Monday 25 August 2014

Le Pont du Gard, Remoulins, France ... by daylight

So here it is: I give you the Pont du Gard in daylight. Isn't it a splendid sight? This is the highest aqueduct that those wily old Romans ever got around to building. It's part of a 50 kilometre water canal that took fresh water from a spring in Uzès to feed the fountains, baths and gardens of Nîmes, which was then a flourishing Roman city. The water ran in an aqueduct supported by the top row of arches. The people went down below on a passageway supported by the first level of arches.

Just think: this stone colossus was the greatest bridge ever constructed in the Classical Age. Built in 50 AD on 3 levels, it's 360 metres (393 yards) long and stands 50 metres (54 yards) high.

It was built in a breath-taking 5 years. And what is even more amazing is that they didn't use any cement. The bricks were cut with laser-precision to sit neatly on top of one another, locking at critical points, and they have stood the test of time for two millennia. 

Look very carefully at the bricks in the photo below. They're from one of the middle arches of the bridge. See how the original builders have numbered the stones - in Roman numerals, of course. The stones were cut to size in the quarry, so that they all fitted together to make the arch, and then carried to the site to be put together in a sort of flat-pack, pre-fab process. Happily for the oxen pulling the carts the Quarry of Estel, from which the blocks were cut, was a mere 400 metres away from the bridge. The quarry was lost to us for many years, having been buried in some 4 metres of mud from successive floods, but they rediscovered the cutting face during an archeological dig back in 1998.

Just look at how beautifully those old stones sit together so that it's impossible to push even a leaf of paper between them. And look at the texture of the stones that have been cut to shape by hand using nothing more sophisticated than a hammer and chisel. 

Normally the Gardon is a quiet, well-behaved river, but from time to time when the snow melts in springtime, or when there's torrential rain upriver, the water level rises dramatically and it turns into a violent, surging torrent. To survive the very worst of these Gardonades the pillars are solidly built on the rocks on the riverbed and shaped like the prows of ships to offer minimum resistance to the water flowing past. The rock from which the bridge is built is a highly resistant limestone with a high shell content. The Romans maximised its resistant properties by mining enormous blocks from the quarry weighing 6 or 7 tonnes each, which form an extremely resistant mass of rock when stacked together.

Given the scale of this bridge, and the large span of it arches, the Romans employed a technique not frequently used in the Classical World. Each separate arch is a composite of three independent arches, which have been assembled separately, and then joined using locking stones. You can see the three distinct arches in the span of the arch shown below.

I was really taken aback by all the graffiti that has been engraved into the stones over the years. 

Thankfully people have, for the most part, given up on the idea of scoring their initials and the date of their visit into the stones, but I was fascinated by the inscriptions made by the Compagnons du Tour de France. The Compagnons are still alive and flourishing in France, but their roots go back to medieval times. They are artisans and craftsmen who are apprenticed within the Compagnonnage, a kind of super trade guild with its own constitution and secret rites of initiation and codewords. As part of their apprenticeship they spend a year travelling around France to learn through visits to sites where great examples of their craft are to be found. Many of them came to see the bridge, which was recognised as a feat of stone architecture, and they left their initials with drawings of the tools of their trade as a salute to the brilliance of the Roman craftsmen responsible for building it. In the photos below there are a number of stone masons' axes proudly on display.

They tell me that more than 320 initials of Compagnons have been engraved on the bridge. The earliest dates from 1611, and the most recent from 1989. The earliest I found dated from 1767 (bottom right in the collection above). 

No one knows the name of the original Roman architect who designed the bridge, but there is an old Provençal legend that claims it was the Devil himself ... .

You see in the old days, before the bridge was built, it was mighty difficult to get across the river. In particular in the springtime, when the melt waters stormed down to the sea, the placid river became a raging torrent.

And crossing from the rive gauche to the rive droite became a death-defying mission. The people thereabouts were in the habit of wading across where the rocks rose higher and they could keep a steady footing. Few of them had ever learnt to swim. And even if they had, the strongest man would find himself overcome by the surge of the seething river when it was in flood.

Lives were lost, animals perished and the local people, who normally lived peacefully along the banks of the Gardon felt powerless in the face of nature.

Now as it happens a renowned stone mason lived in a little hamlet not far from where the Pont du Gard stands today. Every spring the people would come to him and say: Why don't you build us a bridge across the river, and put an end to all this death and destruction?

It seemed like an impossible task, given the steepness of the banks and the width of the gorge, but the stone mason was a very proud man. He'd spent many years apprenticed to a master mason after which he'd journeyed far and wide across the land perfecting his craft. Eventually his pride in his accomplishments got the better of him and he agreed to accept the commission. He reckoned he'd build a bridge and become the hero of the gorge by saving the people thereabouts from the ravages of the flood waters.

But sometimes what starts out as a straightforward plan has a way of getting painfully complicated. The local people worked hard to supply the stone mason with stones to build the bridge. They all ganged together and worked day and night to construct pillars of stone in the river, which they planned to span with a viaduct.

But before they could finish the work a terrible storm forced them to take shelter in their homes. For three days and three nights a tempest blew, the rain poured and thunder crashed along the valley of the Gardon. Inside their homes the people shivered, suspecting there were evil forces afoot. On the fourth morning, when the elements had calmed down sufficiently, they returned to the river only to find that the force of the water had washed away every last stone of the pillars they had built.

