Leaving Barcelona was considerably less stressful than arriving. Paul had planned our departure and it went like clockwork.
We were booked on a French TGV train to Nimes, first class, no less. We were upstairs in what could only be described as armchairs, with a table to write on. The ride was incredibly smooth; it was hard to believe we were travelling at 200 kilometres per hour.
Our arrival at Nimes was similarly smooth. We headed straight for a taxi. “Parlez-vous Anglais?”
“Non Madame”, the taxi driver politely replied.
So I showed him the address we wanted, after a very poor attempt at reading it out (including saying “sixteen” instead of “seize” for the street number), and he took us straight there.
Antoine, our landlord, was on the street waiting for us and he took us up to our home for the next five nights. Our accommodation was a small studio apartment at the back of his house. It is tastefully decorated and immaculate. Antoine had also been to the tourist information centre and got us brochures, maps, bus timetables, and a pamphlet on the annual Roman festival that just happened to be on this weekend.
After some unpacking we went straight to a local bakery for lunch. The young lady behind the counter spoke no English. We selected a couple of filled Paninis and she directed us to a table. I think her boss must have reminded her that they were due to close so after a few exasperated looks and gesticulating by her and some nodding and Ahs by us, she got the message across and we took our toasted Paninis home.
We rested a little and then ventured to the centre of the village for a reconnaissance.
Nimes was originally founded in the 6th century BC by the Volcae Arecomici, a Celtic tribe, who settled around a spring that became Nimes’ water supply (until the aqueduct built by the Romans in the 1st century AD that brought water from Uzès, about 28 kilometres away).
The Romans arrived (on the way to Barcelona apparently) in 120 BC and Nimes became a Roman colony. During this period it was a prosperous city with many extravagant monuments including the amphitheatre; Maison Carrée (the square house); Le Temple di Diane; and Tour Magne, all built in the 1st century AD.
Nimes is also the home of denim. Nimes was famous for textile manufacturing in the 17th century. Cotton was imported and then the dye plant indigo (from Italy). ‘Serge de Nimes’ was developed. It was renowned for its strength due to oblique weaving with at least two threads.
Nimes exported the serge to New York. It was known a ‘bleu de Genes’ (Genoan blue) and was Anglicised to ‘blue jeans’. During the US gold rushes Levi Strauss bought a batch of this cloth (batch number 501) to make strong, cheap trousers for miners. And so the story goes, the most famous jeans in the world were born!
We bought a few grocery items from a Carrefour supermarket in the old town. We kept our purchases to a minimum, firstly because we wanted to visit the fresh food markets next morning, and secondly because most of the items were “Carrefour” branded. It felt a bit like shopping in Woolies or Coles back home where the product choices are gradually being constrained to the no name or supermarket brands.
We whipped up a pasta for dinner and with a Bordeaux and a Heineken in hand we sat down to watch the Barcelona F1 that Paul had downloaded.
Saturday morning we ventured out in search of tickets for “Les Grands Jeux Romains”, the annual Roman festival that happened to coincide with our visit. Our first stop was the tourist information centre. We were given directions and advice for the tickets and also for a visit to Pont du Gard, including new printed timetables. Excellent service!
Then we headed over to the arena to buy our tickets. Once again, a smooth and easy transaction. We were heading for the fresh food markets so we followed the procession of Roman soldiers, Celtic fighters, gladiators, and Roman women that were heading in the same general direction. We stocked up on our usual fare; fresh fruit and veges, cheese, cured meats, and Paul’s breadstick, and headed home for lunch and a siesta via the bus depot to confirm arrangements for Sunday’s visit to Pont du Gard.
The arena (simply known as Les Arènes) is one of Nimes’ most famous monuments, and one of south west France’s notable Roman structures. It seats around 24,000 people and was built around 100 AD as the centre of entertainment for the thriving Roman city. It is still in regular use, including for bullfights, but public executions are no longer held there. It has been plundered for rock over the years, and as Nimes expanded and then contracted, during the Middle Ages, it housed the entire settlement. The buildings have since been removed from the arena and it is back to serving its intended purpose, as an amphitheatre.
