Monday, 9 June 2008


After my morning at Pont du Gard I had the afternoon in Nimes, which was a really lovely city. Nimes is actually where denim comes from. The story goes that during the 18th century the large protestant middle class, which had been banned from government jobs and various other things started to make a fabric known as serge. This fabric was stained blue and was popular among workers. Then Levi Strauss, an immigrant to the USA, started to make trousers for the gold miners in California. He wanted the clothes to be durable and after experimenting with tent canvas he settled on serge de Nimes, or serge from Nimes, and from that we got the word denim, so there you go.

This city seemed very wealthy, particularly in the old part of town, but then also a relaxed feel to it. The old city part was fantastic and some of the Roman ruins were amazing. The thing I liked best was their amphitheatre which is still in use today. They do bullfighting there, which I didn't realise they did in the south of France, but I guess they are kind of close to Spain. In fact the non-French speaking bus drivers I spoke to when trying to get to Pont du Gard were in fact Spanish.

Les Arenes, as the amphitheatre is known, was built in 100AD to house 24 000 people. The audio guide was fantastically informative and explained how initially the gladiators were respected and their fights almost never ended in death, but then as the Roman empire disintegrated and the Vandals started attacking the culture started to break down, until the end it was nothing much more than a blood bath. Apparently during the barbarian invasions the townspeople took shelter in the amphitheatre as all the rich people had already left the town for safety elsewhere. In fact there were a few hundred people people living here once they had turned the walls into ramparts as it was the only semi-safe place at that time. These buildings remained until the 18th century when they were knocked down and the amphitheatre returned to it's present form.

As you can see they don't go in much for health and safety in France, see if you can pick what I'm talking about. Their only concession to any sort of regulation was a sign saying "parents please hold on to your children" as you got further up the seating area. At one point there was a massive hole in the wall, and I'm talking big enough to drive a bus through, on the 3rd floor, no fence or railing, nothing. You could go right to the edge and peer out if you wanted to, Australian OH&S would have an absolute field day in France.

Another awesome Roman artifact, I don't really want to call them ruins as there is nothing really ruined about them, is the Maison Carree, which comes from the archaic French of "carre long" which meant long square, ie rectangle. It was built between 19-16BC to honour Emperor Augustus' two adopted sons. It is meant to be one of the best preserved Roman temples anywhere in the old Roman empire and it was saved from destruction because it was converted to a christian church in the 4th century. It has been a temple, church, residence, stable (during the French revolution), archive storage and is now a museum. I love how the revolutionaries seemed to go out of their way to desecrate anything that may have previously been cared for, "an ancient Roman temple, we don't care, let's put our horses in there, that's a good idea".

It wasn't all just Roman ruins though, there was also the Jardins de la Fontaine, or the fountain gardens. These are meant to be the first civic gardens in France, being built between 1738-1755. They were centred on a spring and in Roman times there were baths and a temple here. This was actually the first place I have ever heard proper ululating going on, it was pretty cool. There was a wedding procession going on and so people were beating drums and every now and again one of the women would start full-on ululating. I felt a little sorry for the bride though as it had been raining all day and she was having to pick her way through all the mud and puddles in her white dress and little shoes. At least she had a fair few bridesmaids/hangers-on to hold her dress up. These were some really lovely gardens though and quite large stretching up the hill to the Tour Magne, which was an old Roman tower (can't escape those Romans for long in this town) which used to be part of the 7km ramparts of Nimes. It was built in 15 BC and is about 30 m high.

I really get the feel of the Roman baths in this photo, loving the tiles in the ponds.

After scaling the tower in about 10 minutes, it was meant to have already closed and the attendant was nice enough to let me run up and down, I headed back down the hill and popped into the temple of Diane, yes another Roman temple. Not nearly as impressive as the Maison Carree and strangely there was some French Christian band practising in there, I don't know if they understood the Diana was not a Christian and maybe she wouldn't appreciate them praising other gods in her temple.

That was it for me in Nimes, I only spent an afternoon there, but if you like Roman ruins I would suggest you pay it a visit.

You are meant to be able to see Mount Ventoux from the Tour Magne, but unfortunately the weather was bad, so only a rainbow this time. For those who don't know this was the mountain where Tom Simpson, the British cyclist, collapsed and died within half a mile of the summit still clipped into his pedals, so the story goes, in the 1967 Tour de France. They found speed and alcohol in his bloodstream and amphetamines in his jersey. Who says cyclists don't know how to have fun!

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