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Nimes and Pont du Gard

Today we are visiting the small city of Nimes with its Roman sights and a pretty town center, then continuing on to Pont du Gard, the majestic Roman aqueduct. 

This is an easy day-trip by public transit or rental car, or by package tour available from your hotel desk or the tourist office in Avignon.  Since the independent traveler enjoys being self-sufficient and getting around via public transit, we’ll describe how to get there by train, and back by bus.

Leave Avignon for Nimes before breakfast -- skip the croissants and head straight to the train station.  This early start is needed because the return bus schedule at the end of the itinerary is limited, with the last convenient bus returning to Avignon by 2:00pm. 

Sometimes in your travels it pays to rise at dawn to get started, and this is one of those days.  Trains leave Avignon at 6:38am and 7:26am, taking 40 minutes to put you into the heart of Nimes before the shops have opened, when the town is quiet and peaceful. 

Nimes makes a nice two or three hour diversion and leaves you in good position to catch the bus to the ancient Roman bridge of Pont du Gard.  Exit the Nimes train station and walk a few blocks along Avenue Feucheres to a shady park.

You will arrive at the star attraction of town and the world’s best-preserved ancient Roman amphitheater, Les Arenes.  The arena is very similar in age and appearance to the Colosseum in Rome, but only half the size, seating 24,000 people.  It is still used today for a variety of entertainments, including concerts and the French version of bullfighting where the bull chases would-be matadors out of the ring and is not killed. 

A lovely pedestrian zone of shops and cafés extends just beyond the right side of the arena, with the main lane of Rue de l’Aspic running ten blocks through its center.  Most shops open at 10:00am, so it will still be very quiet at this early hour with shuttered windows and just a few locals walking by on their way to work. 

Check out the shops and other sights on your way back to the station later in the morning, but for now stroll six blocks along Rue de l’Aspic and turn left on Rue General Perrier to the other great historic monument of Nimes, Maison Carrée or the “square house,” France’s best-preserved Roman temple.

Maison Carrée

Maison Carrée looks like a smaller version of the Parthenon, with tall Corinthian columns running around it and a classic façade topped by a triangular pediment.  Legend holds that the 2000-year-old temple was built by General Agrippa in honor of two grandsons of Emperor Augustus, Caius and Lucius.  They became joint rulers of the Nimes area, an important center of the Roman Empire in the south of France.  Statues of those two royal grandsons stand guard two blocks away in the greenery of Square Antonin. 

Across the street from Maison Carrée you will notice a striking modern building designed by the great British architect, Sir Norman Foster.  Crafted in steel and glass in a pleasing rectangular shape, it fully complements the ancient temple architecture and houses the Museum of Contemporary Art, one of several major modern structures built in Nimes during the 1990s by its progressive mayor, Jean Bousquet.

Walk along the scenic Quai de la Fontaine next to a beautiful, tree-lined canal that comes from the Jardin de la Fontaine a few blocks away.  This pleasant section of town was where the local water source sprang from the ground in Roman times, but as the settlement grew the water supply became inadequate and needed to be supplemented by a major Roman aqueduct system, including the Pont du Gard that will be the focus of this afternoon’s excursion into the countryside.

At this point of the morning you have undoubtedly worked up a healthy appetite that could be deliciously satisfied at the breakfast buffet in one of Nimes’ nicest hotels, the four-star Imperator Concorde located along this shady stretch of the canal near the Jardin de la Fontaine.  After such an early start it is great to relax for a leisurely, restful meal and get ready to see more of Nimes.

Walk back to the Maison Carrée, then continue east a few blocks along the pedestrian Rue de l’Horloge towards more landmarks:  the scenic Place Aux Herbs square, setting for the 11th century Cathedral Notre-Dame with its Romanesque frieze across the façade, and two blocks northeast, the Porte d’Augustus, a small triumphal arch honoring Emperor Augustus and built in 15 B.C. History buffs might take time for the Musée Archéologique, two blocks south of the arch, but the rest can walk back into the heart of the pedestrian zone, re-tracing your steps along Rue de l’Aspic, which by now is alive with open shops and cafes. 

