pontdugard smallThe Pont du Gard is a major Roman monument, a masterpiece of engineering, a thing of great beauty - and much more than just a very big, very old bridge.

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This page is a detailed guide to how to go round this must-see site. Click here to find out how to get to the Pont du Gard by car, bus, bike, canoe, hot-air balloon or on foot - in short by any means necessary.

A THUMBNAIL HISTORY

The Romans built the Pont du Gard in around 50 AD: there are no surviving records of the project, but it can be dated roughly from archeological excavations.

It's the highest Roman aqueduct-bridge in the world 48 metres / 160 feet tall, 360 metres / 1181 feet long, and the only surviving one with three arches.

But perhaps the most amazing fact about the Pont du Gard is that it took just five years to complete. That's an awful lot faster than most big projects get done in Provence today.

And this was only one part of something much more ambitious: a 50 km / 31 mile aqueduct to bring water from a spring in Uzès all the way to Nîmes, where it supplied the public baths, gardens, fountains - and even private houses with running water.

The whole aqueduct follows an enormous loop to get round hills between the two cities; much of it runs underground. As the altitude of Uzès is just 12 metres / 39 feet higher than Nîmes, the water is taken down a very gentle slope indeed.

The bridge was built entirely without mortar by cutting the soft, sandy stones to fit tightly together. Precision engineering required! Even so, the entire length of the aqueduct was completed in 15-20 years.

This was top quality work. The aqueduct was in use for over five hundred years. But gradually it became clogged with limescale and vegetation and the water was polluted. It was abandoned in the sixth century AD after the Romans left Provence.

pont du gard3Over the centuries some of the stones were stolen, although the Pont du Gard suffered less from this than other structures on the aqueduct. The stones on its lower levels were mostly too big to be easily carried away.

And from the Middle Ages onwards the aqueduct's strategic position on the Gardon river gave it a second life: as a vital toll bridge. Bits were knocked out of its arches to make it wide enough for carts to pass through.

In the mid 18th century access was improved by adding a road bridge alongside the Pont du Gard, so skilfully designed - by an engineer named Henri Pitot - that it blends seamlessly into the ancient structure.

Yet the full value of the Pont du Gard was only gradually acknowledged. It was added to France's official list of important historic monuments in 1840 and recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1985. Website for the Pont du Gard

VISITING THE PONT DU GARD

This is one of the most popular tourist attractions in France (1.3 million visitors in 2016). We tend to come here in winter or early spring but, even at the height of the season, the site should be vast enough for you not to feel jostled by crowds.

The Pont du Gard at moonrise

Allow at least half a day: as our picture gallery suggests, there's a lot to see and do on this huge 165 hectare / 408 acre site apart from the bridge itself. Recent surveys have revealed that many visitors spend nearly three and a half hours at the Pont du Gard.

This could easily extend to a full day if you go on a hike along the vestiges of the aqueduct or in the Gardon gorge, stop by the river for a picnic and swim or linger in the excellent museum.

Unless you're come to the Pont du Gard in an organised group, your tour will be self-guided. However, if you want more background information, you can get a "Visioguide" phone app, for which there is a charge, or download a new free app, the "Pont du Gard Tour".

map of pont du gard site smallYou can enter the site on either the left or the right bank of the river (click here to decide which one to choose).

Our tour starts on the left side of the Gardon river, where the main reception and Discovery Spaces (sometimes called Cultural Spaces) are located. Click on the map to enlarge the image.

These indoor areas close some time before the open-air part of the site, so you should go here first if you arrive in the late afternoon. Most people, though, will be impatient to see the Pont du Gard itself.

After passing through a short open mall lined with shops, bars and restaurants, you go along a wide paved walkway shaded with mulberry trees, a reminder of the silkworm farms once found in the region.

Except in winter, the Pont du Gard itself is obscured at first by their leaves. Even though you know what to expect, it's still a thrill when it rears up into view in this magnificent setting.

The novelist Henry James was certainly impressed when he visited in 1884. "The hugeness, the solidity, the unexpectedness, the monumental rectitude of the whole thing leave you nothing to say - at the time - and make you stand gazing. You simply feel that it is noble and perfect, that it has the quality of greatness," James wrote.

pont du gard and pont pitotAs you approach, from the downstream side, you can see Henri Pitot's 18th century bridge, pictured, running parallel with the top of the first tier of arches of the Pont du Gard.

Incredibly, lorries and other heavy road traffic continued to thunder across the Pont Pitot until as late as 1997, but now it's for pedestrians only and you can walk across it. The little black human specks in the photo give you the sense of scale!

If you want to cross the Pont du Gard on a higher level, you can - for a small extra charge - take a short guided tour along the inside of the third (top) tier of arches. There are around half a dozen such visits a day in summer, all leaving from the right bank side of the bridge, where you buy a ticket.

