Nîmes nostalgia

This will be my last post from my travels. I could have done many more and will surely keep finding things I had wanted to share, but I thank those of you who have stuck with me.

I’d have to say that I was most impressed by the attention to what Roman relics remain… like this, preserved out the back of the very modern museum, in a garden of the typical plants of the time, especially aromatic ones.

Or this, one of the two surviving main gates of the old Augustan walled town: 1st century, kept on what are now main streets.

I also loved the charm of the later old streets and apartments, with their wrought iron balcony railings; this one was unusual in having a decorative upper trim, like a metal picot edge.

Where I stayed was a delight, with three French windows and aged blue shutters, right above a lively street, with buskers and bands, street stalls and crowded cafés. Being in the old town, no vehicle traffic… except for the small garbage trucks, collecting by hand in the wee hours.

I saw a lot from my front row seat. 

Just across the way, in the next little street, was a church which ran a soup kitchen once a week.

Nîmes was busy with shoppers for the many boutique offerings… but also regular beggars.

Although I had the wonderful big Les Halles covered market close by, I also went to this one on my last Friday. I loved that stallholders were by now answering my questions, asked in my Aussie French, with floods of French, so it can’t have been too awful…

I could have stayed in France just to eat… the great variety of crusty breads in different flours; the aged cheeses with crusts like rocks and tastes I will forever miss.

There were many marvels in the museums, while not answering all my questions.

The Museum of Old Nîmes was unsatisfactory as to how and why and if ‘serge de Nîmes’ became the ‘denim’ of Levi-Strauss jeans.  

The old wardrobes made me wonder how anyone slept in a room with such overly decorated monstrosities.

The Museum of Fine Arts had an amazingly intact Roman mosaic floor, discovered in the 19th century and relaid here. I noted that while the central piece is figurative, the rest is geometric, including several Escher-like patterns.  Was there anything creative they had not thought of?

I enjoyed this Museum, but did wonder why the 18th century painters gave Cleopatra a perpetual wardrobe malfunction. No matter who she was meeting, like Mark Antony, she seemed unable to stop her dress slipping to expose a boob. Those handmaidens need talking to… 

I come home with a head full of new understandings and images, so I thank the friends who made this trip possible, this experience of a lifetime, surreal though it seems in retrospect.

Ancient engineering marvel

This enormous 274m long stone structure appears in the landscape as if from nowhere. Cars are now held back from its proximity, so you walk –along with many others – and suddenly there it is: the Pont du Gard, the tallest and best preserved of all Roman aqueducts.

Built in the 1st century AD to carry water 50 kilometres to Nîmes from springs at nearby Uzès, it was designed to have an average fall of 7mm per 100 metres, and it worked! The top level was a stone-lidded conduit, smooth inside, which required much maintenance to keep clear of carbonates and vegetation over the six centuries of its use.

The actual 49-metre high structure is of rough limestone, no mortar. You can see the large projecting stones that supported the scaffolding as it was built. The lower level’s road bridge was added much later; water was the reason for this mighty undertaking.

I had mistakenly thought it was built to bridge the River Gardon, but no, getting water to Nîmes was its main purpose. The six arches of the lower level are six metres thick to cope with that river’s flood. The history of the Pont is chequered, but Napoleon figures large in taking on its restoration.

The river is treated as a swimming and boating place by many and as cars can access each side of the river, people can walk to its sandy beaches.

On the far side is a large park and promenade, with cafés and seating and playground, and walking access to the beaches. It seemed a very popular place for families.

Back on the main tourist access side, I briefly visited the Memories of the Garrigue park, where the original ‘garrigue’ vegetation and the typical early land use, of grain and vines, as well as making charcoal, was commemorated.

Garrigue vegetation is Mediterranean, likened to our mallee, as its trees are low growing. It can have dense thickets of kermes oak, stunted holly and holm oaks, with lavender, sage, rosemary, wild thyme and artemisia common.

It reminded me of Bimblebox, although many trees there are taller, in its dry grey-green nature, compared to the lush chestnut, oak, lime and plane tree forests I had become used to in Italy.

Many famous people visited this Roman marvel, and many have written of it in awe. UNESCO considers it a ‘testimony to human creative genius’… as do I. The architectural and engineering skills that devised it are astonishing; once more I am struck that such a civilisation was wiped out, and really by greed, for conquering more and more. Greed remains; will we?

City of water

To replace the ancient water sources that had supplied Nîmes for centuries, the huge Fountain Gardens were built in the mid-18th century. 

Remnants are still there of the original water holding basin on the hill, which would have received the water via aqueducts, including the Pont du Gard where I will take you next. As these remnants, like those at Pompeii, are extremely rare, I tried to visit, but it was closed on a Sunday.

Fountains abound, with walkways shaded by large plane trees.

Fish and ducks and pigeons make use of the water, as does the occasional frolicking dog, and once I even saw a swan.

Even the gates are guarded from climbing trespassers by decorative extensions – rather more attractive than rolled barbed wire.

My favourite ruin was this Temple of Diana, from the 1st century BC: possibly not to Diana, possibly not even a temple. Romantically shrouded in mystery and time…

The central basin has this Nymph statue… with attendant pigeon, but as usual I wonder why the wingless cherubs below look so miserable.

This one looked positively demonic.

The Gardens were full of statues, but I especially liked this gentle one to Love… quite young love too.

From the formal pools and waterways, paths wind up through a shady forest to the 36 metre high Tour de Magne, once part of the defensive Roman walls around the city.

