Today we marvelled at ancient structures and were frustrated by modern rail. Our goal today was to see the Roman sites in Nîmes and then cycle towards the Pont du Gard and onward to Avignon if light permitted. However our plans were slightly thrown askew when one of the sites was closed in the morning and wouldn’t open until 2pm. We decided it was worthwhile waiting.
In the morning we visited the best-preserved Roman arena in the world. It is 20th in size of the arenas built by the Romans and has maintained it’s structural integrity as being in constant use since its erection around 100 AD. Today is it still used as a public arena including hosting 2 bullfighting festivals a year, I believe the only site in France where the killing of bulls in sport still takes place. Its original purpose was to house the gladiator games. There was very good audioguide that went through the history of the arena, the gladiator sport including the different types of gladiators, and bullfighting. Contrary to popular belief, gladiators at he height of the Roman Empire where free men who had choosen to be trained in the art of fighting. Definitely prisoners and slaves at times in history also were forced to play the role. It was also rare that the losing gladiator was killed during the games as the host had to pay a settlement to the owner of the school under which the gladiator had been trained. Still the death of the gladiator was often demaded from the crowd if it was felt he had not fought well or shown adequate bravery.
After gladiator fights were banned in around 400 AD, the arena was retrofitted first as a fortress for the Visigoths and then in later years it functioned as a castle and then housed a village.
I have to marvel at the Roman’s mastery of engineering and building. The arena was built from massive blocks of stone and pieced together without mortar. Very fine precision work on a massive scale. The Romans are credited with the development of the arch and they used this structural element liberally.
The Maison Carré is the best preserved Roman temple. It’s portico is composed of Coronithian columns rather suggestive of Ancient Greece. It is suggested that while the overall design is Roman, the architect might have originated from the Nîmes area as there were a number of local motifs incorporated into the design.
We also spent part of the day trying to figure out train schedules. We feel like we are out of time. We leave in a week but factoring how much time we may have to spend on trains, this isn’t a lot. Also the information we get from the ticket office is confusing. Something in writing will say we can wheel our bikes onto certain trains to take us into Italy but the ticket agent then say only to Nice and no bikes allowed on the Italian trains. Bryan seemed to think it was wrong about the Italian trains so we doubled checked on the internet. It seems as long as we can get into Italy, we can get to Florence and Rome – even if just taking local trains and a circuitous route. But still it is sounding like we can only get as far as Nice in France which will mean a day of cycling to cross the border. Should be a beautiful cycle but I remember the roads being very curvy and there are hills. My dreaded enemy with a loaded bike. Next time I’m equiping my bike with the granniest of granny gears.
In the Maison Carré, they showed a 3-D feature focusing on some of the greatest moments in Nîmes. One of the clips showed a Matador from the local area battling a bull by enticing him with a colorful cape. The movements were beautiful and graceful but the thought of that bull later meeting his death at the hands of his teaser was prominent in my mind. The corridas are often called a display of skill and strength by the matador. I can’t keep feeling that it isn’t exactly a fair fight. The matador is highly trained in the instincts of the bull whereas the bull is simply acting on insincts – which leads him into the trap. Now if the bull could be trained on how to fight a matador, or was a little loco and did not follow instincts, now that would be a match up. But what can I really say? I’ve never seen a bullfight and probably never will.
At 4 pm we decided to still head towards the Pont du Gard realizing we would have to stop shortly before the site with the impending darkness. We had a long climb out of Nîmes rewarded by a 7 km downhill stretched that snaked through a canyon. Spectacular views which I would have like to catch on film but there was no truly safe place to pull the side. Afterwards we cycled through the stereotypical Provence landscape with the warm-toned earth, grapevines, and rolling hills. Around dusk I noticed a sign for camping at an equestrian farm. I figured it was possibly still open and we headed up the hill. The camping was closed but we spoke to the owner who said we could put up a tent. So Bryan cooked us up a supper and we are spending possibly our last night in France camping. It has been a while since we’ve used the tent and the smell is quite musty.