Centuries of settlers have left their stamp on Gard, making it a diverse and delightful place to visit, as Eleanor O’Kane discovers during an autumn visit she describes in Living France.
It’s not surprising the stone slabs of the Pont du Gard are the golden colour of just-baked bread; they’ve been toasting in the heat of the Mediterranean sun for a staggering 1,000 years. Rising to a height of 48 metres above the River Gardon, whose inky blue waters flow between the six arches of its first tier, this majestic bridge is one of those monuments, like the pyramids of Egypt, that become more impressive the more you learn about its construction. A UNESCO World Heritage monument, the stones that form this mortar-free bridge have been standing firm for centuries with nothing other than the ingenuity of Roman engineering holding them tight.
The Romans first passed through Gard in 118 BC during the construction of the first Roman road built in Gaul, the Via Domitia, which linked Italy to Spain. It was built over an existing road that, legend has it, was used by Hercules and Hannibal. Stretching from Italy, across the Alps and into modern-day Briançon in Haute-Alpes, across southern France to Perpignan then over the border into Spain, it facilitated the movement of the Emperor’s army and helped general communication across the Roman Empire. Less than 100 years later, a settlement was established in what is now Nîmes, capital of Gard, which became a thriving Roman town called Nemausus.
Civilised Roman towns required a great deal of water to feed their mansions, bath houses and public fountains and around their empire, the Romans constructed around 50 aqueducts to transport the water that was so key to their daily needs, including the aqueduct of Nîmes, which was built during 40-60 AD. The Pont du Gard is the most visible and impressive section of the 50-km-long aqueduct, a system of bridges, tunnels and pipes that carried 20 million gallons of clean water to Nemausus daily.
On a bright September day, the sun was shining as we parked on the rive gauche at the Site Pont du Gard, the modern visitor complex that receives 1.3 million visitors every year to this ancient site. From the car park follow the signs to the bridge and you’ll first come across the museum, which explains how the bridge was built, but also shows visitors why water was such a key element in Roman life. Walking around the exhibits, we marvelled at the sophisticated Roman systems of architecture and engineering as well as the advanced ways in which Roman households used the water that the aqueduct brought.
Feeling better informed, we emerged back into the sunshine and, following other clusters of tourists towards the bridge, passed ancient olive trees that twisted up from the dry limestone soil. Suddenly out of the deep green of the garrigue – as the Mediterranean landscape is known – the three tiers and 54 golden arches of the Pont du Gard appeared before us. As a picture postcard scene, this is one of France’s most impressive, but our new understanding of how the bridge was constructed made the sight of the Pont du Gard all the more awe-inspiring.
Another interesting aspect to the Site Pont du Gard is the Memoires de Garrigue, a 15-hectare protected plot devoted to helping visitors understand the fragrant scrubland of vines, oaks, olive trees and herbs such as thyme, lavender and sage that make up the Mediterranean landscape. Escaping the crowds around the bridge, we meandered along one of the suggested routes in this peaceful place, learning more about this timeless landscape that existed long before the Romans passed through.
Gard is a diverse department, offering many different landscapes and traditions as you travel around it. To the north, the wilderness of the Cévennes national park cradles ancient traditions such as transhumance, when sheep are led to and from mountain pastures twice yearly. In the south of the department, the influences are Mediterranean, with the Camargue traditions such as bullfighting strong in many towns and villages. The Uzège, as the landscape around the Pont du Gard is known, comprises a cluster of charming villages such as Remoulins and Castillon-du-Gard – known for their historic stone buildings heritage – and is characterised by deep gorges of the Gardon valley, created over centuries as the river carves its way through the dry, rocky land.
North of the Uzège, the charming town of Uzès sits high on a plateau among Gard’s garrigue. On our approach, we looked up to admire the ornate Tour Fenestrelle, which looms over the mass of creamy stone buildings that make up the town. Built at the beginning of the 12th century, its elegance and unique form make it the only one of its kind in France. Uzès actually has three historic towers, once owned by and signifying the power of the dukes, bishops and politicians who ruled here. Originally a medieval stronghold, Uzès continued to prosper in the 17th and 18th centuries due to the linen and silk trades. The Uzétien architecture tells the tale of its stages of development, with narrow streets lined with wonky medieval houses giving way to grandiose Renaissance mansions and classical buildings from the 18th century such as the Église St-Étienne.