Today’s show in the arena started at 4.30pm. We had second row seats (which in Roman times would have indicated high social status) and an almost uninterrupted view of the action. Of course, the commentary was in French, but we were able to interpret everything. We waved our white napkins to encourage Caesar to spare the lives of slaves and gladiators, and cheered along with the rest of the crowd when their lives were spared, or not.
This year’s pageant celebrated the 2000th anniversary of the death of Augustus, and proceeded with fights; chariot racing; dancing nymphs with an extraordinarily strong, agile eunuch who performed gymnastic feats; and amazing horseman who manoeuvred themselves on, over and under their galloping horses.
Then the senate came into the arena and Julius Caesar arrived borne by chariot. When he dismounted his carriage, the senators assassinated him each striking a blow with their knives.
The finale was the battle of Philippi between Mark Antony’s troops which included the local Celts, and the soldiers of the Caesar’s assassins. As history would attest, Mark Antony won, and the arena was strewn with dead bodies.
It was a wonderful afternoon’s entertainment which was even better being staged inside a 2000-year-old arena.
We hung around in the arena, walking up as high as we could and taking pictures until we were booted out. On our many circuits outside the arena we had seen a stall where a woman and two men, dressed in Roman garb, and selling ‘authentic’ Roman jewellery, tools, and swords. One of the men was making sandals. We had seen the shoemaker before, and he seemed like a bit of a character.
As we walked past this afternoon he was trying to get a little girl to hold a suit of chain mail they had on a coat hanger. Paul asked if he could have a go, and then I did. The man insisted instead that I wear the chain mail so I duly put it on. It was heavy!
Paul took a couple of photos (one with a Senator who had snuck up behind me), and then the shoemaker said “Avec moi”, and the next photo was with him. When I was undressed and we were leaving, Paul shook the shoemaker’s hand. I went to do the same. “Non, non, the European way”, and he kissed me on both cheeks. What a great way to finish off the afternoon’s Roman entertainment!
That night, over our pasta dinner, we watched the video footage we had taken of the show (which should concern anyone who lives close enough to be subjected to our home movies when we get back). There was so much happening during the show that we had missed a lot first time around. It was great reliving it through the lens.
The weather forecast for Saturday and Sunday was good, but deteriorated Monday, so we headed to Pont du Gard on Sunday morning. We caught the bus with an incredibly friendly bus driver who spoke no English but did his damnedest to explain where he would pick us up that afternoon.
Pont du Gard is part of the aqueduct built to transport water from Uzès to Nimes during Nimes’ heyday as a Roman settlement. The existing bridge is smaller than the original, but is still over 250 metres long at the top and nearly 50 metres tall. It was an astounding feat of engineering and construction nearly 2000 years ago, and took only five years to complete. You can probably safely assume that maintaining that pace came at huge cost to the lives of the workers conscripted for the construction.
We spent about three hours wandering over, under and above the bridge. It is a magnificent structure crossing the pretty Gardon River valley. As the day wore on the numbers of people grew. They inspected the bridge, sat and ate lunch at the many viewing points, picnicked on the riverside, or sketched the monument. Many were in their bathers, but not many ventured into the water. It looked clear, clean, and cold.
We found a peaceful spot upstream above the bridge to appreciate the view.
As expected, Monday was a dreary day. We set aside the day for R&R, journal writing and clothes washing. We spent the morning indoors, but by mid-afternoon we were ready to stretch our legs so we headed into town to buy a new tablet for me. I had carelessly lost mine the day before on our outing to Pont du Gard.
Purchases in hand we headed for Jardins de la Fontaine (the gardens of the fountain) overlooking Nimes. On the way we stopped off at Maison Carrée (the square house). The entry ticket gave us admission to a movie explaining the history of Nimes and the square house. The film was quite well done, and we recognised some of the performers from Saturday’s Les Grands Jeux Romains. Sadly, that was all we got to see. There doesn’t appear to be any other access to the interior of the building so see the interior architecture. The outside of the building is bright white having undergone cleaning and renovation.
We followed the canal to the Jardins de la Fontaine. The gardens have been built on the site of a spring that was the original source of water for Nimes (when it was known as Nemausus), and the Celtic tribes worshipped the spring.
