The day I went over the top

The Pont du Gard aqueduct is one of the most-visited sites in France. But by turning it into a commercial - and safe - attraction have the authorities spoiled all the fun?

I have no head for heights. Vertigo has ruined more than one tourist expedition, such as when, panic-stricken, I had to rush all the way down the stairs of the Eiffel Tower, and when I refused to come out on to the viewing platform of the Empire State Building. I avoid cable cars and big wheels and keep well away from cliff tops. But never have I been more scared than on top of the Pont du Gard, the 2,000-year-old Roman aqueduct near the southern French city of Nîmes.

I have no head for heights. Vertigo has ruined more than one tourist expedition, such as when, panic-stricken, I had to rush all the way down the stairs of the Eiffel Tower, and when I refused to come out on to the viewing platform of the Empire State Building. I avoid cable cars and big wheels and keep well away from cliff tops. But never have I been more scared than on top of the Pont du Gard, the 2,000-year-old Roman aqueduct near the southern French city of Nîmes.

It wasn't so much the height itself (although 150 feet is quite high enough for a phobic), but the fact that the top tier of this vast structure had nothing in the way of railings or any other safety feature. You simply walked along an uneven stone surface with the abyss only feet away on either side.

If you could bring yourself to look down, you would have seen the dark blue waters of the river Gardon below and distant outcrops of sun-bleached rocks. Ahead, and seemingly very far away, was the hillside and safety. Most alarming was the regular appearance of large ventilation holes in the centre of the aqueduct's stones, forcing you to pass around on a strip of rock no more than a few feet wide.

My personal nightmare came one afternoon in March 1978 when, with a group of French friends, I rashly decided to walk across the top of the aqueduct. With the mistral providing sharp lateral gusts of cold wind and the light beginning to fade, conditions were not ideal. About a quarter of the way across, a vague sense of anxiety suddenly gave way to dread. The gulf, as they say, yawned. A horrible magnetism seemed to pull me sideways. Dropping to my hands and knees, I crawled to the nearest ventilation hole and dropped in, staggering the rest of the way along the claustrophobic conduit that once carried the aqueduct's water supply.

I do not know how many people ever fell off the Pont du Gard, but locals always said that it was a favoured spot for suicides. What amazed me, however, was how it exemplified a classically French attitude towards safety and responsibility. There were simply no rules or prohibitions, not even a warning sign. And visitors responded accordingly. You would see families sitting on the edge, literally dangling their feet into space. Frail old ladies and toddlers fearlessly roamed across the top, while in the height of summer crowds jostled for space. Picnics were eaten, many photographs taken, countless cigarette ends flicked over the edge.

Even more bizarrely, the aqueduct was until quite recently part of the road network, and you could drive over the wide first level as a gratuitous and scenic diversion on your way from Uzès to Avignon. It was, it seems, originally intended as a bridge for Roman chariots and then was further widened in the 18th century so that cannon could be pulled across. Subsequently it became a section of the D986 and a thoroughfare for cars, caravans and much else.

No longer. The road was closed to traffic soon after Unesco declared the Pont du Gard a listed historic site in 1985. Since 1995 the top level of the aqueduct has been closed and the conduit bricked up. In 1996 the Conseil Général voted to grant a 50-year concession to the Nîmes Chamber of Commerce to run the site as a commercial proposition. In 2000, after €32m (£20.5m) of investment from local sources, Unesco and the EU, the new Pont du Gard opened its doors.

Gone are the hair-raising walks across the top tier and the joyrides across the bridge. Much of the informality (or chaos) that used to dominate a visit has been replaced by a smooth efficiency and concern for public safety. Where once people would leave their cars wherever they could, they are now directed into enormous new carparks. The walkways to the aqueduct have been remodelled and landscaped, with explanatory panels. It is no longer acceptable to scramble up the surrounding hillsides or hurl stones into the waters below. The ice-cream and frites stalls that mushroomed around the site in the high season have been swept away. Good behaviour is expected, and security guards buzz around on little motorbikes as if to enforce it.

An underground visitor centre and museum, the Grande Expo, explains how the aqueduct was built to carry 30,000 litres of water each day to Roman Nîmes from near Uzès along a 30-mile pipe. You learn how it was started in 19bc on the order of Marcus Agrippa and how it consists of three tiers of arches, running 900 feet across the Gardon river valley, constructed of huge blocks of local stone without cement. The interactive education facility invites children to ponder the importance of water, to imagine themselves in Roman times and to learn about the surrounding environment. For some unfathomable reason, they are accompanied throughout by a guide called Tom the Rabbit. There are, of course, gift shops, restaurants and cafés, and at night, the aqueduct is illuminated by a son-et-lumière show.

Yet for all the good taste and cultural seriousness, the new Pont du Gard is looking more in danger of collapse than during the bad old days of laissez-faire. Leaving aside the considerable investment, the project has lost more than €6m (£3.6m) since the reopening in 2000. The Nîmes Chamber of Commerce, it is reported, is urgently looking for private finance as staff have been laid off and facilities closed to save money.

The problem is not that people do not come to the Pont du Gard. In 2001 some 1.4 million visitors passed through, making it the second biggest tourist attraction in France (after the Eiffel Tower or the Mont-St-Michel, depending on who you believe). The bad news for the investors is rather that only 60,000 people paid the £8 or so to enter the Grande Expo instead of the 400,000 estimated in the business plan. Most, it seems, merely parked their cars, walked down to the river banks and spent a pleasant day eating a picnic, swimming in the Gardon and gazing up at the huge honey-coloured structure above them.

Critics of the renovation plan can hardly conceal their glee. They talk scathingly of the "bunker" (the museum), claiming that it costs too much, is too worthy and is unlikely to compete with the thrill of seeing the aqueduct for real. Judging by the numbers of people swarming over the bridge and competing for space on the stony river banks, they seem to have a point. And reassuringly, that French penchant for danger and showing off has not been entirely banished. Young men still leap from the lower tier or from the surrounding high rocks into the water, drawing applause from spectators.

There is a picture of something suspiciously like the Pont du Gard on the new €5 note (although the Austrian designer has claimed it is not a specific building). The image both reinforces the aqueduct's iconic status and ironically reflects its current financial predicament. Fortunately, I can see nobody walking, or crawling, along its top.

Travellers' Guide

Getting there: James Ferguson flew with Ryanair (0871 246 0000, www.ryanair.com) to Nîmes from London Stansted for £88.36 return.

Accommodation: For hotels in Nîmes, ranging from budget to luxury, check out www.ot-nimes.fr. An alternative is the Hostellerie Le Castellas, (00 33 4 66 22 8 888, le-castellas@avignon-et-provence.com) in the nearby village of Collias, where canoes can be rented for trips along the Gardon. Double rooms cost from €106.50 (£68) a night.



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