Discovering the Pont du Gard acqueduct on the long Roman road to Uzes, Lucy Pitts finds an area of outstanding beauty with a slow and gentle rhythm and a delicious 17th Century hotel in the south of France…
If you’re ever lucky enough to find yourself in Montpellier or one of her neighbouring cities, you must find the time to escape to the rolling countryside of the Languedoc and in particular the Gard region to the East. This is the landscape of deep valleys and gorges and of the distinctive Garrigue, that carpet of fragrant green grey scrubland which clings to the rugged, limestone hills. It is quintessentially French Mediterranean, politely interrupted by vineyards groaning with fruit, olive groves, low stone houses which glow in the sunshine and the long, straight, tree lined roads you expect from this part of France.
And despite its undeniable claim to a medieval time, this is an area which is also soaked in the influence of the Romans and never have those Romanesque ghosts been more apparent, than at one of the region’s most notable attractions, that magnificent aqueduct known as the Pont du Gard.
The Pont du Gard aqueduct France
This giant of an engineering masterpiece is 3 stories and 50 metres high, 2,000 years old and the largest of all the Roman aqueducts built in an amazing 5 years to fuel the Roman thirst for luxury. It stands shimmering in the barren heat against miles of unspoilt landscape and in total defiance of the centuries.
A trip to the aqueduct’s museum, where all the guides have a passionate and in depth understanding of its story, helps conjure up both the violent sweat and toil of the slaves that built it in the inescapable heat and the lavish lifestyle of those it served for 5 centuries. And take a guide to the top course of the aqueduct which looks down on the breath-taking gorge of La Gardon and walk where the water once flowed from the spring of the Eure near Uzes to the fountains and baths of the wealthy Romans of Nimes. If ever a monument captured the spirit and essence of an era, it is here and this is a place to be savoured and absorbed.
And if you have the time, try exploring some of the 370 km of footpaths through the Garrigue or take a dip in the cool clear waters of the Gardon, as its beaches bask in the shade of the aqueduct. I don’t know whether it’s the cool feel of the soft limestone, the sound of echoing footsteps on stone stairways or just the sheer size and beauty of its ancient arches set against the backdrop of vast gorges and emerald green waters, but this massive structure straddling the banks of the River Gardon is utterly captivating.
La Bégude Saint Pierre: A serendipitous coach house
After a long, sticky day exploring the stunning gorges of the Gardon or climbing the steps of the Pont du Gard, a short drive will bring you to a 17th century coach house, tucked off the road to Uzes.
La Bégude Saint Pierre is the antithesis of the buzzing crowds of the aqueduct and dozes contentedly in its wall garden, with brightly coloured flowers falling over its walls and hanging quietly from its arches. Renovated just over a year ago by its current owner John Van Daaen and his family, La Bégude is the very definition of serendipity. It’s a place where elegance, serenity, comfort and superb cuisine fuse together with the old and the new and where you can expect cool flagstones and yawning stone fireplaces to blend seamlessly with morning views from your room, of the sun rising over the mountains and the fragrant scent of the wild lavender, thyme and rosemary of the Garrigue, as they tremble in anticipation of the new day.
There’s plenty of reminders of its past, with its heavy stone water troughs, ivy glad wooden cart slumbering in a corner and converted stables and it’s easy to imagine the horses of two hundred ago, as they pulled up in the central courtyard. But there is also more than a passing nod to the talents of today with the light-hearted metal sculptures of Ndary Lo (a Senegalese artist who now lives in Paris) and evocative, brightly coloured works of art, which bring a sense of luxe and decadence to the cool colours of the rooms.
Take dinner on the terrace by the pool, to the sound of the cicadas and expect to be teased by an exquisite, seasonally inspired menu and seduced by its local wines. Pan fried cherries in a raspberry vinegar, roasted coal fish with rosemary garlic and “grenaille” potatoes, followed by baked peaches with a floatingly light pastry and a candyfloss sorbet, will ease you into a deliciously indulgent sense of wellbeing.
The Gard is a place which sways with a slow and gentle rhythm of its own. It’s a place where exploring the history and the landscape will take your imagination through the centuries and back and where places like La Bégude will soothe and restore you. It’s rugged yet soft, hot yet calming, barren yet lush. It’s a beautiful contradiction and a region not to be rushed.
Lucy Pitts is a reporter for The Good Life France and freelance copywriter who divides her time between the UK and the Vendée, France