Monday, 26 May 2014

48. Wonder: The Pont du Gard

(For the Pont du Gard preview, please click here.)

We take water for granted these days. Turn on a tap and there it is, or if like me you're from Scotland, just go outside. It takes these few occasions when the water needs to be turned off for a while to remember how much we love it: we hoard it - filling up a few pans, maybe even an entire bath in preparation for our period without. Just last year, part of Glasgow's southside was unexpectedly cut off for several hours during the evening. At the time, there was no certainty about when we'd get it back. A fortunate half-full kettle ensured Danielle and I could brush our teeth and have some coffee but society seemed ready to break down as we pondered how we'd cope without a shower the next morning. And until the water returned, we had just a single flush of the toilet remaining: better make it count. These small moments remind us - water is pretty damn great. No wonder mankind ranks it alongside the sun, the moon, and mothers in terms of worship over the millennia.

An elaborate series of reservoirs, pumps, and pipes keep today's civilisation thoroughly watered, but for most of mankind's history, it's not been so readily available. Living next to a river was easiest, but a well-dug well would do the trick also. In a small, humble settlement, this might be fine, but humans have a habit of gathering in large numbers, and a habit of enjoying a bit of comfort and convenience. A river and a bunch of wells would not always provide this. When you consider our regular need for a spot of defecation and mulitply it by a city, you've definitely not got luxury. And you know what? Tough luck, deal with it. Unless, of course, you're Roman and you go ahead and build something like this.

This is the bridge over the river Gardon, around half-way between the cities of Nimes and Avignon in the south of France. Translated, it's just called the Gard Bridge, although the French name, Pont du Gard, sounds a lot nicer and is, sensibly, what everybody calls it. There's no record of what the Romans called it, and they probably didn't call it anything fancy, if anything at all. It wasn't a bridge built for the public to appreciate, it was built in the middle of nowhere to do a job. The job was to carry water across the river valley, as part of a 50 kilometre aqueduct serving the Roman city of Nemausus, so that the thoroughly modern people could enjoy a bit of luxury.

Nemausus, now Nimes, fell under Roman influence in 118 BC, becoming a Roman colony in 42 BC. It prospered, and by the 1st Century AD was subject to one of these triumphant Roman building programmes that transformed cities. Two thousand years on, the evidence is still there: old city walls, a temple, and a magnificent amphitheatre that still puts on performances today (When I was in Nimes two years ago, David Guetta was playing. Civilisation still has some way to go). Significantly, there are the ruins of old baths, once served by the aqueduct which dished out up to 400 litres of water a second, more than the city needed, even after spread around the various baths and private residences.

There was plenty of water in Nimes already, with lots of wells and a local spring giving an easy supply of drinking water. The aqueduct was for better things in a rising star of a city with something like 50,000 people. It certainly improved the city's cleanliness, but it also enhanced the reputation. Bath complexes were the chief reason Romans built aqueducts, and they weren't afraid to put in the hard graft to build them. For an aqueduct to work, the water source must be higher than the city, or more precisely the castellum which is the slightly elevated distribution basin, like a water tower, the aqueduct leads to, that then supplies the city. Without motors or pumps, the Romans simply had to rely upon water following the path of gravity - as long as their aqueduct was continually sloped downwards, the water would flow. Their longest effort was the Zaghouan aqueduct which supplied Carthage, it was 132 kilometres long. Rome had eleven aqueducts, one over 90 kilometres long. So what's the big deal about the 50 kilometres of Nimes?

The big deal was that the only suitable water source, just 25 kilometres away as the crow flies, was less than 12 metres higher than the water distribution basin at Nimes. The slope for the water to flow would have to be very, very gradual indeed. In itself, this was a problem, but a greater issue was the terrain - a 200-metre-high hill blocked the route, and the rest of the land was hilly, rough, and forested, and with a big lake in the way. And a deep gorge too, through which the Gardon river ran. The people of Nimes better really want a bath.

