The Pont du Gard in Southern France
One of the world’s great monuments, the Pont du Gard is an astounding piece of engineering — and a very beautiful site as well. This glorious Roman aqueduct crosses the Gardon River and with its three tiers of arches is a beautiful site.
What Is the Pont du Gard?
The aqueduct is one of the greatest engineering feats of the Roman Empire, the highest Roman aqueduct built 2000 years ago. It took only five years to build the 360 meters (1,200 feet) long, 50 meters (160 feet) high structure that was part of the 50 kilometer (31 mile) long, mostly underground, canal bringing fresh water from the source of the Eure River in Uzès to the all-important Roman city of Nîmes. The water flowed for five centuries along the aqueduct which had just a 17-meter difference from the source to the city and an average gradient of 24cm per km.
Three tiers of arches, one on top of the other, span the Gardon River. The top arch that carried the water is covered, its walls lined with a special waterproof plaster; the arches below support it.
What to See at the Pont du Gard
The main point of the visit is the aqueduct, but there’s a lot more than that. So try to make your visit a whole day.
The site is very well managed and easy to negotiate. Park in the large car park and follow the signs to the main complex, a series of low buildings where you get your ticket, can eat in the café, shop and visit the Museum.
The Pont du Gard Museum
Start at the Museum which is very well laid out and with plenty of life-size reconstructions, multi-media exhibits, explanations in different languages, and a short film (check the teaser for A Bridge Through Time here).
Water is the major theme that threads through the story: that essential life-giving commodity that we take for granted. But imagine digging a well or having to carry it from a fountain to your house. And then put that into the context of a thriving town, and what is more, a thriving Roman town where water was used extensively. The Romans even had a sort of flushing lavatory. And the city of Nîmes, in the hot dry south, needed a vast amount to keep the baths, public fountains and private houses supplied.
Aqueducts allowed the Romans that luxury; don’t miss the section where you sit and listen to the Roman writer Seneca in his letter to Lucilius about the extravagance of baths in his day:
"We think ourselves poor and mean if our walls are not resplendent with large and costly mirrors; if our marbles from Alexandria are not set off by mosaics of Numidian stone, if their borders are not faced over on all sides with difficult patterns, arranged in many colours like paintings; if our vaulted ceilings are not buried in glass; if our swimming-pools are not lined with Thasian marble."
Roman baths were probably more exotic than in any top hotel around the world today.
The museum has large maps showing all the major Roman aqueducts in their empire but the major part is about the building of the Pont du Gard. You see how the stones were quarried, learn about the skills needed for such a task and how the route was made for the whole length of the canal. You see the pipes and basins and you realize how sophisticated the Roman Empire was.
Walk Through the Stony Landscape of the Garrigue
From here, walk along the stony signposted path on a 1.4 kilometer trail into the Mémoires de Garrigue (Remembering the Garrigue). Garrigue means the plant life that grows on rocky limestone, plants like juniper, honeysuckle, butcher’s broom, thyme, madder and more. But there’s another layer – man and how he farmed the land, dug up stones, cultivate wheat and olive trees and herded sheep.
The Pont du Gard History
You suddenly see the Pont, and it’s a remarkable site. Walk down to the shoreline to look up at the massive structure. If you look closely you notice that the bottom level doesn’t fit the bridge. The aqueduct stopped being used around the 6th century AD. Deserted and remote, very few of the stones were plundered during the following centuries though in the 1620s the bridge was damaged by the Huguenot Duke de Rohan. To carry his artillery across to fight the French royalist enemy, the Duke had to cut one side of the second row of arches.
The Pont du Gard was repaired in 1703, then in the 1740s, it was decided to build a new bridge next to the arches on the lower level for road traffic. Now the stone has mellowed and it looks part of the structure, but at the time there was considerable criticism. Alexander Dumas wrote: "it was reserved for the eighteenth century to dishonor a monument which the barbarians of the fifth had not dared to destroy".
A century later it looked as though the Pont du Gard would collapse and it was finally and properly repaired. In 1985 it was made one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of France.
Walking Ccross the Pont
If you can, come during the summer when the top level of the bridge is open to the public. You walk along a partially covered conduit where you can see how the calcium has built up, reducing the size of the canal over the centuries.
You emerge at the other side and get a totally different view. Follow the signposts taking you down the path and you come to the beach. There’s a good restaurant here, Les Terrasses built in 1865. Sit on the terrace and eat lunch looking at the Pont du Gard and the mill opposite, once a hotel favored by the likes of the Rolling Stones (which is unlikely but true). Alternatively get a picnic and make your way to the riverside beach where you can swim and laze.
You then walk back over the 18th-century bridge where the names, dates, and marks of those who repaired it are carved on the stones.
The address is La Bégude, 400 Route du Pont du Gard, 30210 Vers-Pont-du-Gard.
Tel.: +33 (0)4 66 37 50 99
Visit the website for admissions information and hours.
There are disabled facilities.
There are events throughout the year, including special exhibitions, musical events, and a superb light show during the summer months of July and August.
To get to the Pont du Gard – the B21 goes from Nîmes to the site taking around 45 minutes; the A15 bus goes from Avignon or Uzès, taking around 40 minutes.
Places to See Near the Pont du Gard
The Eastern Languedoc is a fascinating area, full of Roman sites, wonderful landscapes and vineyards.
The major Roman city of Nîmes is about a 30-minute drive so it’s a good town to stay in and make a day trip out.
Arles is another Roman city well worth a visit.
Montpellier to the west is a great Mediterranean city.
Continue on to Avignon, a chic city with plenty of good restaurants and the fabulous Palace of the Popes who ruled Christendom from here for a hundred years.
Uzès is a pretty medieval town on a hill overlooking the River Alzon.
Incorporate the Pont du Gard in this south of France Itinerary.