on August 2, 2008
If you see only only site in the south of France, it has to be the Pont du Gard. Built by an unknown architect it is, in my eyes, the most spectacular legacy left over from the Roman occupation. Yet it is not a temple to honour the gods, nor a palace to honour its occupants, nor even a theatre to awe the masses. It is merely a piece of civic enginerring, an aqueduct, designed to help transport fresh water from its source in the hills above Uzes to the thriving conurbation of Nimes. The original aqueduct was some 50km long, and 90% of its length was underground. It wound across the terrain - the distance between Uzes and Nimes was probably nearer 25km as the crow flied, but the Romans chose the least challenging (and hence cheapest) route. Yet they did not do a shoddy job. The route has a constant gradiant, so that from its source to Nimes' watertower 50km away there is only a drop in height of 17 metres. That is roughly a slope of only 33cm every kilometre - incredible! That Roman engineers were capable of this feat two millenia ago, armed only with plumb lines and line of sight boggles the mind. It was another 17 centuries before the theodolite was invented!As I said, 90% of the aqueduct's course was underground, and much now lies in disrepair. Yet its central image is the Pont du Gard, the famous three-tiered bridge of arches spanning the valley of the River Gardon. Unadorned, roughly finished (certain blocks protrude - they were used to aid the masons heave the other blocks to the top), it is not even symmetrical. The first full arch from the right bank, under which the river mainly flows, is wider than the rest - for proof look at the smaller tier of arches at the top. Whereas most large arches are surmounted by three smaller arches, this one has four smaller arches atop it. Yet it has a simple majesty. It has drawn tourists for centuries. You will inevitably see masonic symbols chiselled into the stonework. These were left by French architects through the 17th century and onwards, who came as pilgrims to see the pinnacle of their craft.When visiting, the first decision you have to make is - whether to head for the right or left banks. Both have carparks (€5.00 for parking). The right bank has the visitor's centre, shops and a restaurant, and it is here that nearly all the signs direct you. To get to the left bank you have to head south out of Remoulins and look carefully. The left bank has a gift shop, some snack stands, and toilets. It also has the 'shore', sloping down to the water (the right bank is sheer, popular with 'tombstoning' youths leaping off). So if you want a picnic and a swin in the river - a genuinely great way to cool off on a hot summer's afternoon - head for the left bank so you don't have to carry your gear as far. As well as swimming, you can hire canoes from a point upstream on the right bank and paddle along *beneath* this World Heritage Site. You are discouraged from swimming beneath it, but people do (they also try to discourage people diving from the rocks, but it happens!)It is easy to cross from one bank to the other - simply walk across the Pont. It became a bridge early in its history, and the cart-track was enlarged in the post-Renaissance age. Tracks lead upwards at either end of the aqueduct, to enable you to see it from higher viewpoints.The visitor's centre is a brand shiny new complex. The highlight is the Museum (€7.00). This is very in-depth, and focuses not just on the bridge and its construction, but also the importance of water in Roman daily life, and the uses to which it was put - piped into private residences, spurted from fountains to beautify the cities, supplied to the grand public baths. (On the latter subject listen to some of the audio samples - there is a great epigram from the noted Martial about the 'parasites' of the baths, obsequious flatterers who will fawn upon you until you finally crack and invite them to dinner!). Roman Nimes had a population only a sixth of today's - yet they still got through the same amount of water on a daily basis. It is a cool haven, alive with sound effects of trickling water. Less worthy is the cinema - €4.00 for a 25 minute short film, featuring the love story of a girl from Nimes and a boy from Rome with a portentous voice-over. Avoid. From €5.00 there is a 'Ludo' for children between the ages of 5 and 12. Obviously I didn't go in. But you may as well pay €12.00, which covers entrance to Museum, Ludo, Cinema, a booklet for the Memoires de Garrigue (a nature trail exploring aspects of the landscape), and also your car parking fee (normally €5.00). This day-pass is only €9.00 for those between the ages of 6 and 17. There is also a family ticket: two adults and one to four children pay only €24.00.Of course, you need not pay any of this. The river and the Pont du Gard site are free, as is the Garrigues nature trail - though I'd imagine you would have to drive and hence pay the €5.00 parking fee. And it is a wonderful day out, picnicking beneath the mighty stacked arches with the flowing Gardon to cool off in. My younger brother does not have the same love of history as me, and yet this was the one place that he wanted to bring me to. This was his third visit, and it is still his favourite place in Provence. I'd have to agree.
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