Pont du Gard has been a tourist attraction for centuries. Located in the south of France, about 25 km (15 miles) away from Avignon and the city of Nimes, it isn’t in Provence but actually next-door in the region of Occitanie.
The name comes from Pont meaning “bridge”, and Gard which is the name of the territorial department that it is in.
Since its construction in the 1st century, everyone from French Kings to apprentice masons have made their way to Pont du Gard to marvel at this ancient Roman architectural marvel.
What is Pont du Gard?
The Pont du Gard is more than a bridge. It is actually an ancient Roman aqueduct built to transport water.
To become an aqueduct, within the structure are channels held up by arches to transport water. The channels tilt downwards slightly, to allow gravity to do the work for it.
At its highest point, it is 49 meters (165 feet tall). The channels inside the bridge are wide enough for a person to walk through in most places.
When and why was the aqueduct was built?
lt was constructed in the 1st century BC and took about 5 years to complete. It is believed that the construction of the aqueduct was supervised by Roman emperor Augustus’ son-in-law and aide, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, around the year 19 BC.
Its purpose was to carry water over 50 km (31 miles) to what was then the Roman colony of Nîmes.
Nearby Marseille’s Vieux Port was already a brimming port on the Mediterranean sea, bringing the Romans to the area as the Greeks did before them.
Unlike other nearby Roman cities like Arles and Avignon which are on the River Rhône, Nimes did not have a nearby water source for sanitation, crops, and other necessities, making the aqueduct necessary.
The Pont du Gard aqueduct was built to channel water from the springs of the Fontaine d’Eure near the village of Uzès to Nemausus (as Nîmes was called by the Romans).
The actual straight-line distance between the two is only about 12 miles (20 km), but the aqueduct takes a winding route of more than 30 miles (50 km).
That is because the foothills of the Massif Central mountains, known as the Garrigues de Nîmes and in between and it was impractical to dig tunnels through the mountains and the valleys. They are covered in dense vegetation and very difficult to cross.
Instead, the Romans decided to build a circuitous route and go around. At its height, the Pont du Gard is estimated to have brought over 8 million imperial gallons of water per day to the fountains and homes of the people of Nîmes.
Once the water got to Nîmes, it was distributed to the Roman fountains, baths and private homes around the city.
The Roman Construction Method
Amazingly, the aqueduct’s enormous stones are held together without mortar. They were carved and placed so precisely that they slot in together like a jigsaw, without the need for mortar. This was such a feat that generations of French masons used to come to visit the bridge as part of their training.
Interestingly for historians, the architects and builders marked inscriptions on the stonework with messages and instructions. A lot of the blocks were numbered and inscribed with the locations of where the blocks were supposed to go.
The markings are hard to find if you are a visitors, but you may just spot words like “fronte dextra” or “fronte sinistra” in latin (meaning “front right” or “front left”) that were used to guide the builders.
There are 3 tiers of arches as the Romans were not sure how tall the bridge had to be to transport the water, so they made extra-sure that aqueduct was high enough.
It crosses the River Gardon and is the highest of all Roman aqueduct bridges, as well as being one of the best-preserved.
History after the Romans
After the Roman empire collapsed, the Pont du Gard remained in use as it also served as a toll bridge for people looking to cross the river. The bridge remained mostly intact, with the Ducs of nearby town of Uzès being responsible for maintaining the bridge.
Frequent floods meant that repairs were regularly needed to maintain the bridge. However, the terrain around the river meant that those repairs were always carried out. The bridge also suffered significant damage during the 1600s during the wars against the Huguenots (it was used to transport unwieldy artillery).
Is the Pont du Gard still used today?
It was likely used as an aqueduct as late as the 6th century, with some parts used for significantly longer. However, lack of maintenance after the 4th century led to clogging of debris that eventually stopped the flow of water.
It was still used a bridge however for centuries to cross the valley and the river below. A road bridge was added to it in the 18th century and cars were still allowed to drive over it as late as the 1990s.
However, rather than delivering water, the aqueduct had instead became a tourist attraction.
The quays of the river were lined with souvenir shops and other vendors hawking their wares. What was supposed to be a historical monument set in nature, had instead turned into a theme park.
Preserving the Past
In the early 2000s a massive reconstruction project was undertaken. Traffic around the area was rerouted and the shops were removed. A new visitors’ center and parking lot was built in the countryside, about 10 minutes away from the actual bridge, so as not to spoil the view.
The aim was to preserve this UNESCO world heritage site from pollution and maintain the tranquil nature of the area. There is also a museum where you can see how exactly this feat of engineering was achieved at a time before cranes, trucks, and other modern conveniences.
Visiting the Aqueduct
These days, you cannot actually drive up to the Pont du Gard, and views of it from the highway are near impossible. Once you arrive at the location, you will notice a large parking lot (kind of like at Disney) where you have to leave your car and walk over the Visitors’ Center.
It is usually very crowded, so I recommend getting your tickets in advance so that you can skip the line. Once you get past the crowds, it is about a 5 minute walk to head outside and towards the Pont.
No vehicles are allowed, but you can still walk along the bridge and climb up to the higher levels. An audioguide is available, as well as guided tours that take you to the upper levels of the Pont. But even without a guide, there is a 1.5 km (0.8 mile) circuit that you can follow with a booklet from the Visitors’ Center.
Around the shores of the river, there is plenty of space to relax and have a picnic, so be sure to bring your own basket. During the summer months, you will see locals kayaking and sunbathing along the river Gardon, as well as people hiking nearby.
If you are not into picnicking or too much natur-ing, there is also a restaurant nearby called Les Terrasses, offering fine dining and spectacular views of the aqueduct.
Frequently Asked Questions
How to get to Pont du Gard?
The closest airport to the Pont du Gard is in Marseille about 1h45 away. It is also about 30 minutes away from Avignon and Nimes, two of the larger cities in this part of Provence and the South of France.
There is no public transportation to visit Pont du Gard, the nearest bus stop is about 2.5km (1.5 miles) away so you will need a rental car. Alternatively I recommend that you book a tour from Avignon that will arrange everything.
Where should you stay?
Depending on your preference, the easiest cities to access the Pont du Gard is Avignon or Nimes (you can read more about visiting those cities).
If you are going for that small-town French charm however, I recommend staying in chic Uzès, which is about 20 minutes away from Pont du Gard. It is a bit pricier, but you won’t regret it.
So will you be making a trip to Pont du Gard? If you enjoyed this article, you may want to read more about traveling around Provence. A bientôt!