Pont du Gard – built to last!
Here is proof that when you build something properly right from the start, it can last a very, very long time! When we met our friends, the Gervais/Kowalski family, in Grenoble, France, they highly recommended for us to visit the Pont du Gard while we were in the area of Avignon, France.
As we began our walk toward the Pont, we began to see this phenomenal bridge beginning to rise up in the distance…
…and were rewarded with a spectacular sight when we arrived.
Imagine building a pipeline 50 km long to move fresh water…it is not at all uncommon with our modern engineering, computers, and construction equipment today. After such a pipeline was built I would almost bet that it would be very functional and would get the water from point A to point B…but it would not be as aesthetically appealing as the Pont du Gard!
What would today’s pipeline look like 2000 years later…would it still be standing? Would the people of the time view it as a beautiful work of art? Would it be a UNESCO World Heritage Site? Would 1.5 million people visit the pipeline?
Nestled in a small gorge, the Pont du Gard is a portion of a 50 km Roman aqueduct from the 1st century AD, originally used to supply fresh water to the city of Nimes, France. It is a bridge for the water to traverse the Gardon river and stands 50 m high, and 360 m long at its longest point. With over 50,000 tons of locally quarried rock, this massive bridge is a sight to see.
To support the weight, the Romans essentially built 3 arch bridges one on top of the other. I found the middle row of arches particularly interesting, as the Romans left stones protruding from the bridge all around each arch. To see this, one might think that the Romans simply left the rocks sticking out, and did not bother to smooth them down to be even with the construction of the bridge. In fact, these extensions were intentionally left in place for maintenance purposes to allow scaffolding and/or lifting machines to be temporarily installed on the aqueduct. Smart!
Many tried to copy this masterpiece, but few succeeded. For example, the Pont d’Avignon, which is approximately 20 km away, is a stone-arch bridge built in the 17th century and has not withstood the test of time as the Pont du Gard.
Who designed the Pont du Gard? It is not known who designed this masterpiece. There are no known written records, and archaeologists have not found a “signature” anywhere on the bridge to confirm the designer. Our audio guide directed us to one of the arches near the middle of the bridge. On the second row of arches on one of the keystones there is what appears to be a Roman soldier carved in bas-relief…could this be the signature?
I found a legend on the France Monthly website which describes the building of the bridge as “the devil’s work”! It goes like this:
A Provençal legend credits the building of the Pont du Gard to the devil himself. In fact, no other human had succeeded in taming the Gardon River that engulfed any beginning of construction. One night, after the third destruction of his efforts, a mason lamented: “This could be enough to give oneself to the devil”. At the sound of these words, the devil appeared and proposed to build a bridge that the Gardon could never destroy. The man accepted and in exchange the devil asked for the first soul that would cross the bridge. Once the deal was sealed, with fists and daggers, the devil ascended the mountain, tore away incredible blocs of stone and built an enormous bridge able to resist the “Gardonnades” or devastating floods of the Gardon. At dawn, the bridge was finished. The mason’s wife had the brilliant idea of deceiving the devil and sent a hare onto the bridge. The devil, at the quick, swiftly grabbed the hare. Having realized what he had, in his fury he plastered the animal into the bridge, and to this day, the contours are clearly visible.
I can say that this was one of the most impressive sites I have seen to date. The combination of form and function made this a really enjoyable visit for all of us.