It was a hell of an undertaking, taking an estimated fifteen years. The lake was drained, numerous tunnels dug, and a total of seventeen overhead bridge-like constructions built. All the time, maintaining the most gradual of slopes, averaging 8 centimetres per kilometre - get it wrong at any point and the whole job was a write-off. It didn't come cheap: the total cost of Nimes aqueduct has been calculated at over 30 million sesterces, which is the equivalent of 50 years pay for 500 legionary officers. It can only be a very rough stab, but in modern terms, if we assume an army officer being paid £30,000 a year, this would make the entire Nimes aqueduct cost £750 million.

Helping matters was the abundance of stone in the local area, easy to cut limestone that was idea for this kind of construction. The majority of the Pont du Gard is built from large blocks up to 6 tons in weight, making an estimated total weight of a little over 50,000 tons (you may like to think of this as being approximately the weight of 500 blue whales, although I doubt the Romans did). This would have been roughly cut from the ground, then taken to the construction site where professional stonecutters would shape it more precisely. That's it - no mortar, no clamps, just loads of heavy stone blocks placed precisely on top of each other, reyling upon gravity to keep them in place.

At 360 metres in length (these days reduced to 275 metres) and almost 49 metres high, the Pont du Gard was the showpiece of the Nimes aqueduct, and as such the Romans enjoyed a little flourish. The design isn't optimal - the aqueduct in Segovia, central Spain, is the same length but has much fewer arches. The Romans just wanted the Pont du Gard to look nice, and who can blame them? After 15 years of work on the entire aqueduct, I like to think the architect was there the day the water first flowed. At around one metre per second, he could certainly have kept up as the first torrent poured down the channel, although as 90% of the aqueduct is underground there may not have been much to see. Water would have taken around 24 to 30 hours from start to finish, so perhaps he just watched the start, raced down to the Pont du Gard to wait for it to flow across, and then finished in Nimes to witness the first drops of a new city era.

And it worked, for centuries. As a result, Nimes aqueduct is regarded as one of the most carefully-judged and spectacular aqueducts of the Roman Empire. The Pont du Gard is simply the most striking visual detail of this triumph of Roman engineering.

For the Romans, the Pont du Gard was never meant to be visited, unless you were charged with its maintenance, but happily for everyone these days it happens to be an idyll spot for a leisurely afternoon, especially if it's a nice, sunny day. It's a lot easier to reach the site if you have a car, but a local bus from Avignon does happen to pass by (the A15 if you want to know: here has some good information). The river Gardon is not a particularly wide river, and moves along in a lackadaisical manner. The valley it runs through is much wider, offering many opportunities to sit by the river bank. There are even a few small pebble beaches. Danielle and I came prepared: we had bread, meat, sweets, and wine, plus a bottle of cheap and awful Carrefour coke but you can't get everything right.

For a few hours, we sat to the west of the river, enjoying the view and the weather. It was Saturday, and the area was filled with locals and tourists, but there's so much space around that I can't imagine the Pont du Gard ever feeling crowded. When you have blue skies, perfect sunshine, a lovely wife and a picnic with wine, it's difficult to be disappointed in a Wonder. The Pont du Gard was the ideal accompaniment. Essentially, it's three bridges, on top of each other, the lower two being built from large blocks of limestone and with arches around 19 metres wide and 20 metres high, except for the main arch the river runs through which is 24.5 metres. The upper bridge is the dinky top layer, made from bricks and masonry, and with the covered channel running across it, sloped ever-so-carefully (just 1 in 18,241) for where water would once have flowed across. If you climb the valley banks by the side of the Pont du Gard, you can get a pretty good look at it.

Indeed, getting a good view of the Pont du Gard is easy. You can find a spot upstream or downstream and get a classic side-on view, or you can clamber down to the bottom the the lower arches and look up.

Or you can follow the signs on either bank to climb up and past the bridge, to a viewpoint.

Finally, you can take advantage of one of the many dubious amendments that have been made to the Pont du Gard over the last twenty centuries - the road bridge that runs right alongside it.

