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…

Versailles at Colorno

A delightful day and dinner at the home of Claudio and Lisa, friends of Paola’s, meant I got to see Colorno.

It is famous for the Palace known as Reggia di Colorno, and although it was closed that day, their son Damiano, who speaks good English, volunteered to show me around the outside. (Photo by Reggia di Colorno)

Like most of the grand places still functioning, this Palace has been repurposed; chairs for an event that evening were being set up in between the elaborately styled formal gardens.

From a defensive castle to a palace for grand families, the fortunes of which rose and fell with the vagaries of Italian alliances, through several major renovations, it became the favourite home of Marie Louise, Napoleon’s wife. With 400 rooms!

In 1870 it was acquired by the province of Parma, and is now home to ALMA, a world-renowned Italian culinary school.

The Italian Baroque building is topped by many statues, and its grand gardens and fountains are backed by a forest, albeit a little untended.

Damiano shows me this lovely long leafy walk; I do not know what sort are the trees so intricately merged.

He also showed me this ancient tree, struck by lightning but still thriving.

Out the front, the grandeur of this ‘home’ is stately, tasteful. The building, which also houses historic library archives, where Lisa works, was damaged by the 2023 floods. She and a colleague worked frantically to save what they could as the water rose, but not enough was possible.

It is clear that the residents of the now-defunct adjoining Orphanage were not seen to be in need of such grandeur.

As always, I am drawn to interesting hardware, like this door knocker seen on the walk back.

I was lucky to have Damiano as a guide to this impressive complex, so I thank him.

Bobbio up close

Must be about time I showed you another garbage bin; here’s Bobbio’s version, with a cigarette extinguisher and butt receptacle on the side. No chance of accidental bin fires.

I loved these wavy wooden seats, human body friendly; or perhaps hunchbacked like their bridge.

Although the streets are narrow, space is found for tubs of flowering plants. Pedestrians must listen for cars, and occupy doorways if need be.

Tiny three-wheeled utes and vans were perfect for such streets, needing little space to park, sounding like a cross between a motorbike and a wind-up car.

Doorways always drew my attention, as I constantly seek examples of ancient hardware, having once worked in architectural hardware. This unusually intricate arch had an equally intricately shaped timber door.

Above another doorway arch was this building date: over 100 years before England decided to offload its convicts on the Great South Land… and neglected to ask the owners if they minded…

Having written for The Owner Builder magazine for years, building methods fascinate me, like these deep and complex brick arches.

I have seen small square bricks used to make round pillars, but I hadn’t seen curved bricks before.

The soft pale colours of the old bricks in Bobbio add much to its gentle charm.

If you could afford it, the range of wonderful food shops in Bobbio would make a stay worthwhile alone, from small shops selling gourmet and local specialty bread and pastries, cheeses and cured meats, fruit and vegetables, wine… and truffles and truffle products.

The church interiors are as grand as anywhere, but I liked best the small chapel commemorating a local miracle that happened nearby, which is why the Madonna of Help is Bobbio’s patron.

This ceiling detail caught my eye: colomba is Itallan for ‘dove’, the universal symbol of peace, and St Colomban founded Bobbio…

Inside the church itself, we were fortunate to visit when the organ was being played … and played well. The resonances were deep, and so moving that I had trouble not being moved to tears.

On the last morning, the sunrise over Bobbio, with the high-tech antenna in the way, seemed to sum up its present state: beautiful, ancient, but a little spoiled by modernity and tourism and its needs.

Bello Bobbio

When a town is crowned the most beautiful in Italy. as Bobbio was in 2019, expectations are high.  A friend had also said she loved it, having spent some months here. But I suspect that was prior to the accolade and the tourism boom.

Most images of Bobbio show the famous Devil’s Bridge or Hunchbacked Bridge, the Ponte Vecchio, which dips and rises across the Trebbia River. It is said that the bridge was built overnight by the Devil, after a deal with Bobbio’s founder in 615, the Irish monk San Colomban.

The first bridge was likely built by the Romans in the 1st century BC (!) as Bobbio was an important part of the Salt Way. Several floods have caused rebuilding and I could see buffers on each side of the river bank plus a large platform around the supports of the main flow.

Bobbio is indeed beautifully situated, with the hills close by, and its narrow streets wind up to the protective Castello and down to the river with many fascinating twists.

St Colomban certainly thought it was a great spot, as he founded his monastery here. It shows how interconnected the world was then.

The monastery and the many churches externally have the lovely simple lines of medieval architecture.

From the castle’s upper windows the views of the town and valley show why it is claimed that Da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’ used many details from here in the background of the painting.

Even the castle’s adjacent tower is in there, in the bottom left corner, but for me the attraction of that was its self-supporting roof. I tried not to think about the room below, where criminals were thrown to die, impaled on the waiting knives.

