Lost In Limoges

From the sheep-dotted pastures of France's underpopulated Southwest, Limoges rises in all its grey glory. The city's claim to fame: fine porcelain. The half-timbered houses of the Medieval center are surrounded by strip malls and McDo. Land-hungry Brits descend with flailing pocketbooks (thanks, RyanAir). The weather is remarkably cool year-round. Sure, I live on rue de Nice, but this is NOT the Cote d'Azur. Welcome to Limoges, "the middle of nowhere"-- or as Pierre says "everywhere"-- France.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Pont du Gard Near Nimes

Warning: More ecstatic descriptions of ancient Roman ruins to follow. Just 21 kilometers from Nîmes, the Pont du Gard stands as the exquisite monument to the Romans’s technical prowess. The 49 perfect arches of the aqueduct dwarf the rocky gorges and swift currents of the River Gardon. Built in AD 38 to carry water from a spring near Uzès to Nîmes, the Pont du Gard is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (which means it's packed with tourists). In fact, it's one of the most visited sites in the world.

The Augustan capital of Nîmes required 20,000 cubic meters of water per day, and this water crossed the river at a height of 48 meters. There is a 50-km network of aqueducts and canals linking the urban center with the water source (vestiges of parts of the aqueduct are visible along the route, but the Pont is the best-preserved part of the water system). Construction required 14 years, 50,000 tonnes of stone, and a thousand workers.

It's a quick (and pretty) drive from Nîmes, passing vineyards, green fields stained with red poppies, and stone walls stretching as far as the eye can see. These white stone walls are distinctive of the region, meandering along zig-zagged property lines to fence in the herds of sheep. We also noticed domed stone huts, like igloos, tucked in corners beneath olive groves. (Storage places for grain, hide-outs for shepherds? No-one knows...) For millennia, this Mediterranean landscape has been molded by its inhabitants. The river gorges are awesome (despite the nasty hair-pin turns on the country roads).

At the Pont, daring kids dove off the rocks beneath the arches. A pedestrian bridge has been built side-by-side with the aqueduct-- actually touching it. When Pierre last visited this monument as a kid, visitors were allowed to walk across the top of the aqueduct. This time around, we climbed the hill on the right bank to check out the top. Scaling the cliffs and winding through beautiful scenery, the hiking trails provide excellent vistas.

On the return, we decided to stop and check out the charming city of Uzès, where the Duché (with flag fluttering in the wind) towers over the narrow little streets. We stumbled upon an outdoor market-- aromatic with spices and Provencal soap-- and I was in heaven. The Place aux Herbes is one of the prettiest outdoor squares I've ever seen.

Pictured: Views from both upstream and downstream; the top of the aqueduct, high above the treetops; I get all contemplative about the Romans's brilliance; the leafy Place in Uzès where I stocked up on soap and lusted after colorful marzipan candies in the coolest candy shop I've ever seen (my own kind of paradise); spices and hats in the market.


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