The gardens spread up the side of Mont Cavalier that overlooks Nimes. At the top of the mountain are the ruins of La Tour Magne. This was the largest of the towers along the seven kilometre wall that formed the perimeter of the Roman city in the 1st century AD. The tower is about 30 metres tall with an internal staircase of 140 steps. From the top the view of Nimes and the surrounding countryside stretches to the Alps.
At the bottom of the gardens is the ruins of the Temple de Diane. Little is known about the Temple of Diane, except that it was most probably associated with the main Roman temple, but nowadays it seems to be a meeting place for Nimes’ youth to do a bit of skylarking.
We walked back along Avenue Jean Jaurès which is apparently an attempt to emulate Barcelona’s La Rambla. It is a broad thoroughfare with traffic down both sides, and a broad pedestrian space up the middle. In a lot of respects it is prettier than La Rambla, but it lacks the closeness and chaos of Barcelona’s most famous street.
A few things about Nimes stood out to me today:
We noticed in Barcelona that a lot of people have dogs, mostly small dogs, and they are out walking their dogs at all times of day. However, the only time I saw a piece of dog poo in Barcelona it was being picked up by the dog’s owner.
Around Nimes people seem to take their dogs everywhere, and there is little regard for cleaning up after their pets. Consequently there is dog poo ground into the pavement everywhere. In the Jardins de la Fontaine the smell of dog poo was so insidious that I checked my shoes more than once to make sure it wasn’t coming from me.
Here in the old part of Nimes most of the streets are very narrow. Consequently you don’t see too many larger cars. Just about every car has scrapes and scratches on the side, front and/or rear panels.
It would also appear that the mirrors are used as a tool to determine whether you are parking close enough to the building. Just about every mirror is scathed from scratching along the side of buildings (or other obstacles). There is little regard paid to ‘no parking’ signs, or lines marking out the boundaries of parking spaces.
I guess the inevitability of it means you just accept that your car won’t stay in pristine condition in this place.
Tuesday was another dreary day and it reflected in my mood. I was no sooner out of bed and I felt like climbing back under the doona. We were to catch the bus to Uzès, but I couldn’t muster the motivation, and luckily Paul took little convincing.
Instead we ventured to Les Halles de Nimes (the halls of Nimes), the fresh produce markets. These markets are open every day from dawn until 11am. La Boqueria they aren’t. They are on the ground floor of the local shopping centre and, being well lit, with wide aisles, and only a fraction of the people, they lack the hustle and bustle and the atmosphere of Barcelona’s La Boqueria.
But they sell fresh fruit and veges, meats, cheese, antipasto, salads, quiches, everything we needed. At one stall there were olives, garlic cloves, and chillies all marinating in large wok-like vats. There was also a range of spreads of olive, pepper, tomato, aubergine, and anchovies. The lady behind the counter encouraged us to try what we wanted so it was a bit of a no-brainer to stock up there for our antipasto dinner. We also bought cheese, cured meat, champignons and stuffed peppers from other stalls, and I felt like such a cheapskate taking a 6-egg carton to carry my single “oeuf” that I refused my one cent change. This received a rousing round of thank yous in multiple languages from the man behind the counter. I think he was pretty sure I wasn’t French, so I guess he thought he’d cover his bases.
Our outing done, we took a meandering route home for lunch and a lazy afternoon, and of course, packing.
At 9pm we headed out again for a night shoot. It was a beautiful night, still a bit overcast, cool but not cold. Our main targets were the Maison Carrée, and Les Arènes. These are impressive buildings by day, but seeing them lit up at night is another thing.
Oddly we never felt uncomfortable walking around Barcelona irrespective of the time of day. However, I am told that youth unemployment is high around Nimes, and while we were out walking at night we encountered many groups of young people dotted around the village centre. They invariably carried plastic bottles of drink, and on one occasion we were approached by one young lady. We raised our hands in lack of understanding and continued on. When I add to this yesterday’s experience seeing young people drinking at the Temple de Diane, my gut told me I was glad Paul and I were out walking together. I appreciate that this could happen almost anywhere, and it is just a matter of managing one’s circumstances.
Old Nimes is a thoroughly charming town. Our experience here has been just wonderful, and after the bustle and crowds of Barcelona, it was wonderful to experience a more laid-back atmosphere. It is well worth the visit to drink in the marvellous 2000-year history of the place, and to see some truly impressive Roman buildings.
Next stop, Nice!