Thursday, June 22, 2006

Pont du Gard / Lavender fields.

Los caminos del ocre.

Hmmm....travelling to Pont du Gard was not easy. The bus schedules are really badly thought out because they leave from Avignon at 7:40 a.m. and don't return until 4:30 p.m., thus making you lose a complete day in a visit that, given it is only about 20 kms from Avignon, should take only a couple of hours at most. Sucks too, that I lost my driver's license with my wallet, otherwise I would just simply rent a car, but...{shrug}

So, I did the unthinkable: I booked a guided tour! I am, as you may know, not a big fan of these kinds of things: I can get lost and confused just fine on my own, thank you very much. I truly object to the useless information most tour guides regale you with, and the lack of freedom, and the tight rushed schedule, and the swaying bus, and the chit-chats with people you wouldn't otherwise ordinarily talk to, but it was the only way I could get to Pont du Gard at 9:00 a.m. and be back in Avignon by 12:00 p.m., and through which, now having the afternoon free and given I was already caught up in the tour bandwagon and momentum, I could also catch an afternoon sightsee of the famous Provence lavender fields, which I would not be biking through, as my route heads north, and the best lavender is south from here.

But anyway, I managed to get away from the tour group at Pont du Gard for a while, and while them tourists took interminable pics of the (quite impressive!) aqueduct, I slipped inside the on-site museum, which was way cool because they actually explained what the tour guide did not: the logistics, features, and engineering of the aqueduct and Nîmes, the city it served.

Nîmes, you see, had plenty of water available: the aqueduct wasn't really necessary since the city's water needs up to that point had been sufficiently met by the nearby springs. However, the construction of the aqueduct brought a lot of prestige to the city, and of course, a lot of impressive urban improvements including, get this, houses with running water (!), public fountains, baths, running water sewer systems and toilets, etc. The water (most of the Uzes-Nîmes aqueduct, of which Pont du Gard is only a small section, is subterranean) came into the city in either lead, wooden, or terracotta pipes, all engraved, as today, with the name of the manufacturer. The pipe systems also had regulation valves, and, did you know this, the inhabitants even counted with suction pumps with which to pump water up from the pipes for fire-fighting (remember, this is around 40 A.D.)! Another neat thing associated with this water technology: steam baths with temperature regulation, by means of a bronze dial that basically controlled the air flow into the steam room.

This kind of spiffy engineering was not limited to public urban developments. The whole operation of building the acqueduct took only approximately 15 years to build, and considering its length (50 km) and varying terrain it had to go through, the kind of organization, logistics, and planning for this kind of project had to be superb. Indeed, the route of the aqueduct itself was very carefully surveyed (among the kinds of instruments the engineers had available for these things were the groma and the chorobate, for instance), alternate routes considered, and finally chosen, with engineers and architects brought either all the way from Rome (where this kind of expertise was concentrated), or by calling on the military engineers, while unskilled labor was performed by locals. Not very much unlike how modern civil engineering is done nowadays, eh?

Not only that, the aqueduct had numerous regulation basins to ensure the even flow of water and easy access to the subterranean pipes via inspection chambers, which implies, too, a sizeable constant employment of maintenance workers subsequent to its construction completion. Several organizations were also created to deal with the "public sector" aspects of the acqueduct administration, including levying the water tax, preventing fraud, and all its associated bureaucracies. as a Roman may not have been all that different from now, after all (all they needed, really, was to discover electricity. Maybe it was not too far off, considering the degree of organization, availability of specialists, etc. Roman cities had at the time....Or maybe not. After all, think of what is required, in terms of socio-cultural conditions, in order to produce, for instance, a 3-phase generator. To make some use of electricity, you need to have discovered/invented calculus [No calculus, no Faraday's law or Ampere's law or Maxwell's equations]. To have discovered/invented calculus, you need to have a long period of time where a good part of society is encouraged/allowed to spend time investigating and experimenting with natural penomena for its own sake. This in turns requires the elimination of fanatical religions or superstitious weltanschauungs that burn scientists at the stake for being heretical or witchcrafty, as well as a period of relative peace in which the scientific progress can have the opportunity to focus in improving daily life instead of creating exclusively improvements on war-related technology, not to mention, some sort of either an educated, economically privileged elite with lots of idle time for equations-solving for fun (like you had during the 18th century, for instance), or a way for common people to have idle time to engage in such pursuits and not be constantly occupied with daily all-of-your-available-time-consuming labor--tilling the fields, for instance [and this, of course, is achieved via either specialization or mechanization, the last one, too, requiring its own little set of pre-existing conditions as well!]. Since the Romans were busily running around annexing people, it is not too surprising that the greatest technological innovations came from those kinds of focuses: roads, bridges, city improvements, etc., and driven mostly by the military engineers. But who knows, {shrug}. It is always entertaining, though unproductive, to speculate on the "what ifs" and "if onlys", isn't it?).

The Pont du Gard and Nîmes acqueduct statistics:

Average slope of acqueduct: 25 cm/km.
Average water flow: 250 L/sec.
Complete transit time (from Uzés to Nîmes): 24-36 hrs.

More statistics and acqueduct info at:

Anyway, after a satisfying and informative stroll through the Pont du Gard museum, I headed in the company of 20 or so other tourists to hurriedly drive through some nice Provençal villages (beautiful but tiny Gordes, for instance) and lavender fields. We didn't see much lavender, nor fields, but the town of Roussillon was kind of neat because while the tourists of the bus I was in used up their "generous" full 45 minutes of allotted time in the village to wander about its tourist shops, I speed-hiked Le chemin des Ocres, with some very satisfying results. What a nice yellow coat of dust to complement my spiffy brand new blue suede Pumas! But I kind of liked having it. It is like a little badge of honor, as if announcing to the world: "I hiked the roads of ochre, and you?", which sounds rather poetic, I think. {shrug}

Roussillon is the tiny village that sits atop the largest vein of ochre in Europe. It got its name because the houses were painted all red since they were coated in a mixture of the abundant ochre dust and water just a two-minute hike from village center. The ochre you see in the pics (and the hike and on the mountains) is mixed with sand, so you need to separate it before it is actually used as pigment. Still, a little bit of the (unseparated) dust rubbed on the back of your hand or between your fingers leaves a surprisingly intense saffron and terracotta color that does not rub off until several hours later. I bet that the people of ancient times most surely used this also for cosmetics. Would make great eyeshadow and rouge, I tell you!

Anyway, neat day, in spite of the tour guide blathering. Wished they'd given us a bit more time...

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