on October 15, 2011
Pont du Gard (Bridge over the river Gard) is an aqueduct bridge, built in 1st century AD to allow the 30-mile aqueduct supplying the water to Nimes to cross the Gard river. It is among the highest Roman aqueduct bridge, and among the best preserved. The three tiers of the bridge raise to nearly 50m high above the water level, and stretch across 275 meters. During the fall of the Roman Empire the bridge became neglected and the flow of water stopped eventually due to clogging up, but it supplied Nimes with water possibly even as late as the 9th century and it was used as a toll bridge across the Gard until a purpose-built road bridge was constructed in the 18th century. Clearly, Pont du Gard is an engineering marvel, brilliantly designed and constructed with an outstanding masonry skill. It is also an important symbol for the French, helping the kings to connect with the icons of imperial power. One of the earliest recognised European tourist attractions, it became a fashionable place to visit and an obligatory stop on the Grand Tour itineraries. It has been inscribed on the World Heritage UNESCO list in 1985.The hordes that travel to see the Pont du Gard go there to clock a celebrity of sorts, a A-list site that is universally considered a must-see. It is difficult, even impossible, to disentangle the "real" Pont du Gard from its all connotations. The UNESCO inscription states that it's a "technical as well as an artistic masterpiece". The technical prowess of the architects and builders of the bridge is unquestionable. Each level has different number of arches, getting narrower the higher one goes and each was built independently, to ensure more flexibility. The 200 million litres of water that the Nimes aqueduct carried flew through a water conduit at the third level. The bridge has been constructed from precisely cut blocks, largely without mortar. But yes, the UNESCO inscribers were right in according Pont du Gard an artistic merit as well. It presents a sight to behold and admire, its arches raising in a graceful sequence above the rushing water and against the blue sky. The shabby tourist-trap that had grown around it over the years was cleared in the late 1990s, the cars are not allowed anywhere near the bridge and the whole site has returned to a condition closer to the one in which it inspired gushing admiration from the likes of Rousseau and Henry James. Romans don't move me as much as they did move the classically trained Europeans from the imperial cultures. I always considered them to be derivative and rather square and I am yet to see a Roman building that has the beauty, power and grace of the classical Greek temples. Pont du Gard, however, is perhaps a representation of the highest Roman achievement, an engineering object of strictly public utility that transcends that. The passage of years the mellowed the stone into a warm honey hue that melds with the landscape and the bridge, in situ and in combination with its natural setting, is a work of art in its own right. The whole site is rather extensive, and free to enter at all times if you come on foot or bicycle. The car parking costs 15 Euros but it's free after 7pm. A summer evening is a good time to visit the site if you mostly want to walk about and see the bridge itself (wonderful in the falling light, but bring insect repellent), but the museum and Ludo activity centre for children are closed at that time.
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