You know when you arrive in a place and you’re not really sure what it is that makes it exactly the way it is? When I arrived in Nîmes I had a sudden realisation that the thing making me feel positively Mediterranean was the chirrup of the cicadas in the trees around the station. Languedoc-Roussillon (the region Nîmes is in) is the veritable ‘Deep South’ of France, and with all the familiar sights and sounds in place, I was completely ready to settle into the so-laid-back-it’s-vertical lifestyle of Southwestern France.
I first remember seeing Nîmes in Les Mistons, a grainy black-and-white François Truffaut film we watched during school French lessons. The stunning scenery and the plethora of perfectly bronzed (well, grey, in black and white) French gods and goddesses that seemed to populate the town convinced me pretty quickly it was a place I’d like to visit. It’s a small town, but there’s more than enough history to make up for its small size. Nîmes was formerly a Roman colony, enjoying the right to print its own money stamped with its sort of adorable insignia, a crocodile chained to a palm tree. You can still find this symbol on most of the public buildings. I didn’t see any real crocodiles but it’s probably better they’re not roaming around in the sewers and bathing in the public fountains. I digress.
I checked into my hotel, bathed in sweat from the 38ºC heat (are you sensing a trend yet?) and immediately ran up to my room and rolled around in the air conditioned bliss. When I finally made it outside, I started by making my way to the Roman Arena, right in the centre of the town, which acts as a very splendid, very ancient roundabout (Milton Keynes, eat your heart out). The arena is in such good condition that it’s actually still used as a concert venue: one was taking place whilst I was visiting, and apparently an annual bullfight still reels in the punters, though, this being France, they’re not actually allowed to kill the bull, just aggravate it. Go Sports!
As far as I know, the worship of former Roman gods is not widespread, so it’s not that surprising that one of Nîmes’ other famous Roman artefacts is no longer in use. The Maison Carrée (lit. ‘Square House’) is a temple built in 16 BC by the Emperor Augustus. Oddly enough, it looks brand new, which makes it even harder to imagine dedicated Roman citizens popping by to make offerings of the odd goat or two. Then again, I suppose that’s like trying to imagine pagans sacrificing cattle in the middle of the Magic Roundabout, so maybe it’s understandable. Nowadays the square is filled with cafés and bars, still attracting the plebs after 2000 years – bread and circuses, guys, bread and circuses.
My average speed approaching around 0.002km/h, I decided I’d skulk off into the shade of the Jardins de la Fontaine. To my absolute delight a group of elderly men were playing pétanque under a palm tree. The sound of the little metal balls clicking together is as satisfying as the noise of leather on willow in the UK, so I sat and watched for a little bit and enjoyed how excited the little gathering were getting by… not very much (the similarities with cricket continue!). The main attraction of the gardens, beside from the pétanque, is a Roman watchtower called the Tour Magne, one of the last remnants of the old city walls. It’s a pleasant climb, and the views from the top are pretty spectacular. I liked the symmetry and perfect lines of the city, which you could only really notice from above.
Nîmes not being very big, and me being shattered from a day of travel and wandering around, I decided to head back to my hotel for dinner. Real talk: my main fear about travelling alone was dining solo. I’m quite a sensitive soul and so it took me a while to gather up the courage to go down to the hotel restaurant and find a perch. My fears were sort of realised when I was promptly ignored by one of the grumpiest waiters I have ever had the displeasure of meeting. I waited 30 minutes for a menu and a further 15 minutes to actually order, which, at €5 for a glass of wine and €14 for a plate of gritty seafood pasta, was not stellar. At that very moment I decided it would be my mission to extract as much value out of my hotel room as possible as recompense: cue washing my hands as much as possible, using all the toiletries in one go to make a gigantic bubble bath, covertly stashing bread rolls in all the cupboards, etc. I sure know how to live! *glows crimson out of sheer passive aggression*
I set the whole of the next day aside for a trip to Avignon. Arriving in the city was quite a shock to the senses: I’d timed my visit (not) perfectly with the annual Fête d’Avignon, so the streets were full of hawkers pushing tickets for weird French comedy shows that I wished to avoid at all costs (think 1980s heavily racialised jokes about things like men vs women and mothers in law) so I made a beeline for the main sites, the Papal Palace and the infamous Pont d’Avignon. The former was a remarkable construction in the way that the Cathedral at Albi wasn’t: it was imposing and beautiful at the same time, with all its turrets, towers, and its snazzy limestone façade.
The thing that strikes me about palaces is usually how many pointless rooms there are. The Avignon popes had rooms exclusively for putting on regalia, countless random antechambers with nothing in them, and several gigantic halls which seem to have only been used once. It sort of reminds me of when I used to play The Sims when I was younger and realising only after I’d built a huge mansion that the only thing I had to fill them with with were lots of random chairs, tables, and random plants. I guess if you’re the Pope you can at least use the space to roll around in your piles of money, plan crusades and mastermind other plots to repress over half of the world’s population.
Anywho, after wandering around and brushing up on dastardly papish plots, I walked down a windy little street to the Pont Saint-Bénézet, the famous bridge. I can’t even begin to explain how much the city plays up this bridge and the song written in its name. The audioguide has not one, not two, but SIX variations of the nursery rhyme, including (I made a note because I found it so funny) Indian, Reggae, Country, Acid Jazz, Bossa Nova and Berber versions. I wanted to gouge my eyes out. I could not stop singing the song for the entire day, cycling through all of the different versions, creating a soundtrack for my nightmares for the rest of my life. If you don’t know the song, click play below at your peril. If you want a Bossa Nova version, I will happily oblige before throwing myself out of a fifth-floor window.
Anyway. Legend has it that St. Bénézet was ordered by God to build a bridge at Avignon, which I find quite weird. I got the image of God ordering a town councillor in somewhere like Norwich to build a bypass stuck in my head and snorted with glee all along the bridge. At the end of the day, it’s a bridge, so what more can I say, here are some pictures:
This all took a surprisingly long time, so I headed back to Nîmes for a bit of R&R before my next destination: Nice! I will post about it in due course.