You see the crafting and lining of the water channel, and messages carved in the stone by masons on their Tour de France, a traditional educational journey taken by artisans from the Middle Ages onwards. For obvious safety reasons, it's not allowed to walk along the very top of the bridge.

We didn't find the water channel itself wildly exciting, though you do get breathtaking views across the valley in both directions.

You can see (downstream) the quarry where stones for the bridge were sourced and brought to the site on barges, an old 19th century water mill, some surrounding villages and even - if it's not too hazy - Mont Ventoux. Upstream, in the distance, is the Château de Saint Privat, which can be visited separately.

belvedere at pont du gardLooking at the bridge from the right bank, you can see that it's slightly curved. Experts differ as to whether this was intentional, to keep the water channel on an incline, or whether the stones have been distorted by fluctuating temperature in the course of the centuries.

Also on the right bank, a footpath takes you up to a belvedere, or panoramic look-out point, pictured. This is an easy climb up a short hill and looks over the Pont du Gard itself. There's another belvedere on the left bank but the one on the right side offers better views and more shade (vital in summer!)

The broad right bank of the river is officially - and a little euphemistically - referred to the "plage" (beach). You shouldn't expect acres of golden sand here, but it's an idyllic spot for a picnic and swim and in summer is provided with lifeguards and temporary wooden structures to provide shade.

This is where people gather in the evenings for a son et lumière show, concert or a pop-up guinguette (open-air bar with dancing, pictured).

guinguette at the pont du gardAlso in this area is Les Terrasses, the main restaurant of the Pont du Gard, and the right bank reception area, with an indoor theatre set into the rock by a prehistoric grotto, one of several on the site. The Romans weren't the first ones to get here!

Our tour then took us back over the bridge to the left bank again where, passing through a small pine grove with a few picnic tables, you find a 15 hectare / 37 acre landscaped Mediterranean garden called Mémoires de Garrigue (Memories of the Garrigue).

Garrigue is the local name for the distinctive countryside of Southern Provence, and this area is a homage to farmers and their agricultural techniques and way of life.

It's planted with vines, olive trees, fruit trees, aromatic herbs and more, and landscaped with dry stone walls and even a borie. At the back is a fragment of the aqueduct. After the Romans left, crafty peasants pierced holes in the side of it to divert the water on to their own land!

There is a signposted circuit with explanatory panels, in French only (you can buy a little booklet, available in several languages, including English, if you want to know more). But above all it's a pleasant 1.4 km / 0.8 mile stroll and should take around a hour.

Back at the main entrance, don't be tempted to miss the mightily impressive museum in the Discovery Spaces. It opened in 2000 and its vast scale is almost as surprising as that of the Pont du Gard itself.

pontdugard07The cavernous, high-ceilinged rooms extend over 2,500 square metres / 27,000 square feet and explore three themes: how people lived in Roman times; how the Pont du Gard was built; and its place in history.

This museum is not about dusty ancient relics in glass cages: it employs an entertaining multi-media style of presentation, with atmospheric lighting and sound effects.

The first room sets the scene by exploring the importance of water to the Romans with exhibits such as a large model of a luxurious ancient house.

Our favourite bit was the second room, pictured, which brings to life the engineering brilliance behind the bridge. Life-sized replicas of parts of the quarry and building site show wooden templates for the arches and a crane heaving up the massive blocks of stone.

The third room is interesting too, with a scale model of the entire aqueduct from Uzès to Nîmes, with the other works along it. None of these are on the same scale as the Pont du Gard and few have survived intact.

Another display traces the growing fascination of painters with this architectural work of art. The succinct explanatory signs are in several languages, including English, and there are also information points at intervals where you can put on headphones for a multi-lingual commentary.

A little 15 minute introductory film with English and French captions runs on a loop in the equally large cinema. The movie changes from time to time, but the one when we visited featured an annoying computer generated dragonfly zooming through a brisk infographic history. This could be easily skipped if you were short of time.

There's also a large area for temporary exhibitions in this part of the Discovery Spaces.

For families, Ludo is a super facility aimed at children aged from five to twelve. As the name suggests, it's a circuit of games designed to help kids learn about life in Roman times, the building of the Pont du Gard and the local ecology.

They can find out how to transport water upwards using the Archimedes screw technique, for instance, or make their own mosaics. The directions are in four languages including English. Allow a good hour to go round, possibly longer.

Photo credits (from top): © Thierry Nava for Groupe F, A Rodriguez, Claude Quiec, A Rodriguez, RWS for Marvellous Provence, D Job, A Rodriguez.

Slideshow: © A Rodriguez (Pont du Gard at sunset, picnic on the river, the water mill, inside the Museum and Ludo); O2 Prod (aerial view); Pont du Gard (canoeing); Yann de Fareins (Memories of the Garrigue); Clement Puig (music concert) and Thierry Nava for Groupe F (fireworks).

 

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