Nimes: Bullfights, Fountains & (more) Roman Remains

On Thursday – our last day in Provence – we took the local train from Avignon to Nimes. En route to the Avignon train station, we passed what was either a dedication or a protest (hard to tell in France, since everyone is so cheerful at these things) having something to do with trees.

The Avignon station – like every Provencal rail station we visited – featured a lobby piano available for travelers’ use. And – like every other train station – there was someone quite talented banging away at the keyboard. It’s a nice touch (and a great alternative to the never-ending stream of “news” blaring from TV screens in stations back home).

It was a short ride (~30 minutes), passing right by Tarascon and Beaucaire (site of our Lion in Winter adventure from the week before).

The view from the train windows was typical Provencal countryside.

Views of the countryside alternated with a lot of  graffiti art. France seems to be fairly welcoming to graffiti artists.

Our walk from the train station into the town center took us through the Esplanade de Charles De Gaulle, centered around this 1845 Romanesque  fountain. You can see festival tents being set up in the background – and we soon learned why.

There is, of course, a carousel, where you can hop a ride with your favorite cartoon character.

Spongebob Squarepants? Really?

Nimes prides itself on its Roman ruins – it is, after all, the Roman city for which that enormous Pont du Gard aqueduct was built back in the 1st century.  I was looking forward to a visit to Nime’s Roman amphitheater, which includes the same kind of tablet-based audio/visual recreations that we enjoyed at the Palais des Papes in Avignon.  Alas, it was not to be. On arrival at the amphitheater, we found it closed in preparation for ”Feria de Pentecôte” – an enormous celebration of Nimes’ other great point of pride: bullfighting.

This is bullfighting Camargue style: unlike bullfighting in Spain, no bulls are harmed.  The objective is to score points by tapping the bull’s horns, and – for the grand prize -by grabbing a rosette tied to the bull.  These bulls are naturally fast, chosen for their combativeness, and return to the ring over and over again – getting wilier with every dance.  Some bulls become celebrities in their own right.  I was sorry  that we weren’t able to see the show – made me think of those gorgeous Minoan frescoes of the bull dancers.  Below are some pix from the show we missed (most from the Ugly Hedgehog photography blog), and an NPR story about Camargue bulls and this peculiar form of entertainment. Ooh, la la!

Although we weren’t able to see the bulls, we did get to enjoy the preparations underway around those feisty little white horses, whose job it is to boss the bulls around.

All around the arena, folks were setting up for a really big party.

I loved the  porta-potties – why can’t we have artful toilets like these?

A short walk northeast from the Arena is the Maisson Caree, a 1st century Roman temple with an exceptionally well preserved facade.  Thomas Jefferson reportedly modeled his design for the Virginia State Capital after this small temple. The building remained in constant use over the centuries once its temple days were over – the primary reason for the building’s survival. Today the interior is a small theater, featuring an excellent docu-drama about the Romanized Celts who founded Nemausus (aka Nimes).

The city library is right across the square, housed in the Museum of Modern Art. Sadly, Nimes’ highly acclaimed Musée de la Romanité (the museum housing Nimes’ collection of Roman artifacts, also located on this square) has been rebuilt and was scheduled to reopen 2 weeks after our visit, so we weren’t able to visit.

We popped into the nearby Cathedral Notre Dame et St. Castor. It has a dark and rather dour Romanesque interior, except for the side chapel dedicated to Bernadette, Our Lady of Lourdes.

I’ve seen several of these holy water fonts made from giant clam shells (native to the South Pacific).

Public fountains and waterways were a major factor driving construction of the  Port du Gard aqueduct in ancient Nemausus, and they continue to play a prominent role in Nimes’ civic landscape today.  Continuing east, we passed through the Square Antonin (featuring a fountain topped by a Roman emperor I’ve never heard of)…

…followed the lovely Quai de la Fontaine canal (bisecting a major thoroughfare narrow enough to require tree protection)…

…into the tranquil Garden le Fontaine (where a game of bocci was underway).

The French are very fond of their dogs – you can take them most anywhere – and very much less fond of cleaning up after them. Do we suppose that the Romans had poo bag dispensers?

Nimes’ city symbol is a crocodile and palm tree – peculiar, since neither is exactly native to these climes. The emblem’s origins turn out to have an ancient Egyptian connection (doesn’t everything?).  The Volcae, a Celtic tribe who fought other Gauls on behalf of Rome, was rewarded for their service with a big pile of coin and an even bigger land grant at Nemausus.  The Caesar doing the rewarding was Augustus, aka Octavian, aka the guy who finally conquered Egypt when Cleopatra VII decided that a snake was her last, best option.  Rome’s triumph over Egypt was more or less contemporaneous with its triumph over the Gauls, and Augustus had a coin minted  to celebrate his victory – featuring  a crocodile chained to a palm tree on the verso to symbolise the conquest of Egypt. (Sobek would not be pleased.)

Why did this become a symbol of the Nemausus? Who knows? Maybe these were the coins contained in that big pile given to the Volcae? Whatever the reason, the crocodile and palm tree show up all over the place. The Jardin’s entry gate contains an elegant version.

In addition to its many water features, this Jardin contains the ruins of a lovely Temple to Diana, the Huntress.

And a tower (Tour Magne) perched atop a hill with gardens, winding paths and lovely views of the city – once you’ve huffed your day to the top.

Leaving the gardens, we wandered and window-shopped our way back to the train station – a great way to end our visit to Provence.

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