Friday, May 20, 2011

Conquering the Romans

Friday, May 20
Today we learned that denim comes from Nîmes (de Nîmes) but we were actually looking for Romans. Janis and Clark were interested in seeing some good Roman ruins, so we head off toward Nîmes for our second long day. We had to get up early (Clark wants to know when we can have a sleep-in day), but we did take time to have soft-boiled eggs with our croissants. And the eggs were delicious. Soft and creamy and perfecto! Just like we got them fresh from the market, says Dave.

Everyone got hot water this morning for their showers, which, as Clark notes has been unusual. We've learned that this is an on-demand system and so it's possible if two people are using the shower at the same time the shower turns cold for one of the two people (usually the one with soapy hair).

We head off to the Pont du Gard by 8:30 arriving an hour and a half later. Nîmes weather today is supposed to be sunny and 24 degrees (about 75) but I'm sure it was higher - in the 80's, especially in the hot, paved center of town.

Janis, Clark and Dave look around about an hour while I find a shady bench with a view of the Pont du Gard. Another lovely place to do needlework.

(Clark photo)

Dave is unable to persuade Janis and Clark to hike to viewpoints or to see other parts of the aquaduct further off. They have learned from their experience at Gorges d'Héric to be wary of Dave's hiking suggestions.

Besides, we have a schedule to keep. We must leave Nîmes by 5 to get home in time to grill the lamb.

We leave at 11:20 to drive into Nîmes and find traffic to be as difficult as when Dave, Judy and Duane came here. It takes us about 40 minutes to cover the 25 km between the Pont du Gard and Nîmes. But we find a parking place in a garage at the Porte d'Auguste which is on the the Green Guide walking tour. (Clark is impressed by the smallness of the spaces that require us to get out of the car before it is parked.)

(Clark photo)

But the spot is convenient. We eat lunch on some stones on the shady side of St Baudille church.

We have the not very well-marked walking tour of the old town in the Green Guide and start following the walking tour backwards, making our way to the Maison Carrée in the center of town. (Actually, Lynn wants to stop at the tourist office by the Maison Carrée to get a proper map of the town.)

Nîmes has some of the best preserved Roman monuments around. It was an important Roman colony that reached its peak in the 2nd century AD. As a result, there is an intact arena (like a smaller version of the Coliesum in Rome) and an intact temple (the Maison Carrée). Apparently these two buildings managed to escape being dismantled as building material for their already quarried stones due to how well they were built. They are some of the best preserved Roman ruins in Europe. Worth a view.

The old center of Nîmes is triangular in shape, ringed by 3 large traffic streets that follow the lines of the medieval town walls. Its streets are a jumble of small medieval alleys which are now pedestrian walkways and lined with modern shops. Janis is on the hunt for baby clothes and we find 2 shops. The first is a second-hand baby clothes store whose items are really inexpensive and in like-new condition. The second is a franchise shop, Du Pareil au Même. (Quick French lesson: "du pareil au même" means "six of one, half dozen of the other" or "it makes no difference". It's apparently frequently used in French conversation, but why it's the name of a baby store, I have no idea.)

Shopping done, we continue along the streets weaving our way towards the Maison Carrée, the only fully preserved Roman temple of the ancient Roman world. It is majestically situated so that as you leave on of these closed in small alleyways, it suddenly appears right in front of you, dominating the square around you, a blaze of white in the sun. It is situated in the center of a large square of marble tiles which has no trees or other visual distractions on it. It sits a few below street level as the modern city is a couple feet higher now than the monument. The monument has been cleaned recently because its columns almost glow in their whiteness, unlike the grey, city-dirty buildings on the streets around it.

You are drawn to climb its stairs which appear on only the front side. Magnificant carvings and friezes line the ceiling of the portico, the tops of columns, and under the roof line of the building.

There's an entrance fee and really nothing to see inside except a movie called Nimes heroes. The temple was built in the first century AD and would have been the center of the forum. It is dedicated to Augustus Ceasar's grandsons.

We move on to the tourist office, which we've been assiduously avoiding until the magic two o'clock hour. As it turns out, this is the first office du tourisme we've seen that is actually open during the magic lunch hours. We get our maps and descriptions in English and head back enroute to the arena.

Like the temple, this arena or amphitheatre is fully intact, unlike its larger cousin, the Coliseum in Rome. It is still used today for bull fighting.

In fact, Nîmes has a large "feria" during Pentecost featuring a running of the bulls and multiple days of bullfights. This year's feria is June 8-13 and we can see that the streets are being prepared for the running of the bulls. There are wooden planks tied around the trees on the streets and cement barriers on the street side of the trees.

We pay our admission and get audio guides in English. The sun broils us on the interior as we listen to our first few stations. Now we are directed to climb to the upper edges of the arena, which I decline to do, choosing instead to do needlework on the steps inside the galleries. Clark heard someone ask where they put the "old people" steps because some of these steps are almost impossible to climb up they are so tall. He had been wondering the same thing too.

Our audioguide and a museum under the galleries teaches us about the various types of gladiators and the types of entertainments usually held in the arenas. Animal hunts, killing of prisoners, gladiator combats, all these make Janis and I queasy. We're ready to leave after about an hour of exploring.

Clark finds a macho gladiator coffee mug in the shop on the way out. Quite a souvenir, Clark.

On our way back to the car, we stop for ice cream at a "salon de thé". We talk about the heat of the day with the woman who serves us who also speaks an American accented English. Unusual in this area where most French have a British accent to their English, having been taught by British-trained teachers. We also watch a couple exiting a car decorated with ribbons and flowers. There is an entourage of well-dressed people and we realize that we are across the street from the "Hotel de Ville" (city hall) and we're viewing a wedding.

Here's some info on classic French weddings:
"In a classic French wedding two ceremonies take place, one a civil ceremony at the town or city hall that acts as a private wedding, only open to those close to the bride and groom. The second ceremony, a religious one, is public and open to all. After the religious ceremony there is a reception, called a Vin d'honneur in French that is open to all, it acts as a public reception. Following this is a dinner that like the first ceremony is only for close friends and family.

The civil ceremony is very short, it lasts less than fifteen minutes. The mayor will read a section from the French constitution that lists the responsibilities that the couple will need to fulfill in their marriage. The mayor then ask the bride and groom individually if they accept the other in marriage and then they are declared husband and wife. Of the two ceremonies in a classic French wedding, the civil one is the only one that is legal."

Back at the car, we wind our way out of town following Olga's directions which seem a bit convoluted at times. It is slow going because we are now in rush hour traffic in a city that seems to have a major traffic problem anyway. The highway is also crowded as it's Friday night and the weekenders are on their way somewhere. But we make it home by 6:45, plenty of time for aperos and dinner.

Dinner tonight will be grilled shoulder of lamb. Janis prepares the lamb and freezes a bit of extra along with the bones for a future lamb stew. I cut veggies for ratatouille which Janis prepares at the stove. Clark starts the fire, using our gathered vine twigs as tinder. Soon the smells of roasting lamb and the garlic and onions of the ratatouille whet our appetites.

The meal is so satisfying all we can say is "aah" at the end. The lamb is cooked to perfection, tender and mild. And it isn't even dark when we finish eating.

After dishes, Dave is begging for a cribbage game. I decline and go to bed early (10:30), but Janis and Clark take the bait and endure what seem to be made-up rules that allow Dave to beat them both.

Tomorrow is a sleep-in day. We have made reservations for dinner at La Galinière and Janis and I will do some baby shopping in the morning and we'll eat lunch at home before heading over toward Capestang for the afternoon and evening.

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