A Roman Day in The Gard: As something of a self-styled amateur historian of the ancient world, you can only imagine the excitement and awe in which I greeted the magnificent aqueduct of the Pont du Gard in the Southern France area of The Gard early one Autumn morning. As always with French monuments of this kind, the approach to the monument is beautifully showcased with information galore and tantalising glimpses of the urban construction we have come to see. All of which leads to a sense of occasion as you are finally presented with the highest Roman aqueduct in the world, along with being one of the best preserved. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985 and is a Grand Site de France. There’s also an extraordinary museum on site which shows visitors how the Pont was built and the exceptional engineering expertise of its Roman builders.
Crossing the Gardon River, near Vers-Pont-du-Gard, the Pont du Gard forms part of the Nîmes aqueduct, a 50-km (31 mile) system built in the first century AD to carry water from a spring in Uzès to the Roman colony of Nemausus (Nîmes).
It has three tiers of arches, standing 48.8 m (160 ft) tall and it carried an estimated 200,000 m3 (44,000,000 imp gal) of water a day to the fountains, baths and homes of the citizens of Nîmes.
With our head in the clouds, we came swiftly back down to earth with a visit to a vineyard – a noted vineyard – Domaine de Poulvarel – which housed a secret. Located in the village of Sernhac, 10 km downstream of the Pont Du Gard, lie a couple of tunnels dating back to the building of the Pont du Gard and which formed part of the water distribution system – the Tunnel de la Perrotte and the Tunnel des Chanterelles, discovered in 1974. The current owners used to play in them when they were children and now, they form part of an unusual visit to this family vineyard. It’s even possible to still see the axe marks used by the Roman masons as they constructed the tunnels. Every Friday, from May – August, they take groups of six people for a visit of the tunnels, of their cellars and a wine tasting – all for €5 per person. The entire experience takes around 2.15 hours and is suitable for children over the age of 8 years of age. Owner Pascal Glas has paid his own homage to these tunnels by naming his two most prestigious vintages after them. Delicious they are too …
Our day continued with our final destination, the city of Nîmes and the beautifully preserved Maison Carrée, a stunning Roman temple in the heart of Nîmes. One of the best views of it can be seen from the rooftop café restaurant, Le Ciel de Nîmes. This restaurant sits atop a nine-story structure – the Carré d’Art – designed by Sir Norman Foster. With half the building underground, the building’s height keeps the profile in sympathy with the scale of the surrounding buildings and its transparency, (through which you can view the Maison Carrée), ensures a perfect harmony between old and new – the columns of Rome echoed in the steel girders of Foster.
In fact, the Maison Carrée is an example of Vitruvian architecture, built to honour Augustus’s adopted heirs, Gaius and Lucius Caesar who unfortunately died young. Raised on a 2.85 m high podium, the temple dominated the forum of the Roman city, forming a rectangle almost twice as long as it is wide, measuring 26.42 m by 13.54 m. A large door (6.87 m high by 3.27 m wide) leads to the surprisingly small and windowless interior, where the shrine was originally housed.
The Maison Carrée inspired the neoclassical Église de la Madeleine in Paris, St. Marcellinus Church in Rogalin, Poland, and in the United States the Virginia State Capitol, which was designed by Thomas Jefferson, who had a stucco model made of the Maison Carrée while he was minister to France in 1785.
The undoubted highlight of Nîmes however is The Amphitheatre. The design shows the degree of finesse and sophistication attained by Roman engineers with the design and construction of this form of public building. Oval-shaped, measuring 133 metres long and 101 metres wide, with an arena of 68 x 38 metres, it is 21 metres high with the façade comprising of two floors of sixty arches and an attic. You can still see the pre-drilled stones at the top – into these, long poles were hung over the area with a huge canvas canopy attached to provide protection for the spectators against the elements. The stone for the amphitheatre came from quarries in Roquemaillères and Baruthel, not far from the city.
In Roman times, the monument could hold 24,000 spectators spread over 34 rows of terraces divided into four separate areas or maeniana. Each was accessed via a gallery and hundred of stairwells and passages called vomitories. This clever arrangement meant that there was no risk of bottlenecks when the spectators flooded in.
Unusually, we were allowed access onto the arena’s floor area on our visit which really gives you a vivid idea of how it must have felt to be either an animal, gladiator or Christian back in the day. An extra-ordinary monument in pristine condition, Nîmes Amphitheatre still hosts events today though of a less gory nature. A Roman museum is currently being built adjacent to the arena.
Where to eat: Le Ciel de Nîmes is a bright and buzzy café-restaurant located on the top floor of the Carrée d’Art and it features a wide terrace overlooking the rooftops of Nîmes and the central square with the Maison Carrée. Expect great, well-priced food with friendly (and cheeky) service. Alternatively, for dinner, try the unforgettable Restaurant Vincent Croizard. Diners have to knock on an anonymous front door to obtain entry to the sleek and stylish restaurant hidden behind. This is dining as theatre, an event to be savoured – an occasion for indulgent gastronomy. Just wonderful.
Where to stay: Appart’City Nîmes Arènes – a new (and well priced) three star apartment hotel which has just opened. It’s styled in a classic, contemporary manner in a beautifully restored mansion. Use the Parking de Arènes opposite.
Contributor & photographer: Sue Lowry
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