I had intended to climb up the internal spiral stairs, but I chickened out. From the outside, looking up at those who had made it, I knew I’d been wise. Bugger the view.

But even away from the Fountain Gardens, in the centre of main avenues there is water, shallow, unpretentious, just coolly flowing along.

Sometimes, as in the modern Place d’Assas, it is combined with statuary, non-mythological, but still symbolic.

Nîmes still appreciates its water origins. So do I.

Temples then and now

Considered one of the best preserved and most elegant of the Corinthian temples, this 1st century homage to the Augustan imperial cult was built from local limestone. It has been known as the Maison Carrée since the XVIth century.

The columns of the impressive portico, 17 metres high to the gable, are freestanding, whereas those along the side are half embedded in the walls. Only priests of the cult were allowed in; any major events and sacrifices were done outside, in the large public forum space.

Under the portico you can see the naturalistic acanthus leaves atop each column. Out of the weather, this limestone is immaculate.

Exposed, the stone has not fared so well, but after 2000 years, you’d have to say the damage is only cosmetic and minor; the columns still do their job.

And on the enormously high timber doors, a key escutcheon like no other I will ever see…

Immediately across the square is the 1993 Museum of Modern Art, designed to echo the Maison Carrée… but somehow failing to carry that same sense of grandeur outside.

Inside it succeeds, being all light and space, with a huge atrium. It is the temple to Art, to connect the old and new Nîmes.

Modern paintings of vast size dominate each room.

I realise I should have known that I do not like what I see as the self-consciousness and self-indulgence of many of these periods.

I also realise that every museum or gallery I visit has an appointed guard or watcher in every single room.

Often young people, mostly looking bored, mostly wearing black, checking that I am not about to spray paint or throw tomatoes on a work. 

Except for my sandals squeaking a little on the parquet, the silence is deafening.

How do they spend a whole day like this?

Before Romans, and Before Christ

I am on my way to the Musée de la Romanité, which I assume will be all about the Roman history of Nîmes. I am to be proven very wrong.

En route I pass the Pradier Fountain, only a few hundred years old. Carved in white marble in 1845 by James Pradier, it represents Nîmes itself, which came into being because of its water, with the four figures below standing for the four main water sources of Nîmes.

I am most interested in the lady atop. It is said that the sculptor’s mistress posed for this, but whoever she was, that is one sassy lady. Just look at her pose, unsmiling, hand on hip, with such upstanding breasts that they must surely have had help.

Her draperies are exquisitely rendered, and maybe the ‘so what’ stance is to counter the odd head-dress he has given her, a mini  Maison Carrée, the town’s famous Roman temple.

The Museum was eye-opening. Impressively Roman, as above… yes.

But I had no idea that so much history could be seen from the Pre-Roman era (800-100BC), when Gaulish people settled and thrived around the original spring, sacred to the god Nemoz, which became Nemausus under the Romans… and eventually gave the name of the Nîmes.

While the Roman era (27 BC – 400 AD) had the most appealing relics, this recreated hut from earlier times caught my eye with its ingenious door hinge, top and bottom dependent on nature for shape and strength. 

I found myself wondering what the heck we had achieved …apart from wrecking our one world … when maybe 2000 years ago the Romans were making such fine metal items as safety pins!  Yes, the glassware, the sculpture, the buildings, the infrastructures, were all admirable and incredibly lasting, despite the ‘progress’ of the centuries, but somehow those safety pins remain my symbol of ‘the French Rome’.

After the Romans came the Medieval era of Nîmes (1000-1500), the relics of which … to me …seemed less cultured and creative than those which came before.

This very modern building includes a roof garden, where I am impressed by the Mediterranean plantings, looking natural and coping as nature meant.

It is a fascinating museum, which took me back before the Romans and made me see their visible heritage here more clearly in its place in history.

Nîmes: history upon history

While our First People are known to have an extremely long history of occupation, they trod so lightly that we newcomers cannot easily read that history. 

Not so here In Nîmes, where you walk up any of many streets and bang! right in front of you rises the imposing Arena, the best preserved Roman amphitheatre in the world.

They were setting up for a light and sound show that evening. How incredible for a 2000 year old venue to be still going!  Not that any gladiators would be seen here now, but the range of trained and very particular fighters was unknown to me until I read about them here.

Nîmes, considered the French capital of bullfighting, holds a three-day festival, the Feria, each year, with bull runs through the streets, acrobats, musicians, parades, stalls, horsemanship and of course, bullfights.

The Arena was carefully designed to allow for Roman social classes to access and exit which of the four levels they would occupy without a crush or running into the others.  It would seat 24,000.

Railings have been added but the stone seating remains the same. They were a bit of a stretch for a littlie like me.

I envisioned the hordes of tourists going up these steps tonight, the same steps that everyone since the Romans have used.

Just look at the width of the arch/wall… such huge blocks of stone.

Stones and bricks, and all still holding together.

This hole seemed deliberately done to show us that beneath the stone facing is a rubblestone wall?

Arches, arches everywhere… but I see no information as to who would have had to come up these steps from deep below 

I had expected more history, with Hollywood images of lions and Christians in my head; I will have to research more.

Just look at the narrow bricks in this arched roof. Gravity-defying yet perfectly logical…

The longevity of this craftsmanship, this knowledge and planning, makes a mockery of our gimcrack disposable modern buildings, unlikely to last 200 years, as our colonial ones have done, let alone 2000.

When I visit the attached museum, I am even more agog…