This small bridge, stuck to the Pont du Gard like a joey in a kangaroo's pouch, allows great close-up views of the second tier of arches. It was built in the mid-18th Century, and astonishingly was heavily used by anybody who fancied driving across it right into the 1990s, despite the Pont du Gard being made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. Since 1996, fortunately, the entire area has been pedestrianised and a slick visitor's centre built out of sight on the north bank - today's Pont du Gard experience is a lot better than that of just two decades ago. Unless you wanted to look at it from your landrover, I suppose, in which case you don't deserve to see it in the first place. The small joey-bridge is unquestionably convenient though. Not only does it allow easy crossing from north to south bank, it gives a close-up view of the second tier of the Pont du Gard's arches, and gives the modern-day pedestrian a lovely view of the river and valley.

It also gives you a close up view of some 19th Century graffiti.

The famous French author Alexandre Dumas (the guy who did the Count of the Monte Cristo and the Three Muskateers) wasn't at all keen on this small bridge, remarking: "It was reserved for the eighteenth century to dishonour a monument which the barbarians of the fifth had not dared to destroy." I think he's being a little unfair. Sure, the Germanic barbarians from around the 5th Century, who trashed the area in the absence of the Romans, may have left the Pont du Gard as it was, but it also would have held no interest for them, if they even knew about it. The Pont du Gard has had the good fortune of being in the countryside out of the way and uncontroversial. The Moorish conquests of 719-720 AD and then subsequent Christian reconquests also destroyed many monumental buildings, but again nobody cared about the Pont du Gard. It took until the 12th Century until it began to suffer some real damage, when twelve small arches on the north side were dismantled, with the stone being used to build churches as part of the enthusiastic trend throughout France at the time to build grand religious buildings. It was around the same time that much of the 50 kilometres of the Nimes aqueduct was also systematically taken apart.

The real madness took place in the 16th Century. As you'll imagine, the locals found the Pont du Gard a pretty convenient crossing, a useful hand-me-down from the Romans. But the thick arches don't leave much room for walking, and certainly not for large animals or carts. And so some wise guy thought it a good idea to cut the supporting piers from the second level in half, to create a wider passage. Look at the following picture to get an idea of what I mean. Imagine that cut in half, and then all the other supporting piers along that level likewise.

It is astonishing that the Pont du Gard didn't simply topple over, and a true testament to the skill of the Romans. This state of affairs lasted something like 200 years, until the 18th Century. And while Dumas is critical, I am less so. Because the missing sections were filled back in and the Pont du Gard was again stable, but there was still a need for general traffic to cross the river. Hence why the little bridge was built, and it was built sympathetically to the Pont du Gard. Remember, this was the 18th Century - little consideration was given to old monuments back then. But the arches of the little bridge match the Pont du Gard's arches, and seen downstream from the east side, it's barely visible, snugly tucked beside it.

Since the 19th Century, the Pont gu Gard has underwent many restorations. Clearly it survived many floods before, and it has continued to survive many since - one in 1958 saw water reach to the top of the first tier, which after having sat by the river bank I can confirm must have been a hell of a flood. With cars banned and the visitor's centre installed fairly recently, the Pont du Gard is enjoying a new lease of life as not just a tourist attraction, but as an attraction for the locals too. On the Saturday afternoon that Danielle and I enjoyed our picnic, there were a large number of obviously local kids enjoying jumping into the water, swimming, and making the associated noises you might expect. Impressively, the Pont du Gard is also used as an outdoors venue. Various shows are performed there, including the kind of light shows that the French seem to love having on their monuments, and even better, a modern music festival, you know, for young people, with actual good music. The Romans built an aqueduct, the French use it as a nice day out.

On a sunny day, it's difficult not to be won over by the Pont du Gard - it makes a striking spectacle against the blue sky, and a perfect place to enjoy a lazy day. I also visited on a cloudy, slightly cold and slightly wet day too, a couple of days prior, and although it may not have been quite as enjoyable to spend a day relaxing, no doubt as a visual spectacle it was still deeply impressive. To date, it's one of the oldest Wonders I've visited, after the Parthenon and the Terracotta Warriors, but it really doesn't show its age. It could just about pass for a 19th Century Victorian viaduct.

