Tour des Fouilles (15): The Roman bridge of Vaison and the miracle of 1992

Vaison-la-Romaine is famous for its Roman remains. The settlement - a city in size, but without walls or a regular street grid - was the main city of the Gaulish tribe of the Vocontii. There are two major exacavations around the centre of the town, and they are a regional tourist hotspot. You can see the remains of urban villas, of several bath complexes, of streets with shops, and of a theatre, and the museum has a great collection of art objects found during the excavation of the site, which happened in the early twentieth century. It is, in other words, one of those sites that archaeologists would recommend to friends, family and other interested non-specialists. Vaison also has a Roman bridge, crossing the Ouvèze, connecting the city to the road that ran on the other side.

Vaison-la-Romaine, Pont Romain: View from the east -

As you can see, the bridge is built of stone blocks, and its core is a semicircular arch, with a span of 17m. Note also that the bridge is high: the distance between the water and the highest point of the arch is more than ten meter. Some readers will know that the arch was (like concrete) one of those very practical Roman innovations that completely changed the game of infrastructure construction: without arches, it was much harder to build secure bridges (and thus roads).

The bridge at Vaison-la-Romaine is one of many Roman bridges that are still standing.Yet, in some respect, that is kind of a miracle. For, as the valley here is rather small, things may get quickly out of hand when there excessive quantities of rain fall in a short period, which happens quite regularly in the Mediterranean. The fact that the bridge in 2000 years has never been washed away by torrential rain in itself is a compliment to Roman construction. All the more, if you realize how bad things can get in Vaison. The below video shows what happened on September 22, 1992:

It is a spectacular film, but this was actually quite a big disaster. 35 people lost their lives in the region, a lot of property was damaged, the entire archaeological site went under water. But de bridge stood there, stubbornly refusing to give in - while entire caravans were smashed to pieces against its arch. Indeed, some modern bridges proved less durable on that day. And, one may add: this can hardly have been the first time that something like this happened at this place in the last 2000 years.