Visiting monuments isn’t on the top of my sightseeing list; however I heard Pont du Gard was a “must”.
Pont du Gard is reportedly one of the most visited sites in France. But not until I saw it myself would I know why. It literally took my breath away. There, hiding out in the French countryside — not far from groves of olives trees and fields of grape vines — was a magnificent structure from the early Roman Empire. From the 1st Century AD, to be exact.
My trip to Pont du Gard started in the early afternoon Monday. It’s only a 25-minute bus ride from Uzes, so I decided to try my luck with public transportation. No problem. Except that the bus dropped me off in the middle of nowhere. With only an arrow on a road sign that read “Pont du Gard” to show me the way, I took off walking. Fortunately the entrance to the park was only a few minutes’ trek down the road.
I must have been the one of the only people who has ever arrived at the park on foot, because there were no pedestrian signs or entrance. Just a parking lot for buses and cars. In fact, a park guard saw me and came down the road to greet me. He must have thought I was lost — or a spy! Anyway, he pointed me towards the main entrance of the park. Inside the park there was a large, very modern, covered loggia where several groups of people were sitting at tables or just standing around. A very nice snack shop, glacé stand, and a few souvenir and gift shops were along the side. The indoor exhibit hall and cinema I was told to visit first were on the right and could be accessed by going through a central door and walking two floors underground. Since I had arrived 45 minutes before the English version of the introductory film was scheduled to run, I had plenty of time to visit the exhibit hall.
Or so I thought. I could have spent hours there if I had wanted to go into a deep study of Roman aqueducts and water systems. There were exhibits of early Roman baths, latrines and more. I was particularly taken with the displays of numerous artifacts unearthed from the earliest days of the bridge, into the 6th century, when it was in constant use. A near-real sized replica of a worksite demonstrated how the bridge and aqueduct were constructed. Faux pulleys operated by mannequins showed how the stones were lifted into place. The theatrical set seemed quite authentic and very well done.
Armed with a small bit of the history of Pont du Gard, I was ready to see the real thing. Back into the heat and scorching sun, I walked down a short path where the occasional tourists– and dogs — were taking their time getting to the monument.
Then, beyond the trees… and a few yards farther… there is was.
I was transported to the days of the Roman Empire. When I walked closer to the bridge, I knew I was walking in the same steps as Roman soldiers and early French citizens centuries before me. Like so much of the architecture I’ve seen on this trip, I was amazed at the shape of the arches and the stones. As I walked across the bridge, the wind was blowing briskly. Never mind. Even though I had to scurry to catch my hat to keep it from blowing over the side of the bridge into the ravine, I was mesmerized. Several times I had to prop myself up against the sidewall to keep my balance. I was disoriented from trying to take photos from every possible angle.
An 18th century visitor and famous writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau was overwhelmed when he visited Pont du Gard.
“I had been told to go and see the Pont du Gard; I did not fail to do so. It was the first work of the Romans that I had seen. I expected to see a monument worthy of the hands which had constructed it. This time the object surpassed my expectation, for the only time in my life. Only the Romans could have produced such an effect. The sight of this simple and noble work struck me all the more since it is in the middle of a wilderness where silence and solitude render the object more striking and the admiration more lively; for this so-called bridge was only an aqueduct. One asks oneself what force has transported these enormous stones so far from any quarry, and what brought together the arms of so many thousands of men in a place where none of them live. I wandered about the three storeys of this superb edifice although my respect for it almost kept me from daring to trample it underfoot. The echo of my footsteps under these immense vaults made me imagine that I heard the strong voices of those who had built them. I felt myself lost like an insect in that immensity. While making myself small, I felt an indefinable something that raised up my soul, and I said to myself with a sigh, “Why was I not born a Roman!”
After I strolled slowly across the aqueduct, taking pictures along the way, I came upon a seemingly hidden path. You know how I like surprises! So I tramped up the rocky pathway, higher and higher above the bridge, wishing only that I had worn better walking shoes. Although there were hundreds of tourists, I didn’t encounter any other people along the way. Happily alone, I climbed to the highest possible vantage point. Surely others had been this way before. The shiny stones on the pathway were evidence enough. But today, the panorama that lay before me was all for me.
As hard as it was to leave this perfect spot, I had to catch a bus. So I came down from my perch, hurriedly explored the left bank of the bridge, and promised myself I’d return some day.
Dinner at the lovely restaurant on the water’s edge with a view of Pont du Gard is in my future.