Wednesday 24 February 2016

I travelled far, without moving at all

Some days you come a long way without actually travelling that far, or actually doing that much. Today was such a day. Just a simple trip across from Montpellier to Grasse, via Nimes and Avignon, and a wonderful lunch in Rochefort du Gard.

In many ways it was a peek down memory lane, as I had spent time in the south of France many years ago. A very wonderful gentleman and I spent a couple of weeks in the three ‘a’s’ – Arles, Aix-en-Provence and Antibes. It was one of the first holidays we’d done independently – young and fancy free in the mid-90s - and it was a world of winging it and cramming far too much in. Nothing changes… One particular day saw us cycling into Avignon from Arles, and then getting utterly lost looking for the Pont du Gard. This was fairly standard in a world before satnav and smart phones.

Oh. And even now…

Needless to say after more than 40km in a day on hired bikes in the summer heat there was very little sense of humour left. We never did find the bridge either. But I remember getting the train back from Avignon and demolishing three lion bars from a vending machine there! And so memories are forged out of desperate and challenging holiday moments. That day was up there with Portuguese bedbugs, nearly expiring up Monte Baldo near Malcesine, and near death experiences on the road in Rovinj. Why would anyone want to come on holiday with me?

Anyway when I saw our proximity to NĂ®mes this morning, I wondered about trying to find this bridge. In my mind it was one of those impossible things. Something that you might write down in response to a desire list…‘I desire to see the multiple arches of a two thousand year old golden-stoned Roman aqueduct’.

Someone today wondered why seeing this particular bridge was such a dream. When I mentioned this to her-who-is-currently-writing nearby, she said simply ‘why not’. That is one view, but some places in your head become so remote that you don’t think you’re ever going to reach them. My dad was the first to mention this bridge to me in various instructive discussions about Roman technology and engineering so it was always something to which I had aspired to see.

We arrived in the bright sunshine after an incredible ride through a dreamy bluescape of grasses, water and mist. White horses and busy bird life completed the magical feeling of the place, so when we got out of the car, I was ready for something special. I was not to be disappointed.

I’m not the only one who has felt like this. Various literary works have been inspired by the Pont du Gard, with its bridging of past and present. Jean-Jacques Rousseau said, ‘The resounding impact of my steps as I walk beneath these mighty arches made me think I could almost hear the voices of those who built them. I was lost, like an insect, in its immensity. I felt, though small and insignificant, that something unknown was lifting my soul and I said to myself, ‘Am I not a Roman!’.

And even on seeing the Coliseum, or the arenas in Arles or Verona, it still held me more spellbound because it combines the practical with the beautiful. The Roman empire was built on plentiful water, as well as entertainment and bloodshed, and Stendhal's emotions upon discovering the monument are familiar, ‘as I turn to face the Gard bridge, my soul is thrown into a deep and prolonged sense of astonishment. The Coliseum in Rome never saw me plunge so deeply into such a state of reverie’.

The arches stretched across the impossibly still and turquoise river water, reflecting circles back and forth. The white river bed rock and the green trees behind just added to the perfection of colour. It seemed natural to negotiate the rocks and approach the bridge from below, needing to touch the massive base, with reverence. Looking up at the monumentality of it was breath taking.

Heading up the dry river bank, we ascended into the woodland and the damp shade. It wasn’t hot but the sun was definitely making itself known. Tiny pale yellow daffodils were peeking out and the leaves were unfurling; moss was enjoying the light whilst worrying about the drying heat. Unsuitable shoes meant that the going up was interesting; the famous last words about not needing walking boots were being muttered. Still at least she wasn’t wearing heels…

The bridge had disappeared for a while whilst we enjoyed the climb. A gap in the trees suddenly enabled us to see the full span and we were same height as the guys in harnesses carrying out work at the upper levels. The spires of a distant church spire appeared within the arches, framing the scene, whilst the blue of the sky made the ancient yellow stone sing and glow.

Heading back down the hill, we emerged into the sunlight at the same level as the water channel, as well as the rough hewn tunnel through the rock. Straight lines of engineering genius to ensure water was brought efficiently from A-B. Down below the river just laughs at this precision. It can. It still flows, unlike the Roman watery technology…their ancient channel is now dry and closed off.

The bridge is now a reminder of a great engineering past; a monument to the unknown architect and his workmen. It no longer carries out the job it was designed to do but it now enhances the landscape around. I had no wish to walk across it; emphasising its nowhere to nowhere unpurpose, but seeing it seems to carry on my theme of symbolic crossings, and for that it works perfectly. By observing its arches, I travelled far, without moving at all.

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