Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Excursion to Pont du Gard

It’s a good 3+ hour drive from Leran to Nimes, but if you leave at 6:00 am on a Sunday morning, you can rest assured that you will be one of the first vehicles in the car park at Le Site Pont du Gard. Since it was Jim and Vicki’s last day, I guess they wanted to make sure they got in a fair share of driving before heading off to Paris on Monday. Mission accomplished, and we were well rewarded.

Our ticket entitled us to walk across the top level of the aqueduct, escorted by an English-speaking guide. There are locked gates at both ends to control entry. Lea, our young guide, alternated her explanations in English and French to us and the only other group, a French family. Doug and I had visited the Pont du Gard several years ago on another Europe trip, but for some unknown reason we were unable to access the top level. So, this was a treat.

The Pont du Gard crosses the Gardon River at 160 feet high and a span of more than 900 feet. It is the gem of the Nimes aqueduct, transporting water on gravity flow the 50 km from Uzes to Nimes, most of which lies underground. Between 38AD and 52AD, 1000 slaves quarried, hauled, chiseled, levered and mortared 50,000 tons of local sandstone to create the three-tiered structure. The aqueduct carried water to Nimes for 300, maybe 500 years. During that time, the Roman people enjoyed a standard of living significantly raised due to running water.

We were now walking where the water coursed. Cap stones were added on top to keep the water from evaporating. Lea had us look down the length of the aqueduct and pointed out that it wasn’t straight, but had a slight curve towards the upstream side. It wasn’t constructed that way, but the bridge has actually curved due to the heating of the sun on the southern exposure. This occurs at a measurable rate.

As we walked through the water conduit, Lea also pointed out deposits on the side walls that in places nearly reached the cap rock. The photo of Jim illustrates a good example of how thick these limestone sinter deposits were. Regular maintenance was performed on the conduit walls to scrape the sinter off, because the deposits had the potential of choking off the water flow. They painted the original stone wall red so that they knew when to stop scraping.

As we approached the other end, Lea handed me the key to open the gate. We began our exit by descending an extremely narrow circular staircase. When we got to the gate and I tried the key, it wouldn’t open. I tried it again, nothing. Lea arrived and I handed the key to her. She failed. Jim attempted. Nothing. Lea radioed for help. Her co-workers arrived on the other side of the gate with their keys. Nope. Meanwhile, we are all standing at the bottom of this 18” wide staircase. A crowd is forming outside the gate, wondering what’s happening. After about 10 minutes or so, we decide to go back the way we came and have a double tour of Le Pont du Gard.

Walking along the bottom level of the aqueduct, we read inscriptions embedded in the stone. Above our heads, in one of the arches, we notice a series of faint Roman Numerals inscribed in order on the stones. Since each one was precisely chiseled to fit, their position was marked to avoid placement error. The old “measure twice, cut once” philosophy.

We also notice numerous square indentations and stone “pegs” sticking out. The museum has an exhibit of the construction of the arches, showing the wood framework around which the stone was laid. The framework rested in the holes and on the pegs. Because the aqueduct was constructed by engineers, the pegs were left and not cut off level. The two lower levels of the aqueduct use no mortar, depending upon the weight of the stone for support. Only the upper level mixed a lime mortar, to seal the stone.

Since I will never remember everything I learned on our tour, in the video or in the museum, I also have scoured several websites checking facts and figures. I encourage anyone who is the least bit interested in architectural or civil engineering marvels to explore it much deeper (www.pontdugard.fr), as this post will be more pretty pictures than anything. And, of course, the best way to explore it…..is to experience it.


Anonymous said...

Years ago in the 70's we walked our daughters across Pont du Gard. I don't remember a museum nearby and had only a Michelin Guide to go by but it was a memorable experience.

Peggy said...

Lucky you! When we visited in '04, we didn't get to see the top level or have a guide. I think we heard it was being repaired but it was still impressive.

Anonymous said...

There are so many "ancient achievements" in Europe (and in so many other parts of the world as well)that I sometimes feel like we are just "historical babes" here in the US! Your pictures and narrative always give me such a feel for the places you've visited...I just love reading about your latest adventures.

I must admit though that my claustrophobia kicked in a little at the narrowness of area where the water flowed!

Thanks for the tour! Luke