The Pont du Gard is one of the most amazing Roman ruins in France. This aqueduct bridge in the Occitanie region of southern France demonstrates the mastery of the Roman Empire’s engineering skill. It was built in the first century CE, and still stands today as one of the best preserved Roman structures. The aqueduct, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a shining example of the technology that allowed the Roman Empire to be the dominant power it was in its day.
Construction of the Pont Du Gard
The Pont du Gard aqueduct was built between 40-60CE, thought to have been commissioned by the Emperor Augustus’ aide and son-in-law, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. An estimated 800-1000 workers took 15 years to complete the work.
The Pont du Gard is made of shelley limestone, typical building material of the region, with colossal blocks (some up to 6 tons) cleverly fitted together without the use of mortar.
The purpose of the Pont Du Gard was to supply the settlement of Nemausus (present day Nîmes) with a supply of water from the Fontaine d’Eure natural springs. The city had grown to over 20,000 people, and had large water requirements. Once in the city, water could be distributed to individual homes, fountains and baths.
While the distance in a straight line is 20km (12 miles), the final route (avoiding hills and other obstacles) was around 50km (31 miles). Altogether, the entire route consisted of over 20 bridges and hundreds of metres of tunnels. The elevation change of just 12 metres over such a distance is astonishing, considering gravity fed the spring water down all the way.
The aqueduct is a masterpiece of Roman engineering, supplying 40,000 cubic metres of fresh water per day. Its size equally impressive; it stands 48.8 metres (160ft) high, with three tiers of archways. It is 274 metres (899 ft) long, with a width between 9 metres (30 ft) at the bottom, to 3 meters (9.8m) at the top.
Pont du Gard After the Roman Empire
By the 4th century CE, the Roman Empire as dwindling, and the aqueduct was increasingly neglected. Because of the calcium carbonate found in surrounding rocks, the water channel was prone to mineral deposits and blockages by debris or branches. Experts believe that the Pont du Gard was no longer functional by the 6th century.
However, with the disappearance of the Eastern Roman Empire, the Pont du Gard found a new role as a toll bridge for Medieval France. In the 13th century, the local Lords from the commune of Uzés charged people to cross the Pont du Gard, and maintained its upkeep.
Major damage occurred in the 1620s, when Henri, Duke of Rohan led his Huguenot army over the bridge. To make space for his artillery, a large portion of the stonework was cut away.
Restoration of the Pont du Gard
The first recorded restoration works began in 1703, with holes and cracks filled in. In 1747, a second bridge was built right alongside the lower tier to accommodate road traffic. By the 19th century however, the bridge was in a dilapidated state, with missing stonework, erosion, and at risk of collapse.
Renewed interest in restoring the Pont au Gard increased in 1850, when the Emperor Napoleon III visited the site. He approved architect Charles Laisné for a restoration project that was completed in 1858. Concrete was used in the foundations for strength, eroded stone was replaced, and stairs and walls were installed to ease the crossing for pedestrians.
The twentieth century was a trying time for the Pont du Gard. It survived three major flooding events (called gardonnades, for the river Gardon) which damaged or destroyed other nearby bridges. In 1985, the aqueduct was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Site list, for its remarkable engineering, longevity, and historic significance.
Tourism at the Pont du Gard
As Roman culture faded into history, the Pont du Gard was increasingly recognised as an amazing local monument. For several centuries, tourists explored the aqueduct bridge, notably for 17th-19th century travellers undertaking the Grand Tour.
Some of the most famous tourists to see the Pont du Gard are the royal families of France. In 1564, King Charles IX visited the bridge, with an elaborate charade of dancing nymphs and platters of food. King Louis XIV visited in 1660, and in 1786, Louis XVI commissioned a painting of the ancient bridge.
By the 1990s, cars were still passing over the road bridge. Massive motor vehicle and pedestrian traffic, as well as pop-up tourist stalls had become an eyesore, and damaging to the site. In 2000, a major cleanup of the site was organised, as well as the construction of a visitors centre and museum. All other constructions were removed from the vicinity, so the Pont du Gard could remain in an untouched landscape, the way the Romans saw it.
Visiting the Pont du Gard
Today, visitors can still admire the Pont du Gard up close. It is the most visited ancient site in all of France. The closest cities to the aqueduct are Nîmes (27km), Avignon (21km) and Uzés. From Paris, it’s a 2 hour 40 minute drive.
Admissions tickets can be purchased to access the Museum of the Pont du Gard, an outdoor exhibition describing Roman civilisation and 2000 years of human occupation in the site, exhibitions for kids, and restaurants on either side of the river Gardon.
There are different viewpoints to observe, including a view from the bottom, trails to the sides of each river bank, a path along the top which can be done with a guided tour. Swimming and kayaking are also popular activities along the river below. To experience the countryside, a 1.4km hiking trail called the Memories of Garrigue loops around the olive groves and oak trees of the Mediterranean landscape.
In terms of sheer scale and beauty, it’s difficult to match the Pont du Gard. As an early engineering project, it is one the most impressive Roman constructions ever built. And thanks to careful restoration works and efforts to reduce the impact of tourism, the Pont du Gard can still be admired by all who wish to be transported back to the Ancient Roman Empire.
France has lots of excellent Roman ruins just like the Pont du Gard, such as the Maison Carrée Roman temple in Nîmes, the xx, and even the Arènes de Lutèce, the remains of an arena in the heart of Paris!
Read more about my list of the best Roman sites in France here!
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