Nimes

Nîmes was taken by the Romans in 121BC, and its location on the crucial via Domitia, the main trade route between Spain and Italy, assured its future prosperity. Over the years it accrued the stuff the Romans did really well, and has retained enough to make it the most important town in France for anyone with an interest in ancient Rome.

The Maison Carrée is one of the best preserved Roman temples, or even buildings, in the world. The reason for this is that in the 4th century it was re-dedicated as a Christian church, so sparing it from the normal destruction of temples that occurred when Christianity became the religion of Rome. It has also served as a meeting hall, a stable for horses during the French Revolution, and now a museum. Until the 18th century it was lost amid adjoining buildings, but now it stands again in splendid isolation as it was designed to do when it dominated the forum of the Roman Nîmes. In recent times the square around it was cleared to reveal the outline of the forum. (‘Maison Carrée’ means ‘square house’, although it was never a house, nor square).

The best preserved Roman amphitheatre is the stunning Arènes of Nîmes, designed on the same lines as Rome’s Colosseum (it is smaller but in better condition). Its internal dimensions are 133m long and 101m wide (436 x 331 ft), and it now holds over 16,000 spectators. Its intricate construction testifies to the genius of Roman engineering. Two layers of 60 arches are topped with pre-drilled stones into which long poles would have been positioned. From these a huge awning would have protected 24,000 spectators from sun and rain. Games, gladiator fight and animal hunts were staged and open to all.

At the highest point of Nîmes, still standing proud is the Tour Magne (Magne Tower), built by Augustus in the 1st century BC. Originally part of the Roman wall around Nîmes, and lookout point over the via Domitia, the Tour Magne now offers a great view over the town and the Mont Ventoux from the top of its 140 steps. There is an orientation table at the top showing how the city looked in Roman times.
Below the Magne Tower is another significant Roman remain, the temple of Diana, secreted in the formal public  gardens called the Fountain Gardens. This was not a temple, nor is any association with Diana clear. It is more likely to have been part of the sanctuary dedicated to the spring at Nîmes, but its true purpose is a mystery. Part of the barrel-vaulted roof remains, with its carvings, and niches for statues.

 

Pont du Gard

As if Nîmes does not have enough Roman construction for one city, it is also served by the tallest Roman aqueduct in the world, the Pont du Gard. This was built to carry water from Uzès to the fountains, baths and homes of Nîmes, to the tune of 44 million gallons a day. The aqueduct itself is 31 miles long but only drops by 56 feet along its entire length, an amazing feat using pretty basic  tools. The Pont du Gard itself is 1500 ft in length but drops less than 1 inch across its span. Almost no mortar was used in its construction, instead stones as heavy as 6 tons were precisely cut to fit together perfectly by friction. In fact this is an early design in Roman aqueduct technology, and it used far more stone than later designs, but this massiveness is what makes it such an iconic structure.

Great care was needed to make the water conduit smooth so the water would flow freely. This was achieved by painting it with olive oil and adding a layer of slaked lime, pork grease and the thick juice of unripe figs.

And the reason it has survived virtually intact? As usual, that is to do with the urge to make money. In the 13th century the French king granted local nobles the right to levy a toll on those crossing the bridge, so it was in their interests to maintain it and stop people from taking the stones to build their own homes.

By the time Pont du Gard attained World Heritage Site status in 1985, the place was a mess, road traffic still crossed the bridge and a colony of illegal tourist shops lined the river banks. This has been cleaned up, the area is pedestrian only, and a new museum tells you all about the technical and artistic masterpiece that is the Pont du Gard.

 

Some visitor reviews of Pont du Gard:

The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau was overwhelmed in 1738:

“I had been told to go and see the Pont du Gard; I did not fail to do so... This time the object surpassed my expectation, for the only time in my life. Only the Romans could have produced such an effect.... 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!"

The novelist Henry James came in 1884 and wrote:

“The hugeness, the solidity, the unexpectedness, the monumental rectitude of the whole thing leave you nothing to say – at the time – and make you stand gazing. You simply feel that it is noble and perfect, that it has the quality of greatness... When the vague twilight began to gather, the lonely valley seemed to fill itself with the shadow of the Roman name, as if the mighty empire were still as erect as the supports of the aqueduct; and it was open to a solitary tourist, sitting there sentimental, to believe that no people has ever been, or will ever be, as great as that, measured, as we measure the greatness of an individual, by the push they gave to what they undertook. The Pont du Gard is one of the three or four deepest impressions they have left; it speaks of them in a manner with which they might have been satisfied. “