provide a steady flow of water along the route. Remember, the path needed to decline continuously to keep the water moving. Nimes is located in an area that does not provide a convenient water supply. To the south and the east the land is flat, making it impossible to generate a flow of water to the city. There are lots of hills in the west, but the route that could be used to cary water is quite difficult. The natural springs just north of Nimes proved to be the best alternative for the Romans.

As the crow flies it’s only about 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the the spring near Uzès to Nimes. The aqueduct however runs for almost 50 kilometers (31 miles) because of the necessity to circumvent the foothills of the Massif Central. It was not practical for the Romans to tunnel through these hills (the tunnels would have to have been too long) and so they chose to go around them. Much of the aqueduct was built underground and some parts are even tunneled through solid rock.

The Gardon River was not the only obstacle that Roman engineers needed to overcome. Throughout the route there are numerous streams and small valleys that required much smaller bridges. There are still substantial remains of some of these sections that existed above ground and if you have a mind to you can seek out and explore some of them: Pont Rue (near Vers) Pont de Bornègre, Pont de Sartanette and three sections of tunnel near Sernhac. That said, the Pont du Gard is by far the best preserved portion of the entire aqueduct.

The Beginning and the End

The spring near Uzès still exists and I made of point of visiting it on one of my trips to the area. I really wanted to see the beginning of this fascinating creation. There’s not a lot to see, but a small pumping station still stands and the water is still being used. It’s not hard to find and is about a twenty minute walk from the village. I’ve enclosed a photo in the photo gallery.

The water arrived in Nimes at the “castellum divisorum,” an open, shallow, circular basin that was about 6 meters wide and 1 meter deep. It probably looked much different in the Roman times than it does today. When it was excavated there were traces of a tiled roof, Corinthian columns and even a fresco decorated with fish and dolphins were found. The water entered the basin and was then redirected through ten large holes to various water pipes for the city. When I was in Nice I also made a point of finding this basin and you can see a photograph in the gallery.

The Writer Joseph Méry

Over the years countless novelists and writers have visited the Pont du Gard and written about their experience. The mid-19th century French writer, journalist, poet and playwright Joseph Méry wrote about the bridge in is book Les Nuits italiennes, contes nocturnes, published in 1853. It’s one of my favorite quotes and perfectly captures the essence of the place:

One is struck dumb with astonishment; you are walking in a desert where nothing reminds you of man; cultivation has disappeared; there are ravines, heaths, blocks of rock, clusters of rushes, oaks, massed together, a stream which flows by a melancholy strand, wild mountains, a silence like that of Thebaid, and in the midst of this landscape springs up the most magnificent object that civilization has created for the glory of the fine arts.

Visiting the Bridge

I’ve been to the Pont du Gard four times in the last few years and each time only leaves me wanting to come back more. There is just so much to do and see here. If you only have a few hours it is worth a stop just to see the bridge. If you have longer there are plenty of activities and sites to see. The next time I go I’m planning on spending two or three days there. I especially want to take a guided tour to learn as much as I can about the bridge and to be able to walk up on the highest tier.

The bridge is easy to find and there is plenty of parking on both sides of the river. It is open 7 days a week, all year round, though hours vary during the seasons. An adult ticket is 9.50€ and children under 18 are free (parking is included). In July and August there is a reduced evening rate and guided tours are offered for an additional 6€. There are special prices for entire families and you can purchase a yearly pass that is very reasonable if you think you’ll be back.

The visitor’s center is quite extensive with an excellent museum, a games area, a cinema, various rotating exhibitions and more. You can spend an entire day in the center alone! Hiking is very popular in the area and you will find a variety of trails for all levels. Canoeing and kayaking are also quite popular and several companies offer rentals upstream so that you can ride the river down to the bridge and then be picked up and returned. There’s even a free mobile app available for iPhones and Androids, I have a link below.

My favorite thing to do at the Pont du Gard? Swim! I love to swim, especially in lakes and rivers and the Gardon is wonderful. Shallow in places, deep in others, it’s the perfect place to enjoy a warm, sunny morning or afternoon. There’s nothing in the world like swimming under the Pont du Gard and looking up at it from the water. There are signs that prohibit jumping and diving from the foundations and nearby rocks but the day I was there dozens and dozens of people were doing just that with no “enforcement” of the rules in sight.

Trust me, if you have a chance to visit the Pont du Gard, don’t pass it up. You won’t be disappointed.

Juste les Faits:
What: Pont du Gard
Where: Vers-Pont-du-Gard (Google Maps)
When: All year round
Phone: 04 66 37 50 99
Facebook: pontdugard
Mobile App: Le Pont du Gard Tour

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