The resounding impact of my steps as I walk beneath these mighty arches made me think I could almost hear the voices of those who built them. I was lost, like an insect, in its immensity. I felt, though small and insignificant, that something unknown was lifting my soul, and I said to myself, “Am I not a Roman!”
– Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau on le Pont du Gard
Inspiring poets, philosophers, artists, and architects for centuries, the Pont du Gard stands as a reminder of the genius and grandeur of the Roman Empire.
Imagine you are in the middle of a huge wilderness area, surrounded by undeveloped land. A massive Roman structure, 2,000 years old and completely intact, appears in front of you. I didn’t visit the South of France looking for Roman monuments. And yet, I found myself gazing upon the granddaddy of all Roman aqueducts. Yep, it’s really all that.
I think part of the reason the Pont du Gard made such an impression on me is the location. It reminded me of the Texas Hill Country with its low growing scruffy plant life, oak trees, and hot dry summers.
I spent about an hour and a half walking along a path that followed the Gardon River upstream. The path passed underneath one of the arches of the bridge. I put my hands on those ancient stones and tried to imagine the energy and vision of the people who created this magnificent structure. Like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, I felt small, and insignificant, and uplifted, all at the same time.
Why was the Pont du Gard built?
The Pont du Gard was part of an aqueduct meant to carry water about 12.5 miles from Uzes to the city of Nimes (once referred to as the Rome of France). The bridge is three tiers high, approximately 164 feet tall, and 30 miles long. It took over 1,000 men five years to build the bridge, which houses the aqueduct.
The Pont du Gard has withstood frequent flooding, while more recently built bridges in the area have not. You have to hand it to the Romans, they were the best architects in the world and built things to last.
In 1985, the Pont du Gard became a UNESCO World Heritage Site (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization). To become a UNESCO site, a nominee has to be a:
1. Masterpiece of human creative genius;
2. Unique example of Roman civilization;
3. Outstanding type of construction which combined architectural and technical skills.
To summarize: it is an enduring example of the cultural heritage of the Roman Empire.
Today at the Aqueduct
The location of the Pont du Gard, surrounded by 165 hectares of protected land in the South of France, accentuates its immense size and remarkable architecture. It has always been accessible to the public and is a wonderful area for recreation, including hiking, kayaking, swimming, and sunbathing. It is the most popular monument in France, receiving more than 1,000,000 visitors per year. Due to the nature of the site and the unique landscape – referred to in the Mediterranean as the garrigue (limestone soil with fragrant vegetation like lavender, thyme, and juniper) – it is important to be respectful, and take everything with you that you bring in.
if you go:
The Pont du Gard is offered as an excursion to travelers on the Viking River Cruises Provence to Lyon itinerary. One of many excellent tours I took on the eight-day cruise, it stands out as a highlight of my time in France. This tour usually sells out quickly, so if you do go with Viking, be sure to book it early on.
You can also visit the Pont du Gard on your own. I recommend basing yourself in Arles or Avignon. Both cities have historic centers which are UNESCO sites. Arles is only 10 minutes more drive time to the Pont du Gard, than from Avignon. Rick Steves describes Arles as “grittier than Avignon” and I’d say that’s accurate. I loved it because of the Roman ruins and the Van Gogh history. However, I also loved Avignon, a very pretty city full of lovely shops, cafes, and home to the Palace du Papes.