As you get back towards the arena, have a look at the pretty square, Place du Marché, with its crocodile fountain symbolizing Egyptian victories of ancient Roman soldiers who retired in this area.  Don’t linger too long for the bus is soon leaving from the open lot behind the train station to take you to Pont du Gard. 

Pont du Gard

The Roman aqueduct of Pont du Gard is one of the greatest sights in all of ancient history. It's an incredibly impressive structure. In fact, it is the tallest ancient bridge and the second-highest structure the Romans ever built, after the Coliseum in Rome, which is just 6 feet higher. 

Not only is this a work of great engineering, but it has come down to us as one of the most important works of art of the ancient world, a work of great architecture recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It was built to carry water from the countryside into the city of Nîmes, which was a big Roman center back in those days, and it continued carrying water for five hundred years, really a remarkable structure.

That middle arch is the largest arch the Romans ever built, the lower level and the upper level both, the widest span that they ever crossed. So up on top you've got the water channel.  It was a covered water channel so that it was protected from the elements.

The interior surface of the water channel was covered with a special stucco that was composed, in part, of shards of pottery and tile, and then it was covered with an olive oil surface, and this made sure that it was very smooth and slippery so that the water could easily flow.

Partly open and partly covered, forming a dark tunnel that tall folks will need to stoop to get through. It's in a beautiful setting.  The river valley here is just really quite gorgeous - you have the forest and the rocky shores on both sides, makes it a very picturesque setting.

If you walk along the path in front of the bridge for about a quarter-mile and then come down to the river level itself, you get quite a spectacular reflection on a normal day, with the calm waters of the river and the bridge looking like it's a double bridge above and below.  It's really worth it.  If you are here on a day when there's not very much wind, by all means take the time to come on down the river and have a look from the riverbank…

You want to climb up the hill and look along the bridge, different viewpoints different perspectives.

Here are some practical tips for how to get around and experience the various views and the different walking routes while you're visiting. You'll approach on the path from the information center, and you'll first see the aqueduct from the path. Then walk up a little bit and then down and along the river bed to look back at the bridge. On the bridge is another viewpoint. And cross to the other side to look back. Then walk up the path to the top and you can look straight along the bridge. Now, the best of all is walk down the hill, you have to walk along the riverbank for a few hundred meters and there you have the finest view of all.

Here you will have a complete mirror reflection of the bridge in the river’s smooth surface, which will be one of the most beautiful sights you have ever seen.  Three levels of soaring arches above, and again repeated upside down below…unbelievable.  It is one of those jaw-drop, heart-attack moments. Look in awe and wonder. 

Coming all this way to Pont du Gard, you want to fully enjoy the various vistas for a complete appreciation.  The paved path from the visitor center affords some decent views but don't settle for only this. Stroll up to the bridge and you can go on a well-marked hillside path to gain access to look at the aqueduct's upper level.

There are steps to take you a little bit higher, but you will get a better view by walking down on the path along to the river's West Bank to get further away so you can see the entire large structure. If you're in the afternoon, as we are, an excellent viewpoint is on the southwest side with the sun shining directly on the stones. It's so big you can't see it when you're standing close.

Of course you have to snap your photos, which will be award winners, but don't forget to put the camera way and just soak it up for as long as you can. Now here you're going to acquire a firsthand respect for the amazing engineering skill that created this marvel. There are even better viewpoints on the other side of the river so don't quit yet. Stroll across the bridge and then up a well marked hillside path to gain access to the aqueduct's upper level, where you can walk along the path and have a birds-eye view of that upper level.

You might wonder how could they ever lift the stone so high up from the valley bottom 150 feet high in the air, and these are very big rocks. Well, not much of a problem for those ancient Roman engineers. They were very good with block and tackle, with pulleys and ropes, and gears and wheels. They understood the principles of engineering construction very well. That's how they were able to build so many monuments throughout their Empire. Just imagine the perfection of engineering that went into creating this long canal.

