Pont du Gard is part of an ancient Roman aqueduct that runs through southern France. It is located about ten miles west of Avignon and a similar distance northeast of Nimes.
The structure is awesome in several ways. It is huge – the highest in elevation and one of the largest remaining Roman aqueducts sections. The construction began in the 1st century, making the structure nearly 2000 years old. Between 800 and 1000 men were employed to build it. As part of a 31 mile system, the aqueduct carried over ten million gallons of water per day to the city of Nimes.
The aqueduct was built between 40 and 60 AD under the direction of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, Roman Emperor Agustus’ son-in-law. Although the conduit sustained damage from wars and natural causes throughout its history and was in poor shape by the 4th century, water flowed through the structure until the 6th century or later.
From the 13th until the 16th century the structure was used as a toll bridge, with proceeds going toward maintenance. In the 1700s, after repairs were completed, a new bridge was constructed next to the old one. Its purpose was to accommodate the increasing amount of traffic crossing the river. In the 19th century, Napoleon, who greatly admired Roman architecture, commissioned Charles Laisné to completely restore the bridge.
In 1996, the bridge was closed to vehicular traffic and open only to pedestrians. A visitors center was built, while smaller tourist shops were eliminated.
Design and Construction
The original aqueduct was built to bring water from the springs of the Fontaine d’Eure near Uzès, to the growing city of Nimes, constructed to cover a distance of about 31 winding miles. Over this 31 miles, the conduit is lowered by 56 feet. The largest drop is in the first half, engineered to lower the conduit sufficiently to be able to connect to a bridge over the Gardon River. The Pont du Gard as it stands is about one inch lower on one end than the other. The precision of engineering and construction is amazing.
In Nimes, the water poured into a basin from which it was distributed underground throughout the city’s water system. It provided water to fountains, baths and private homes around the city.
The bridge has three tiers of arches, reaching a height of 160 feet. It is constructed of shelly limestone, mined from a quarry about a half mile downstream on the banks of the Gardon River. Workers were able to bring some of the stones up the river. The stones – some as large as six tons – were cut from the quarry to the precise size to fit together – no mortar was used.
The first time I visited Pont du Gard with my daughter, we parked on the rive droite, or right bank of the river. At the time there was supposed to have been a parking fee, but we were unaware and found no where to pay it. We freely walked to the bridge area. The site is more closely regulated now, with an entrance fee charged per person. There is parking on either side of the river, with the left bank – rive gauche – closest to the museum.
If you are just planning to see the bridge and snap a couple pictures, an hour may be sufficient. The first time we visited, we planned an hour, but spent well over two hours. We did not take a tour or visit the museum. The time was spent hiking around the area, looking for the best camera angle, and then, walking across the bridge to explore the gardens.
On our recent trip, we took a tour, had a picnic and saw the light show, so we budgeted more time. We arrived around 6:30 and didn’t leave until 11:30.
Tickets for Pont du Gard can be purchased on the website. A basic entry ticket costs €8.50 per person and includes parking, admission to the museum, hiking around the grounds, and access to the first level of the bridge. For €11.50 a 30 minute guided tour of the upper level of the bridge is also included. The highest-priced ticket at €15.50, includes a 90 minute guided tour of the upper level and the museum in addition to all entrance fees as above.
For our day at the Pont du Gard, we chose the middle priced ticket. We were interested in seeing the upper level of the bridge, but felt that 90 minutes of guidance might be too much. Instead, we toured the grounds on our own.
Our tour was not elaborate, but included a walk through the conduit where the water flowed. After a brief history given in French and then in English, our guide led us through the aqueduct. We could see where the limestone had built up along the sides.
When we exited the trough, the guide shared a little more information about the history. She said that when the tunnel was no longer being used, local homeowners began disassembling the aqueduct, taking the stones to build homes and other structures.
The Pont du Gard is located within a 72 acre area. There are thematic trails where hiking is allowed. The trails are interesting – leading visitors through trees and vegetation up the banks of the river. At every new opening the view seems better than the last.
Near the visitors’ center and museum, you can wander through the “Mémoires de Garriques.” A garrique is and area of stone covered with vegetation that thrives on limestone. It has evolved to withstand dry, arid climate. This stone garden includes plants such as juniper, honeysuckle, thyme, and sarsaparilla.
We had hoped to visit the museum on our recent trip – especially since we had missed it the first time – but we did not have time. I guess I’ll have to return.
The Pont du Gard crosses the Gardon River – a clean, clear river that is inviting on a warm day. It is shallow and gently flowing. Swimming at your own risk is allowed – no life guards are present.
Further up the river there are canoe rental shops. In our short visit we did not have the time to explore this possibility, but I imagine it would be fun.
On our recent visit, we were treated to a laser light show after it got dark. The show happens every night from June through August. Around 9:30, lights began to shine on the bridge in rotating colors.
Around 10:45, the real show began. All the lights went black and music began to play. Then, a laser light show started with the bridge as a backdrop. If you visit Pont du Gard in the summer, this show is a must-see.
Both times that I visited Pont du Gard, I spent more time than I expected. It’s a great place to go, and is especially suited to families. If you are ever in Southern France, especially in the summer, be sure to add it to your itinerary.