Having already canoed underneath it (see my earlier blog post), we decided that the Pont du Gard was worth another visit to walk across it and learn a bit more about why it was there in the first place.
The first thing to say about it (and which I think is clear from the photographs) is that it is a spectacular structure. It consists of three tiers of arches of different dimensions that straddle the gorge through which the Gardon River flows. It formed part of a nearly 50km (31 mile) aqueduct that carried water from springs near Uzès to the Roman city of Nîmes almost 2000 years ago. It is one of the most remarkable surviving Roman ruins anywhere and was the highest aqueduct bridge in the Roman world.
Some facts about the Nîmes’ aqueduct
50km – the length of the total aqueduct
12.3m – the height of the drop between the source near Uzès and the water tower in the city
25cm per km – the average slope of the water channel
35,000 cubic metres – the amount of water it supplied to the city every day
90% – the amount of the aqueduct that was underground
17 – the number of overhead constructions (bridges, elevated channels etc) along its length
3 – the number of tunnels it flowed through
24-30 hours – the amount of time it took for water to travel the length of the aqueduct, from the source to the city
500 – the number of years the aqueduct was in use
1985 – the year the Pont du Gard was placed on UNESCOs world heritage list.
The bridge itself, and the aqueduct as a whole, is an incredible piece of engineering. They believe it took about three years to build and employed between 800 and 1000 workers. The Romans used scaffolding to support the arches as they were being built, the semi-circular wooden frames being held in place by ledges and stone blocks built into the pillars of the arches themselves and you can still see these today, protruding from the sides of the bridge.
The route chosen for the course of the aqueduct was actually the longest of three possible routes between Uzès and Nîmes, but it needed less manpower and involved building fewer overhead structures and therefore was not as expensive to build as the other options. The stone needed was available from a quarry further up the river and could be transported by boat to the construction site, which also helped reduce the cost. The precision with which it was constructed is awe inspiring. With none of our modern surveying equipment, they were able to calculate the exact drop in height needed along its whole length – about 25cm in height for every kilometre (12.3m in total) – to ensure the steady flow of water from the source into the city.
The Romans did make one error in their calculations though: they didn’t make the sides of the water channel high enough to accommodate the flow of water and they had to add an extra layer of stones to the top of the bridge to prevent it from overflowing and the water cascading into the river below.
Nîmes in Roman times
It is interesting that strictly speaking Nîmes didn’t need an aqueduct. In the early days the people here dug wells, 60 of which have been identified. There was also a spring that was used to clean the sewers of the lower city and possibly supply it with water. So why build an aqueduct at all? It seems that the people of Nîmes wanted the opportunities that the aqueduct offered them – water not only for public baths, but to supply private homes, industries and workshops and to allow them to build fountains and cascades across the city and in private gardens.
In common with other Roman cities that had aqueducts, Nîmes grew in both size and reputation as a result. It also became a cleaner city; sanitation was improved and the number of public baths increased so that it became the norm for people to take a hot bath every day, just as they did in Rome. As soon as the aqueduct was built, water consumption in Nîmes became extravagant, even by today’s standards. The use of water by the rich bordered on wastefulness and it divided the city socially, separating those who had from those who had not.
History of the aqueduct since Roman times
From the 4th century onwards, the maintenance of the aqueduct was neglected, and the water channel slowly filled up with deposits that inhibited the flow of water. By the 9th century it became unusable and the people of the area started removing stones to use for other purposes. Remarkably, they left the majority of the Pont du Gard intact.
From the Middle Ages to the 18th century, the aqueduct was used as a footbridge across the river. Then, to make room for horses and carts to cross, stones were removed from the side of the pillars on the second level, but this had the effect of making the bridge unstable and in 1702 they were reinstated. In 1743 another bridge was built adjacent to the Pont du Gard, alongside the base of the second row of arches, and this is what you can still walk across today. The bridge was further restored in the 18th and 19th centuries, by which time it had become a major tourist site.
As recently as 1996, cars, trucks and coaches could still drive over the bridge, but since then, the French authorities have spent a lot of time and money transforming the site. The area around the aqueduct is now fully pedestrianised so that it stands once again in a natural environment with walking trails and peaceful spots to sit and admire the view. All structures around the site, as well as the designated parking areas, are located at least 500m from the monument so as not to be visible when you are viewing the Pont du Gard. Two thirds of the visitor centre and museums are under the ground, in a further effort to minimise the environmental and visual impact of the site.
Museum and Ludo
I should say at the outset that all of the information in both of the museums is presented in both English and French, making the whole experience easier and more rewarding for us than if we had had to struggle with translation.
The first place we started was in the special museum for children, called the Ludo. It is designed as a role play area where children can become a Roman pupil and explore the local town, or try their hand at being an archaeologist. They can also turn an Archimedes screw to draw water up from a basin and then play at diverting water along different channels. It is all hands-on and has audio too (in English) and sounds to help conjure up life in a Roman town. Our two children spent a good hour in here exploring all the exhibits.
The main museum is also excellent. It is very modern and innovative in the way the information is presented, making use of all kinds of technology and multi-media devices, alongside full-scale models and sounds to bring the construction of the aqueduct to life. It provides a context for its construction and tells the story of the Roman world at the time and its fascination with water. There is no doubt that building the aqueduct was an immense undertaking, but it was also one that provided huge benefits. One of the most impressive parts of the museum is the model showing the full length of the aqueduct, with all of the bridges and other structures that were originally part of its route. Photographs of the different sections show that many of these are now overgrown ruins, which makes it even more remarkable that the Pont du Gard has survived virtually intact.
The museum was fascinating and make sure you leave yourself plenty of time to explore all that is has to to offer – we ended up being turfed out as it was closing! There was an awful lot to read, which was very interesting, but it was harder to keep the children engaged in here. They enjoyed looking at the models – of things like Roman homes of the time and of the construction of the bridge – and listening to some of the audio, but a lot of it was too complicated for them to understand and we had to work hard to read it and interpret it for them.
If you have time, the short film – A Bridge Through Time – is also worth a look, if only to have a comfy seat for a few minutes. You get to fly through and over the aqueduct atop the wings of a dragonfly and see it from all angles and also how it changed over time. The children really enjoyed watching this and we all learnt a lot from it.
Practical information for your visit to the Pont du Gard:
- The Pont du Gard is located about half way between Nîmes and Avignon, about 30 minutes away from each.
- Entry is charged per car and so it is €18 whether you are on your own or have a car full. This covers your parking plus entry to the site and the museum for everyone in the car (maximum 5 people). You get a ticket on entry and you then need to pay for this at the visitor centre before you exit, rather like using an ordinary car park. There are different charges if you cycle or walk to the site.
- There are two entrances for the Pont du Gard – one on each side of the river. You can park on both sides and when you get near the monument you will see signs for both the Rive Gauche (left bank) and Rive Droite (right bank).
- If you’re short of time, make sure you park on the left bank (Rive Gauche) as this is where most of the services are (visitor centre, museums, shops, cafeteria, ATM etc).
- There are fewer services on the right bank, although there is a restaurant and toilets, but you get to see the bridge far earlier on your approach.
- If you park on the right bank, you will have to cross the Pont du Gard itself before you reach the museums. If you park on the left bank, you have the option to visit the museum before you see the aqueduct itself. It’s your choice.
- Because of the 500m protected zone around the monument, you have a fair walk from the car park to the aqueduct itself, whichever side of the river you park on.
- The site is open all year round.
- In July and August you can join a guided walk along the length of the water channel at the very top.
- All of the information in both of the museums is presented in English as well as French.