Disheartened, but not defeated, they began from scratch again. Take care, they said to the stone mason. Make sure that the foundations for the pillars are as strong as we can make them this time.

The stone mason felt chastened. Were they criticising his work? How dare they! He vowed that the next set of pillars would withstand the very worst the river could throw at them. He'd build them twice as big and twice as strong. Everyone went to work again, and slowly, slowly massive pillars of stone rose out of the river that were mightier than any that ever been built.

But, as before, a winter storm came and the people fled to their homes as the thunder crashed and the lightening flashed up and down the valley of the Gardon. And next morning, when the people braved the river banks they found that all their work had been washed away like matchsticks on a neap tide.

This time they turned on the stone mason and accused him of not having designed the pillars properly. You held yourself out as the greatest architect of stones, and look how all your fancy learning has been swept away as nothing by the river,  they said. We ought never to have been taken in by you and your false promises spoken with empty, silken words. 

Defeated and dejected in the face of all the criticism the stone mason sat alone by the bank of the river with his head in his hands regretting the day that he had ever boasted of his accomplishments, and thinking dark, suicidal thoughts.

Why, I would give my very soul to the Devil to be finished with this wretched bridge, he said aloud in his despair.

And then in a flash of sulphurous smoke a sinister-looking, horned creature, half man, half beast, stood before him. Its red eyes surveyed him knowingly as it impatiently pawed the earth with a cloven hoof.

For the price of a single soul I could build the bridge for you, if you wanted, the creature said, lisping as though its tongue were deformed. And what's more I could build it so that it would stand until the end of time and never be destroyed by the Gardon.

Really? the stone mason said, regretting for a moment that he'd wagered his soul for the bridge.

Yes, the creature replied knowingly, as though sensing his hesitation. But it need not be your soul. I could take the soul of the first to cross the bridge after it was completed.

Very well. It's a deal, the stone mason replied, feeling relief to have been reprieved his own soul, but also feeling a terrible sense of guilt that he might have paid with the soul of one of his neighbours instead.

You go home and leave me to it, the creature said. When you come back in the morning the greatest bridge the world has ever seen will span this gorge.

The stone mason went home with a heavy heart, and told his wife all that had taken place.

Well it need not cost as much as a human soul, the good woman replied. One of the hunting dogs came home with a hare in its mouth. Curiously it was still alive. Why don't we take the hare to the river at first light, and release it to cross the bridge before any of our neighbours go abroad?

The man agreed, and went to bed feeling relief that the bridge might be built without the forfeit of a human soul. All through the night the earth shook as the Devil carved out huge rocks of stone with his horns and his nails. The man trembled with fear at the ungodly power he had unleashed in the valley.

The next morning, as dawn broke, the stone mason and his wife hurried to the bank of the Gardon with the hare carefully wrapped in a knapsack. As the church bells rang out Lauds, summoning the faithful to morning prayers they released the hare to run across the bridge. The Devil stood at the other side ready to receive his payment, but when he saw that it was only a hare he swore a vile curse and hurled the animal at the wall of the bridge. As the sacred bells of the morning office were still ringing across the valley there was nothing that the evil one could do. The bargain had been made and fulfilled on both sides, and he was forced to flee the scene. But from time to time, however, his anger spills over in the wrath of a Gardonade, and the flood waters hurl his fury at the solid pillars of the bridge that was predestined by him to endure until the end of time.

It is said that you can still see the imprint of the hare beneath one of the upper arches of the bridge. Being very short-sighted I was unable to see it, even using the lens of my camera as a telescope.

Other people say that the supposed outline of a hare is, in fact, a Roman phallus, which the original bridge builders marked on their work to ward off the evil eye.

Whatever the way of it, the bridge is an amazing structure that must surely have inspired awe and led ordinary mortals to believe that it could only ever have been completed with some manner of supernatural intervention.

All the best,

Bonny x

As shared on Our World Tuesday and the Alphabet Project

And if you happen to pass this way by night check out its nocturnal light-show here: Pont du Gard at night.

Or not-very-far-away Perpignan


  1. A delicious recounting of the old tale. Europe, in the olden days, was full of tales of people getting the better of the devil in similar, but not as grand, deals. Beautifully illustrated as well.
    The bridge certainly is a monument to vision and craftsmanship not found in our modern times.

    1. Thank you, Arija. Glad you enjoyed it. And you are so right: just about every old bridge in Provence has some sort of how-we-tricked-the-devil-with-a-stray-cat story. Thanks for stopping by. All the best, Bonny

  2. Fabulous details. Amazing architecture and looks great from a distance.

    1. Thank you, Indrani. Yes, you're absolutely right: it has a fabulous silhouette - especially in the twilight. Thanks for stopping by, Bonny

  3. Replies
    1. Thanks, Jim. It's a stonking great structure. Thanks for stopping by. All the best, Bonny

  4. Calling by from Our World Tuesday, I would love to see the night light show.

    1. It's really something else. Thanks for stopping by, Bonny

  5. You captivated my attention with the tale of the bridge. You photos were awesome and this post was well enjoyed.

    1. Thank you, Ida. Glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for stopping by, Bonny

  6. I am an Architecture graduate and I am so amaze of structures like this! Thanks for sharing amazing photos =) #alphabetphoto

    1. Thanks for stopping by. I'm glad you enjoyed the photographs. All the best, Bonny

  7. Oh wow Bonny what an incredible sight, amazing photographs too. Just wonderful. Would love to get there one day #alphabetphoto