One of my favorite places to visit while leading tours through France was the Pont du Gard. No matter how many times I visit this remarkable landmark, I am awestruck by its engineering, its design and its functionality.
The Pont du Gard is an ancient Roman aqueduct bridge that crosses the Gardon River. It is part of the Nîmes aqueduct, a 31-mile long structure built by the Romans to carry water from a spring at Uzes to Nîmes. Because of the terrain, the aqueduct took a winding route that crossed the gorge of the Gardon, requiring the construction of the bridge. While there were multiple routes possible, this was the easiest in terms of construction. A modern survey confirmed that this ancient route was in fact the most efficient. Gravity carried the water and thus its construction had to take this into account. It took nearly 27 hours for water to travel the route from Uzes to Nîmes.
The Pont du Gard was built in the 1st century and it is the highest of all Roman aqueduct bridges. Other sections of the aqueduct do remain, but the Pont Du Gard is the most impressive section, and one of the best-preserved Roman aqueduct bridges in the world. It is believed to have taken 15 years to build the bridge and has three tiers of arches, built for stability, standing 160 ft. high. The bridge was constructed without the use of mortar or clamps, using only friction to keep the precisely cut stones in place. The stones weigh up to 6 tons each. The middle arch was, for a time, the widest arch ever built.
The Pont du Gard continued to be used as an aqueduct until the 6th century, but lack of maintenance caused it to fall into disrepair. The reason the bridge wasn’t completely destroyed was its second function as a toll bridge, which functioned up until the 13th century. By the 18th century the bridge began to attract tourists and underwent renovations between the 18th and 21st centuries to preserve it. This was partially due to the Romanticism movement. In 2000 the new visitor center was opened, and the Pont du Gard is now a top 5-visitor attraction in France. Locals can come to the bridge for free to swim or relax along the banks of the river. It has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1985.
The novelist Henry James wrote of the bridge: “The hugeness, the solidity, the unexpectedness, the monumental rectitude of the whole thing leaves you nothing to say – at the time – and makes you stand gazing. You simply feel that it is noble and perfect, that it has the quality of greatness…When vague twilight began to gather, the lonely valley seemed to fill itself with the shadow of the Roman name, as if the mighty empire were still as erect as the supports of the aqueduct; and it was open to a solitary tourist, sitting there sentimental, to believe that no people has ever been, or will ever be, as great as that, measured, as we measure greatness of an individual, by the push they gave to what they undertook. The Pont du Gard is one of the three or four deepest impressions they have left; it speaks of them in a manner with which they might have been satisfied”.