The Pont du Gard is an aqueduct which spans the Gardon River in Southern France and is part of a Roman watercourse built in around 19 BC by the order of the Emperor Agrippa. It has stood the test of time for over 2,000 years and is now one of the major tourist attractions in France, its visitor numbers only being surpassed by the Eiffel Tower.
The Pont du Gard is around eight kilometres from the nearest town, Uzes, and is easily accessible from the main road between Avignon and Uzes. For healthier people there are also footpaths and cycle paths to the bridge which wind through the beautiful local countryside. There is no entry charge for pedestrians but there is a car-parking fee of around £2 (at the time of writing) for a whole day. A shuttle bus service runs from the local town of Uzes around once every hour for a reasonable sum. There is ample shady parking space for cars, motorbikes and buses, though you have to get there early to grab the best spots.
On each bank of the river is a visitor centre, La Portal, where you can find toilets, shops, a café to cool down in and an information desk. There is excellent access for disabled and wheelchair users, as the buildings have been designed with everyone's needs in mind. Each centre is large and airy with old trees in the centre providing shade from the hot Mediterranean sun. La Portal also provides a three-dimensional map of the area where you can trace the path of the aqueduct from Uzes to Nimes and see which parts still stand today. Most employees speak basic English, so language should not be a problem. Exhibitions run in these centres during the summer and provide a mine of knowledge about the local area, its culture, and its history.
From La Portal it is an easy three-minute stroll down to the Pont du Gard. There are many great viewing points of the bridge for photographers or just for those who want to see the aqueduct in all its splendour.
Le Tour du Gard
The Pont du Gard is a remarkable feat of engineering for a time when machinery and tools were very primitive. The design is formed by three storied arcades, each arcade with more arches than the last. The first arcade has six huge arches each around 6-9 metres (20-30 feet) apart, which rise to 15m (50ft) above the water level. A later road can be walked across which was added to this tier many years after it was originally built but which has now been taken out of use for fear of damaging the structure with heavy traffic. The second tier is smaller but has more arches (11) than the first, giving extra support to the aqueduct, as it clings onto the rock cliffs at either side. The final tier, which contains the watercourse itself, is around 5m (15ft) high and is composed of 35 arches. The whole effect is one of magnificence. As it rises to its staggering height of 49 metres high, one has the impression that the Romans weren't just making a bridge here but stating to the world that they were the most skilled craftsmen in the history of empires.
The total water course is 50km long and has a gradient of 1:3,000 which means there is only a 15m drop in height from one end to the other. For the most part it is subterranean and only re-emerges at specific key points along the route. It is made from uncemented local limestone and apart from a few repairs due to pollution corrosion has remained the same for over two millennia.
What to Do There
There is much more to the Pont du Gard area than the actual bridge itself. There are many paths down to the Gardon river through the national park that surrounds the area. After only two minutes walking one can lose 95% of the crowd and think that there is no one else in the world. The park has a very diverse number of animals and plants and one can frequently see lizards, bee eaters, buzzards and otters in the area. There is also the constant buzz of cicadas in the summer giving a genuine wild atmosphere to the park.
Once in the valley bottom you really appreciate how big the Pont du Gard is, as it towers above you like an ancient sky scraper. The deep, cold waters of the river snake elegantly around rocks and pebble beaches before being lost from view beneath the arches. The Gardon river is clear and very clean, perfect for swimming in summer, and with a large number of fish, from trout to chubb, snorkeling here is a must. In summer there is a host of butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies to be seen darting along the river. The beaches, though they may sound uncomfortable, are easily made habitable with the movement of a few stones and these areas are the perfect spots for picnics. You also have a handy wine cooler close at hand, the river being shallow enough to leave your bottle to chill through the day without the fear of it being washed away. Children love the area as there is the opportunity to swim, dive and jump off rocks into the deep pools in some areas. In summer, many families go down to the river for a day and can let their children play in the water without the need for concern about strong currents or other possible dangers.
For a more action-packed holiday there is the opportunity of canoeing down the river from Collais, around 5km upstream, which is reasonably priced and cheap for large groups. Many tourists choose to undertake this journey and sometimes it is so busy that swimmers find themselves having to play 'dodge the canoe'. In the local area there are many riding stables which take tours down to the river every day. Usually some riding experience is necessary, all kit is included, and the fee is typically around £10 an hour (again at time of writing). For comfort it is best to go riding early in the morning or after 5pm as in summer it is very hot between these periods, and the ride can be very tiring and dehydrating.
On summer evenings there is a spectacular multi-coloured light show on the bridge which attracts many people as the aqueduct is shown in all its glory against the blackened sky.