22 July: A few years ago, someone told me a story about a Roman aqueduct that transported water from the Alpilles across the plain to Arles. Having located one end of the remains, many, many years passed before the other end of the aqueduct was allegedly found by an Englishman in his garden near Fontvielle.
In the absolute middle of nowhere – well, nowhere I’ve ever been – I meet three old boys walking down a windy lane deep in conversation. Where had they come from and where were they going? Maybe they’re the French version of Last of the Summer Wine. I wind down the window and enquire as to the whereabouts of the Roman aqueduct. Naturally, this causes a huge amount of discussion and repetition of the words ‘Roman aqueduct’. One of them decides I need to be driving in the direction of Fontvielle, a notion with which the other two agree. As it happens, I’m currently on a road from Fontvielle. However, further arm waving and heated debate infers there might be a better road to Fontvielle; prettier perhaps; less overgrown; possibly not as lonely. There’s no apparent consensus. ‘I know’, I suggest, ‘I’ll turn round’. I make a helpful circling motion with my index finger. ‘Mais oui’, they all agree, ‘turn round’.
I jam my car, a la mode francais, into a small space on the side of the road along with three others. Looking up, I notice that I have, previously this morning, driven through the remains of an arch. I also spot a curly arrow painted in blue on a tree trunk. That would be the directions then.
People spent centuries looking for this aqueduct. When I tried to find it earlier, I could understand why it had taken them so long. Now I’ve finally located it, I can’t understand how they’d missed it. Surely it’s not another Glanum whereby folk spent eons wandering past a Roman triumphal arch outside St Remy without considering it might mark the entrance to somewhere – like a Roman city on the other side of the road that they didn’t notice until well into the twentieth century.
Ok, the aqueduct is in a state of disrepair but there’s still a lot of it: columns and arches marching past somebody’s garden and off into the olive groves for nearly a mile. You can imagine people in that house moaning about constant piles of rubble on the other side of their fence. Of course, this being France, they don’t give you any clues. Like a sign. Or a car park. If the concept of a visitor centre was ever introduced in this country, someone could make a fortune. Mind you, I like the idea of unspoilt heritage; it’s the unknown, uncared-for history that worries me.
Some way along, I see a sign and feel I might have been too judgemental: at last, there will be a placard to offer me historical information. The sign turns out to be an advert that the olive farmer has placed there in the interests of opportunistic marketing. Don’t get me wrong. This was a most fantastic experience amongst the groves that were fairly rattling with the sounds of cicadas. It truly can’t have been that different when the aqueduct was functioning – same (or similar) olive trees, same cicadas, same gigantic butterflies all under the same pristine blue skies.
At what seems to be the far end of the aqueduct, it’s possible to walk for a short way along the course the water would have taken. I tried it. Not one of my better ideas. The whole thing ends suddenly – obviously without any warning – at a point where there is a sheer drop onto the plain below. I don’t even make it to the end because I can see what’s coming. Instead, I clamber, with some difficulty, up a stony bank that is cleaved by ancient man-made grooves not designed for the footwear of the elderly. At least I can see the view without feeling the fear.
I think the story about the Englishman finding the end of an aqueduct in his garden was wrong. Of course they must have known this bit was here – it’s the other end that’s missing.
Wikipedia has a couple of interesting things to say about the Barbegal Aqueduct and Mill:
1) It has been acknowledged as the greatest known concentration of mechanical power in the ancient world.
2) It is not known if the authorities intend to restore the remains at some time in the future, or provide more information and assistance to visitors.