Every time I plan a trip there ends up being one day in particular that I find myself looking forward to the most. In Provence, that was the day we ventured to the Pont du Gard. Built in the 1st century AD, this magnificent Roman bridge was part of an aqueduct system that brought water from its source in Uzès to the city of Nîmes, which was the capital of the Roman province in southern France. What’s makes this UNESCO Word Heritage Site event more impressive is that it’s one of the best-preserved Roman ruins in the world.
I often reflect on the engineering marvels that are hallmarks of the Roman Empire and Pont du Gard is no exception. While most of the 31-mile aqueduct is underground, here it rises high above the Gardon River with 3 levels of arches (originally spanning 1,200 feet in length and 160 feet in height) built entirely without mortar to supply the city of Nîmes with 9 million gallons of water a day for its villas, baths, fountains and other Roman comforts.
Visiting the Pont du Gard had long been on my travel wish list and was well worth the wait. Here’s what you need to know to plan your visit too.
How to Get There
Pont do Gard is best reached by car and is about 30 minutes from Avignon or Nîmes and 45 minutes from Arles. Buses and trains are also available from some major cities. You’ll find parking on both sides of the river, however the Rive Gauche/Left Bank parking lot is a better bet as it’s steps away from the complex that houses the visitor center, museum, cinema, cafeteria, shops and restrooms. Guided tours also depart from this location.
What to See and Do
Our visit began with a small group guided tour that would take us from the Rive Gauche/Left Bank to the third level of Ponte du Gard, including an opportunity to walk through the canalization channel where water once flowed. We met our dry humored guide at the visitor center area where he flooded us with a deluge of information about the history and construction of Pont du Gard, which he described as being “an accessory to the aqueduct on top”. This accessory is quite impressive when we learned that it was built entirely without mortar and boasts some of the largest Roman arches ever built (see “By the Numbers” below for more interesting facts).
It took about 5 years to build the bridge and 20 years total for the full aqueduct, which was functioning from 60 AD to 500 AD when it essentially dried up thanks to calcium deposits. The bridge itself was preserved in the Middle Ages as it was deemed an efficient passage across the river, which continued with various expansions into the 1700s that eventually allowed for passage by car. By 1865 a tunnel was dug to bring water via lead pipes to Nîmes for its booming textile industry, which included the production of a certain type of canvas called “serge de Nîmes”, which was later brought to the U.S. by Levi Strauss who used the sturdy fabric to make denim jeans (another fun fact, Strauss got the blue dye from Genoa, Italy, hence the name jeans).
After climbing a set of stairs to the third level of the aqueduct, we were led inside an area that is otherwise not accessible to the public. From this vantage point we had a great view of the surrounding area before crouching down to enter the narrow canalization channel, thick with 400 years’ worth of calcification. Periodic holes let light in along the way as we walked through the otherwise dark 900-foot-long channel. Emerging at the other end, we saw remnants of the aqueduct as it continued its journey towards Nîmes. Here our guide bid us farewell and left us to explore the remainder of the site on our own. You can visit Pont du Gard without a guided tour, however we found that the extra explanation and context added to the experience, plus it was the only we were able to visit the third level.
There’s definitely no shortage of ways to enjoy Pont du Gard, from various hiking trails that take you to viewpoints on either side high above the aqueduct to the 1.4km Mémories de Garrigue loop that showcases the area’s Mediterranean landscape. You can also walk down to the banks of the Gardon River and pass under the bridge to admire its scale and size from below. In warmer weather, it’s also possible to go swimming or kayak under the Pont du Gard.
We crossed back over the bridge, now in the shadows of its arches in the afternoon sun, and headed to the site’s state-of-the-art museum and cinema. Here we were further able to understand the critical role that water played in Roman life through various artifacts, exhibits and a full-scale model of a rock quarry that showed how each stone was moved and placed to create this architectural wonder. Planning, precision and pure genius. With all of this incredible knowledge and awe we headed to our next destination, Nîmes, to continue tracing the journey of this all important aqueduct and the water it once carried.
PONT DU GARD BY THE NUMBERS
- At 160 feet tall, Pont du Gard was once the second highest standing Roman structure after the Colosseum in Rome, which was 6 feet taller
- The aqueduct spans more than 31 miles with a drop of only 40 feet over its entire length
- More than 9 million gallons of water made its trip from the source to its destination in Nîmes in roughly 24 hours (that’s about 100 gallons per second!)
- Nearly 50,000 tons of stone make up Pont du Gard, which was constructed entirely without mortar
- There was once 6 arches at the bottom (each spanning 80 feet across the entire width of the river – the largest ever built), 22 arches (now 11) in the middle and 47 arches (now 35) on the top level
- Pont du Gard’s lower arches are each 80 feet wide, large enough to span the full width of the Gardon River
Great description of Pont du Gard. Ann and I visited it a few years ago, however, we were not able to do the tour. Just walking across and through it realized just what a marvel it is to have been created almost 2 millenia ago. Almost as impressive as the feelings got going through the caves of Font-de-Gaume. Standing where humans created art 18,000 years ago beyond description.
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