Having an enjoyable day out is a little different from witnessing a true World Wonder though. The Pont du Gard makes an excellent first impression but it's a striking piece of engineering rather than a beautiful creation. It's big, but not truly gigantic. It's old, but doesn't have the myths and tales of many other constructions almost 2000 years old. It's a very well built survivor, a testament to the genius of Roman engineering, but ultimately it was built as a bridge, for function, and there's not an awful lot more to it. The Romans built a very effective bridge, but it's a little too straightforward for a Wonder.

Some criteria then.

Size: 275 metres long and almost 49 metres high, it's big although in terms of bridges not terribly big. In terms of ancient Roman constructions, it's about the same height as the Colosseum and about half the circumference.
Engineering: A supreme piece of Roman engineering. Extremely precise and extremely durable, lasting centuries of weather and deliberate abuse.
Artistry: Handsome, striking, simple, functional.
Age: Almost 2000 years old, which for an exposed bridge makes it a true survivor.
Fame/Iconicity: I think more people would recognise the image than the name, although the proliferation of stone viaducts from Victorian times would might confuse the identity.
Context: A slow river running through it, with ample river banks and green French countryside - it's in a lovely place and makes for a great day out.
Back Story: Part of the Nimes aqueduct, and a survivor well beyond Roman times. Yet, it's kind of just been there, simply not falling down for most of its history, and no great historical events or stories are particularly associated with it.
Originality: There are rather a lot of stone bridges around, granted much fewer Roman ones of this magnitude. Nonetheless, not one of a kind.
Wow Factor: Initially very impressive, but it didn't continue to hold my gaze.

In his magnum opus, De Aquaeductu, the 1st Century Roman author and water commissioner Sextus Julius Frontinus (as loosely translated by the author A. Trevor Hodge) exclaims: "I ask you! Just compare with the vast monuments of this vital aqueduct network these useless Pyramids, or the good-for-nothing tourist attractions of the Greeks!" He's referring to the aqueducts of Rome, but he might as well be talking about the greater technical achievement of Nimes, of which the Pont du Gard is the public face. He might have an argument - if we're looking at just pure technical achievements. But I'm not. Technical prowess is just one facet of an overall aesthetic judgement I'm attempting to make. Mankind's greatest feats of construction have to have a visual power. And in my Wonder mission, with so many grand feats, I have to be critical. No question of it, the Pont du Gard looks great, but it's neither beautiful or massive enough to be a big hitter. It's a little two-dimensional in its history, despite its age. I'd place it just a little below the glitz and bling of Yangon's Shwedagon Pagoda, and a little above the ponderous historical heavyweight that is the Forbidden City. Although if I was ever to do a picnic league table, it would be right up there.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far
1. Taj Mahal
2. Great Wall of China
3. Machu Picchu
4. Easter Island
5. Mont Saint-Michel
6. The Eiffel Tower
. The Millau Viaduct

Other Wonders
Angkor Wat
Hagia Sophia
Sydney Opera House

Chartres Cathedral
The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben
The Alhambra
St Paul's Cathedral
Notre-Dame de Paris
The Parthenon
Cristo Redentor
The Palace of Versailles
The Blue Mosque
Petronas Towers

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)
The Golden Temple
Amiens Cathedral
Edinburgh Castle
Shwedagon Pagoda
Pont du Gard
Forbidden City
Avignon Papal Palace
Thiepval Memorial
Tower Bridge
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Banaue Rice Terraces
Temple of the Emerald Buddha

Interesting Places
The Sacre-Coeur
Terracotta Army
Leshan Giant Buddha
Marina Bay Sands

Nazca Lines
Agra Fort
Ayutthaya Historic Park
City of Arts and Sciences
Lotus Temple
Three Gorges Dam

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