Walk back down slope on the well-marked trail heading for the best view of all. There's a nice stone staircase that winds around and goes back underneath the aqueduct. Keep going on the dirt path bringing you further down, and then along the stream on the sunny south east side of the structure in order to reach the very best view. Keep walking along the river on the sunny side of the bridge for a few hundred yards to get to the most superb view looking back towards the soaring masterpiece.

There is a nicely paved path you follow along the river side. However, if the viewing conditions are good, with mid-day or afternoon sunshine, and little or no wind, you will need to leave the paved path to find the perfect angle. You have to walk on the dirt bank down to the waterline. Yes, it's a bit slippery, irregular, rocky and sometimes muddy but don't be dismayed.

Here's the view along the river walkway revealing that perfect spot to stand. Just don't fall in. You'll get an excellent perspective, especially if it's a sunny day or calm, bright, overcast, with no wind when you'll probably see a spectacular reflection of the arches mirrored in the water. You cannot see this full reflection from the paved path so you're confronted with this opportunity to put in a little extra effort for a big payoff. On the paved path, oh, what a nice view, but down in the mud, it will enter your top-ten-ever sightings. Of the two million annual visitors, only a tiny fraction ever get this angle.

This is one of the world's most astonishing ancient sites and with these viewing strategies you can see it at its best. Let this be another general lesson for you on the value of extra effort and looking for angles beyond the obvious.

Of course this is already an immense structure but the astonishing dual image appearing above and below with the bridge reflected in the calm waters of the river makes it look like the aqueduct is twice as big.

Nobody is quite sure who the architect was, or the names of the engineers, but one rumor is it might be Marcus Agrippa, who was one of the great Roman engineers who built a number of waterways back in the city of Rome and he was a quite noble statesman, an upper-class fellow.

It's a remarkable bridge to get the water from one side of this valley to the other. They didn't have pressurized water pipes that could go down a slope, and then back up a slope. Whenever an aqueduct came upon a chasm or river valley, it had to continue across as a bridge in order to maintain a level course for the water.

The water source near the city of Uzes and the destination at Nimes are only 12 miles apart, but the aqueduct is 31 miles in length, or 50 km, because it takes a winding course around some foothills to match the contours of the landscape. The actual descent in height over that entire length is only 41 feet, an extremely small average gradient of just 1 in 3,000.

The Pont du Gard structure descends a mere 2.5 cm which is just enough to keep the water flowing at the right speed. You don't want the water to flow too fast, it will wear away the canal, and you don't want to go too slowly because then it stagnates. Towards Nimes the water channel gets nearly flat in some places with astonishing gradient of 1 in 14,000. They estimate that it took about twenty-seven hours for the water to flow along the entire course.

And four kilometers of the aqueduct are actually drilled right through solid rock forming tunnels, a remarkable precision from those ancient Roman engineers. The bridge itself is about 300 m long, so it's really a small fraction of the total length of this long aqueduct bringing water in from the distant countryside to Nimes, but the Pont du Gard is certainly the masterpiece of the entire long canal. The Romans picked this location for the bridge because the river is slightly narrower here and there was a good outcrop of rock in the river that was strong enough to support the huge structure.

The bridge construction was generally done without the use of mortar or clamps. The stones were cut so perfectly that they were held together by gravity and friction, and this was a typical Roman technique. Paradoxically, a huge stone structure like this that's held together by friction and gravity can better withstand an earthquake than if it relied on mortar to hold it together. That's because everything has to fit so tightly and be in such good balance that the structure achieves this stable internal strength, which is much stronger than being glued together by mortar.

They most-upper level of the channel did use some mortar to hold the stone slabs. This is the actual water channel itself. And so to help waterproof this channel, keep the water in, they used mortar to hold the stones together as well as to make it watertight. We were very fortunate on this visit that the canal itself was open. At certain times of day, you can take a guided tour that will bring you inside the channel for an extra three euro on your ticket, well worth it. And so we walk through, and here's what it looks like inside. In the ancient times it was completely covered over to protect the water. Even if the channel is not open during your visit, or you don't want to spend the time or money, you can still have a nice look at it from the outside of the gate. That's when you climb to the upper level.

