Pont du Gard: Artistry and Functionality

Several months ago I visited the Colosseum in Rome. I expected to be impressed by this grand, ancient structure. I wasn’t disappointed.

I’m delighted by the ancient Roman ruins throughout France, especially by the functional arenas in Nimes and Arles and the crytoportico beneath Arles’ City Center. Throughout southern France aqueducts, ruined walls, and magnificent stone monuments pay tribute the Roman influence on their French neighbors.

After living among these ruins and still-functioning structures of the ancient Romans for a year, I was surprised by the Pont du Gard.

Set in a remote area, the ancient Roman bridge/aquaduct rises from an otherwise tranquil and beautiful landscape. And perhaps this adds to the awe it inspires. Nearly 1,000 feet long and 164 feet high, the three-tiered structure spans the River Gardon, which reflects its majestic display of arches.

This artistic tribute to Roman architecture served a functional purpose for nearly five centuries. It is the best preserved and most impressive portion of a 31-mile aquaduct built in the middle of the 1st Century A.D. to supply water to the fountains and baths of Nemausus, known today as the City of Nimes. In studies of Roman aquaducts, it has been discovered to be one of the empire’s highest capacity water systems. In later centuries, rich landowners garnished income by charging tolls to those who traversed the river using the lower level.

The interior walls of the aquaduct were coated with lime, pork grease, and the juice of unripe figs to insure a smooth and easy flow of water.

Records do not name the original architect, although some have attributed the building of the pont to Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, a general in Octavia’s army and a close friend of the future Emperor. After his successful military career, Agrippa returned to Rome and became responsible for improving the city’s physical infrastructure, including repairing aquaducts and building fountains. More recent excavations have led researchers to believe, however, that the aquaduct of Nimes was built later, around 40-60 A.D., because the water utility bypassed certain tunnels known to have been built by Augustus.

For the future monarchs of France, the pont became a way to associate themselves with the former greatness of the Roman empire. Napoleon III ordered renovation to the bridge. Charles IX of France and Louis XVI included visits to the Roman structure on their tours of France.

The bridge inspired artists and many writers. Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote:

“One asks oneself what force has transported these enormous stones so far from any quarry, and what brought together the arms of so many thousands of men in a place where none of them live. I wandered about the three storeys of this superb edifice although my respect for it almost kept me from daring to trample it underfoot. The echo of my footsteps under these immense vaults made me imagine that I heard the strong voices of those who had built them. I felt myself lost like an insect in that immensity. While making myself small, I felt an indefinable something that raised up my soul, and I said to myself with a sigh, “Why was I not born a Roman!”

This olive tree at the base of the Pont du Gard is believed to be approximately 1,000 years old.

Today the bridge is one of France’s most visited ancient sites. Visitors can walk the bridge to view the handicraft of masons and laborers who quarried the yellow limestone from the river banks and stacked, rather than mortared, precisely cut stone. The site surrounding the pont is beautifully and naturally preserved. Several miles of carefully cultivated land allow explorers to revisit the agricultural history of the Mediterranean and see others parts of the aquaduct, most of which was built underground. Approaching the bridge on foot, don’t miss the giant olive trees, estimated to be approximately 1,000 years old.

Pont du Gard is a World Heritage Site and a Grand Site de France.

Watch this short video about the Pont du Gard.

“Volets” en France

One of my old, charming volet's on my old, charming house in the South of France.

I’m fascinated by volets in France, what we Americans call “shutters.” In the States they are stationary, ornamental additions to houses. In France you can actually open and close the shutters.

I love getting up in the morning and throwing open the volets. (Forgive my romantic imagery.) It’s like a statement that says, good morning, I’m ready to start my day.

Besides the fact that I find them charming, volets in France are practical.

Today it’s raining and the infamous “mistral” (wind storm) has arrived. Mon amour quickly closed the volets. You see, in France you can actually close the shutters, you know, like in the movie “Gone with the Wind.” The shutters keep the rain from beating against the windows and keep the wind from breaking them.

Shutters also keep out the cold air. When you don’t have double-paned glass, as in most of these old French homes, shutters serve as insulation. I’ve been grateful for our volets on many a cold and windy day.

Probably my favorite practical use of the volets is to keep out the sun. Every night before we go to bed we close the shutters. In the morning I can sleep in the darkness until I’m ready to get up. Of course, sometimes I sleep later than I should; but on weekends I love sleeping in and not having the morning sun tell me it’s time to get up.

In summer the volets keep out the sun and heat. I love a sunny home with lots of windows, but again, in an old French home with no central air conditioning, the volets offer a welcome reprieve from the hot sun that beats down in summer in the South of France.

So if you decide to spend your holiday in the South of France, make good use of the volets. You can sleep in, and then throw open the volets when you’re ready to greet the day.

The Death Empire of Paris: The Catacombs

This inscription marks the entrance to the public area of the catacombs of Paris: Arrêter! C’est Ici l’Empire de la Mort. “Stop! This is the Empire of the Dead.”

The Catacombs of Paris, public access

This cryptic message warns visitors to the site of what lies beyond: the bones of the deceased; a subterraneal burial ground containing the dismembered skeletons from Paris’ numerous above-ground cemeteries. Bones line tunnels and are artistically arrayed in underground rooms. Tourists can descend into this public crypt to take in the eerie spectacle where in the 1700s the bones were deposited due to overcrowding in Paris’ above-ground cemeteries.

But beyond this is underground tomb of bones lies a series of  tunnels of which few are aware and fewer have passed. It’s difficult to believe that such a massive structure (more than 170 miles of tunnels) could exist so secretly beneath one of the most famous and well-traveled cities of the world, but the lost catacombs stretch beneath Paris. Today they are explored by a sub-culture that refer to themselves as cataphiles, and the complex tunnel system is patrolled by the cataflics, special police who look out for invaders to the catacombs. Entrance was made illegal in 1955.

Wall of Bones, Catacombs of Paris

I stumbled across this secret society and it’s lair while listening to an online podcast. Details, necessarily so, are sketchy, but apparently the sub-culture consists of urban explorers, artists, veteran inhabitants escaping the stress of living above ground, and the rare, but occasional tourist who finds an access.

Access to the former quarries that were used to build the city itself is illegal because it is dangerous. People get lost and die in the complex system of tunnels. Some areas are flooded and sometimes there are cave-ins. But these dangers and the cata-police don’t stop numerous visitors to the catacombs who explore, make maps, have dinner parties, and create make-shift art studios.

During war-time the catacombs were used as bomb shelters. The Germans set up a base in one portion of the tunnel system during World War II. Smugglers have used the underground as a hideout, and religious ceremonies have been carried out in Paris’ most secret place. Although access to the tunnels is illegal, openings are all over the city and so numerous that they can’t be closed off and patrolled.

You can find lots of information on the Web about the catacombs, both the public and non-public sectors. But you’ll have a difficult time locating a cataphile to escort you to this dark underground. Even the most experienced cataphiles will tell you never enter the tunnels without a guide or you may never come out.

The catacombs of Paris and a journey into the unknown.

The history of the catacombs video from BBC News:
What lies beneath the catacombs of Paris. 

Domaine de Bel Air

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This gallery contains 7 photos.

In April, I had the opportunity to be at a soirée for the start of the wine season at Domain de Bel Air, the home, vineyard, and winery of Didier and Isabelle Michel. The winery opened for the season with an all-day affair, attracting locals and tourists to taste the first wines of the harvest. Continue reading