Much of Bobbio has been restored, its pale bricks and stone walls repointed; much more is scaffolded now and in the process of restoration. 

It had the feeling of a Tidy Town, and I wondered if the council paid people to neaten and beautify, as most seemed to have done.  And of course it was teeming with tourists, in the summer holiday season. But as the next post will show, there was much to marvel at in Bobbio…

Piacenza treasure

Piacenza is very hot when we arrive, and our small apartment  in a heritage palazzo has two very tall windows but not enough air; there is a fan, which, combined with a damp cloth, saves me from total meltdown that night.

Its windows are in three layers: split barn door type external shutters, inner glass french doors and timber doors to cover those. Interesting but…

A most helpful man had almost led us to the tourism office when I’d asked where it was; this café nearby proved a favourite, with charming young waitresses willing to try some English as well as bear my Italian.

The town has a very grand square, the Piazza dei Cavalli, so named for the two large black bronze equestrian statues.

I am more fascinated by the unhappy chubby little ‘putto’ at its base; they’d clearly prefer to have wings and a different job.

We had noticed many colourful umbrellas strung above several streets. The tourist info lady could not tell us why, suggesting ‘for shade’?! Nor could our friendly waitress, who did venture that she didn’t like them.

Seems they have no special relevance to Piacenza.

Must be an umbrella manufacturer or importer on the council?

We also noticed a very large number of migrants or refugees, apparently from Africa.

Strategically placed and valued since ancient times, Piacenza is famous for being the first city, the Primogenita, of United Italy since 1848. 

But the highlight of our Piacenza visit is a world class treasure that should be emblazoned on all its tourist information.

The Gallery of Modern Art houses the 20th century collection of Ricci Oddi, who even had the Gallery built to house it. It is an eye opening experience, with so many wonderful Italian painters and sculptors, hitherto unknown to me, and some from elsewhere, including its prized Klimt ‘Portrait of a Lady’.

if you visit Piacenza, do not miss this. 

Arrivederci Piero

On our last day I wander back along the creek, absorbing details, fixing memories, of art made by man and nature, here in harmony.

Water trickles down the curving slump in these so-regular rock layers, seemingly made to be used upside-down as an arch.

Trees give way to rocks, grow into shapes to suit them.

Even the fungi are tinged with green.

Tiny flowers share the stones with moss. This small bush is I think what we suffer as a weed, Broom, since there are a lot of them in the open spaces and Gigi says they have yellow flowers and that they use them to make brooms to sweep with.

Dotted through the meadowy path are these electricity cable access points; I am astonished, but pleased there are no cables slung overhead as at Piero.

In Piero, Gigi shows us his almost vertical back garden and shares the delicious fruit of his ‘mora’, a sort of red blackberry.

Many walks start here, following paths trodden by generations over centuries. I have to prefer the old stone marker…

Saying goodbye to the warmly welcoming Nicoletta feels like it should be ‘arivederci’, as to a friend; I’d love to return some day, but doubt I can.  Nicoletta speaks Italian, German and English, so I will send her a copy of The Woman on the Mountain; we have a lot in common…

Life signs

In the middle of our week at Piero, the very kind Nicoletta takes us with her to Luino to shop for food. En route we stop in Curiglia for her to go to the Post Office; I see yet another shrine to the Madonna, this time above the public water source.

I also see one of the many trattori, the small 4WD narrow mini tractors and trailers, perfect for the narrow tracks; Nicoletta has one… less new and shiny, that can negotiate the track almost up to Piero from the car parking area. She still has to lug provisions up the last steep part into the village.

It is Wednesday, and Luino has hosted a market every Wednesday since 1541! It is huge, with fresh fruit and vegetables, flowers, cheeses and meats, as well as endless stalls selling clothes, handbags and shoes.

Although this lady does not look happy, her giant wheels and slabs of Parmesan cheese do make me smile! As does the very idea of a market that has been consistently held here for almost 500 years.

Next day, we decide to walk up to the village of Lozzo, above Piero. We pass Piero’s little walled cemetery, its flowers safe from the goats.

Above it are the community gardens, entered via another of Ambrogio’s special gates. The criss-cross section at the bottom is of old bush saw blades.

It is a steep walk through steep green forests, but easier in some stretches as not via steps, as to Monteviasco.

But there are many scree sections, where I need my stick and we must step carefully on the loose stones. No doubt it is also why there are several shrines on the way, as heavenly intercession could be handy…

But Lozzo is disappointingly lifeless. It has the usual overly elaborate church, whose bells ring as we arrive, and it has a memorial, seemingly to captured soldiers, but hardly any houses seem inhabited.

The decorative metal heads to hold back shutters are my main takeaway from a quite depressing village.