During its hundreds of years of use the aqueduct had to be carefully maintained by the ancient Romans, because things would grow, plants and calcite accretions would grow on the inside of the limestone channel, and so constant maintenance was necessary to scrape it off and keep the water flowing. The protruding stone supported the original construction scaffold and they were left in place to assist with future maintenance work.

Three levels of arches hold up the water channel that runs across the top. Their buildings relied heavily on the arch for many interior Roman spaces were differing variations on this critical feature. It's believed to have taken about five years to build the bridge and about fifteen years for the entire aqueduct with a thousand workers including slaves and skilled craftsmen.

After the collapse of the Roman Empire and barbarian invasions, the aqueduct began to fall apart and no longer carried water, but was strong enough to be used as a footbridge for another thousand years where you paid a toll to get across.

In the mid-18th century, a new bridge was constructed connected to the arches of the lower-level and wide enough for carriages to pass. This old diagram shows the adjacent connected bridges. This became the new toll bridge, and with further stabilizing, it was used by automobiles right up through the twentieth century. Well that added bridge is still used today by pedestrians and that's what provides access for visitors to reach the other side of the river.

A very good way to visit the site is on a private tour from whatever nearby city you're staying at, especially Avignon, which is most convenient. In a moment I'll discuss public bus and train options, but first I'd like to tell you about Provence Reservations, and the tour they provided for us, led by Marc which was really wonderful. Marc brought the site to life with knowledge and humor  in a friendly way that made the visit really memorable.

"Okay so this bridge is exceptional for its state of preservation. It is the best-preserved Roman bridge. Modern technology, we build something bigger, of course. But two thousand years ago the technology was different, you know.  The principal for heavy machine was the same, but the energy was different. And the pipe on the top was the largest pipe in the Roman world. The top tube is 1 meter 20 wide, 1 meter 80 high, so everything was built just to enable the big pipe to cross. Crazy, huh, to imagine that.  It’s very impressive, huh?

"Now for us the symbol of civilization is gas, computer, camera. In the Roman time it was water, and water is a very big symbol of their civilization. It is the highest, it's not the longest. The longest is in Segovia, at 750 meters long. So you see the view, side view is not too bad, too. So what's amazing is the bridge and the site. So the Romans decide to span the river right here because the river is a bit narrow. This aqueduct was working more or less five hundred years."

That pretty well wraps up our in-depth look at Pont du Gard and now I’d like to close out with some logistical suggestions. The normal starting point is at the excellent visitor center where you can get the free map that shows various paths and viewpoints. You can also pick up an audio guide at the center, brows in the shops, use the restrooms, have a snack and look at the large poster boards that display walking routes in detail. There's also a museum with models, multimedia screens, and reconstructions to explain the sites.

There are basically three different ways to get to Pont du Gard. One is if you have your own private rental car. Another is taking public transit, there's a public bus that comes by here. And finally, you could take a private guided tour as mentioned already. There are a variety of nice tours on offer from Avignon or if you're staying in Arles. You'll find a private tour is the most convenient and comprehensive way to do it. These day trips usually include other sites such as Saint-Remy, Les Baux, and or Uzes, as we show you in some of our other videos about this region.

On the other hand, you can travel on your own by public bus and train. For example, if you're staying in Avignon, you could take the train to Nîmes, which is also a lovely city to visit, tour around enjoying a walk through Nîmes, and then take the public bus from Nîmes to Pont du Gard, which takes about one hour. It drops you off at a traffic circle, a ten-minute walk from the visitor center. And when you finish your visit to Pont du Gard, another public bus will take you from there on back to Avignon, where you began your day. That also takes about one hour, a little complicated and the bus service is not very frequent, but it can be done.



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