Le Pont du Gard
You don’t have to be in the Languedoc for long before you hear about (or see a postcard of) the Pont du Gard. It’s one of the region’s most famous landmarks, and a huge draw for visitors (over a million make the pilgrimage every year to stand and stare at this almighty aqueduct, built by the Romans in the middle of the first century AD and now one of France’s top five tourist attractions).
I have to admit, Roman ruins (even very well-preserved ones) tend to leave me cold. I’m more of a modernist, and I’d prefer to use my shoe leather walking round present-day marvels of architectural design and engineering (among my current Languedoc favourites are Nimes’ Carré d’Art contemporary art museum, designed by Sir Norman Foster, and his other meisterwerk, the Millau viaduct). I’m not a total philistine (hell, I even pulled off an A grade in Latin O level). It’s just that when in Rome, I’d rather do as the Romans do and go browse the boutiques on via del Corso than schlep round the Colosseum with the masses.
So I waited several years before relenting and making my way to the Gard département’s biggest (quite literally) tourist attraction. Along with my under-enthusiastic children, I was ready to snore my socks off.
I was blown away. The sheer size of the thing is gob-smacking, and the fact that it was built entirely without mortar, in the days when monster cranes simply didn’t exist, impressed my kids (the stones, some of which weigh up to six tons, are held together with iron clamps, and were lifted into place by block and tackle with a massive, man-powered treadmill providing the power for the winch. Ooff). They held it up with scaffolding while it was being built (you can still see some of the supports sticking out), and the thousand-odd blokes who achieved this fabulous feat of engineering must have been mighty glad when it was completed.
Let’s add some contemporary perspective here. Most new build projects in the Languedoc take 12–18 months from ground breaking to completion. This one took five years. So a little bit longer to wait, but a helluva lot more impressive than most of the developments I’ve seen round these parts.
What I really like about the Pont du Gard is this: the people responsible for this mega site don’t just let it sit there and rest on its Roman laurels. Au contraire. First they spend €32 million on a decent visitor centre, complete with Ludotheque area for children and some proper toilets and catering facilities. Then they commission world-renowned contemporary artist James Turrell to create a light-based work that makes the Pont du Gard come alive after dark. They work with pyrotechnics experts Groupe F to put on displays that light up the bridge and the sky with dazzling colours. And they stage concerts and events at this UNESCO World Heritage site that make it appeal to spotty teens, impoverished students, techno fans and sundry folk like me who would normally run a mile from Roman ruins.
For more details, see www.pontdugard.fr or call 0820 903 330 (within France) or +33 (0)4 66 37 50 99 from abroad.