Uzès was one of the first to benefit from French statesman André Malraux’s 1965 law to preserve heritage buildings across France, and as you walk around the town, there’s a distinct feeling of harmony in the architecture. We walked to Promenade Jean-Racine, which affords a view of all three towers and is a popular spot for sitting, contemplating and gazing to the garrigue at the Alzon Valley below. Beyond us lay the River Eure and the starting place of the aqueduct of Nîmes. The promenade is named after the 17th-century poet Jean Racine, who came here for a year when he was 22.
Supposed to be undertaking theological study, he fell in love with the garrigue and gastronomy of the Uzège region, famously writing: “Et nous avons des plus belles nuits que vos jours” or “Our nights are more beautiful than your days.” Since Racine, many have fallen for the charms of the town including Gwilym Cox and Alexis van Diense, the owners of luxurious maison d’hôtes L’Albiousse. Former owners of a restaurant in Paris, Gwilym and Alexis relocated to the south and bought a large stone house in the heart of the town dating from the 16th-18th centuries in which to establish their maison d’hôtes business.
We wandered into the Place aux Herbes, the picturesque arcaded square surrounded by large 17th- and 18th-century houses, where the Saturday market was in full swing. Droves of people emerged from the stone passageways at the corners clutching empty bags while those with overloaded baskets stopped for a coffee and a catch-up on the sun-dappled square before leaving. As we browsed we were greeted by cheery stallholders who joked with customers and each other as they sold homemade honey and jams, fat bunches of lavender, tiny discs of pungent goat’s cheese and, on one stall, huge ostrich eggs. I remarked to one smiling vendor that rarely does such a picture-perfect town as Uzès manage to retain such a genuine feel.
As its name suggests, the village of St-Quentin-la-Poterie is known for its superior clay, which has enticed potters and ceramicists to live and work here since the 14th century although pottery dating from the Neolithic era has been found here. Once a huge centre of industry, in the Middle Ages, the tiles for the Pope’s Palace in Avignon were produced in St-Quentin, more than 100,000 of them.
Although during the 19th century there were 300 kilns in the village, the last large-scale production was really seen in the 1950s. Happily, in the early 1980s the village became a magnet for potters once again and now there is a thriving international community of potters and artists. On the sloping Rue de la Fontaine we came across non-potter Lucy Till sitting in her airy atelier surrounded by hats. A milliner who previously worked for historic military hat-maker Herbert Johnson, she moved here with her husband and children in 2002 after watching an episode of No Going Back.
Now she runs courses in hat making and takes commissions as well as designing what she describes as “English-style” hats, explaining they are of a simpler design than their French counterparts. Further into the village we bumped into Doug Stoddart, who runs Village Vélo, a bike hire business. A former IT professional with a love of cycling, Doug bought a holiday home in the Uzège in 2003, intending to visit periodically. A year later he quit his career in the UK and, with his partner Lynn, moved here full-time to run painting and cycling holidays. Now, Village Vélo is a thriving business and Taste Provence, the couple’s holiday company, also offers wine-tasting experiences.
A hidden past
Next morning, before heading back to Nîmes, the capital of the Gard department, to get our flight home we headed west for Vézénobres, a vertical village perched high above the garrigue. A small village with a big history: it was on the Chemin de Regordane or Way of St-Giles, the most important pilgrim path in France during the Middle Ages, which snaked through the south carrying crusaders from Le-Puy-en-Velay towards Jerusalem.
Now, with its cafés, historic stone houses and medieval mairie, this village de charactère seems the archetypal French village. It’s exciting to imagine that several centuries ago, its narrow streets would have been packed with knights and pilgrims fired up with religious fervour, exotic Moors from faraway lands, as well as Genoan and Pisan merchants, who used the chemin to transport delicate silks and luxurious linens from the Mediterranean northwards to Champagne and Paris.
For many centuries, local women would dry the figs in special racks on the terraces of their homes, a practice that made the town prosper until the silk industry took over. In 1997, the link with the past was reestablished with the first fig festival. Now every year, the fresh fig is honoured in August at La Figoulade, while in October Les Journées Méditerranéennes de la Figue fetes its dry counterpart. As the name suggests, every year a Mediterranean fig-producing region is invited to share the figgy fun; this year, it’s the turn of Tuscany.
(c) Living France