To many English people, France is Provence. Paris does not count, as I have always felt that capital cities are little countries of their own. By any stretch of the imagination the English were not the first “invaders”; the very name comes from the word province, after all this was the first province settled by the Romans outside Italy.
Before them the Greeks came and after the Romans a veritable revolving door never seemed to stop. Goths, Ostrogoths, Arab, Berber, Catalans, Germans, and even the French. For nearly 80 years the Papacy was moved to Avignon. It was only in the 15 century that Provence became part of France. It is claimed that the wonderful climate and scenery is the reason that so many people fall in love with this area. I can not deny it is truly breathtaking, but I can’t help feel that this dizzying musical chairs of different influences must play a pivotal part. Trying to find hidden gems in such a well known, well travelled area is not easy, but….
This city will not come up first on a list of must visit places in Provence, for one it is tucked away on the western borders and it is also a very vibrant modern town. So why go? Having visited Nîmes as a youngster it shaped my view of Roman ruins that left me bitterly disappointed when I eventually made it to Rome. The fact is that in most places the word ruins describes exactly what you are about to see. Nîmes is one of the great exceptions; the best way to explain is to say: Nîmes has some of the best Roman ruins in the world, but it also has some of the best Roman buildings in the world. What is the difference? Simple, a ruin you visit, a building you use.
Let’s us start with the arena, much smaller than the Coliseum, it only seats 24 000. Difference it still seats 24000! These arenas are still in use today on a regular basis. You even buy your tickets at the roman ticket offices marked shade or sun. Shade was much more expensive, you will discover why after wilting in the sun if you visit. It plays host to rock concerts, operas (usually Carmen), bull fights and one of the areas most fascinating events Course de Torro. Putting it mildly, I am not a big fan of bull fights; Course de Torro on the other hand is quite different. Imagine those Cretan vases with young men doing handstands on bull horns and you start getting the idea. It is quite simple, for a start the bull is the star, poster advertise them not the humans involved. These bulls are not the massive bodybuilt type you see in bullfights, these are lithe, fast and long horned creatures you see peacefully grazing the Camargue. The games shape up simply, on one side the bull with thin cotton threads tied round his horns, on the opposing side the raseteur, dressed all in white. The humans with a hand held pick aim to take the cotton thread off the bull’s horn. This is why the bull is the star, the better it is known to protect its thread, the bigger the crowd pulling power.
Another Roman marvel in Nîmes is the Maison Carré, the Square House. It is fair to warn you that by some bizarre local twist of local stubbornness this is neither square nor even a house. It is indeed the best preserved Roman temple in the world. No one milligram of imagination, no artist’s impression here; just the building in all it’s original rectangular glory. It’s survival through time is not the only miracle, this building has been many things since expat Romans worshiped here; private house, stables, council house, church and was even at one time earmarked for a stone by stone move to the palace at Versailles. It now house a good museum, but the sheer excitement of being in a perfect building that is over 2000 years old is hard to beat. One can always use imagination to picture life as it was, but to do so with such true backdrop is wondrous indeed. Eat your heart out Rome.
A small note on Nîmes, this is the town that gave the word its greatest fashion item…
During the gold rush in the states, the prospectors started making trousers out of the tent material. The result: jeans. The boxes that contained the material where proudly stamped with its place of origin De Nîmes (denim)
The Camargue is that odd triangular bit on the map, at the top of which the motorway splits west to the Languedoc and Spain, or east into the heart of Provence and Italy. The naming of a Rolls Royce after this area is strange indeed, the Roller is man’s skill at its best, the Camargue is nature at its best. At the beginning of the last century, the French government with staggering foresight designated a reserve. This has prevented our wonderful engineering skills from obliterating the place. The previously mentioned odd triangular bit is of course the Rhone Delta; this particular landscape has had a particular effect on the inhabitants. Not for this area the humble cowboy, no self respecting French male would fight over a cow, the Camargue gives you the bullboy; know locally as Gardian. The first time I saw a Gardian, I was somewhat taken aback, the traditional dress is a paisley shirt, waist coat , black felt hat, some strange bondage ridding boots, a long wooden pole with a small trident to help in the herding and chef trousers; or at least that is what I call checked blue trousers. So odd to see these out in the sun, I had only ever seen them in dark and hot kitchens. These men always ride the beautiful but stocky white (only goodies here) Camargue horses. What do these men do, they look after the only AOC (Appellation d’Origine Controlée) meat in France; the bull. It is when you see these magnificent animals in their habitat that you get a real idea of what free-range should mean. A visit here is like your own Richard Attenborough experience, pink flamingos, the symbiotic herons protecting the bulls from insects, Coypus (not local but escaped and breeding), rust coloured diving ducks which seem to disappear for ever under the water for food. All this happens on a jigsaw backdrop of water, reeds sea lavender and of course rice. Be warned the Camargue also harbours the nastiest mosquitoes I have ever had the displeasure of encountering, you have been warned. Can’t leave the Camargue without mentioning Saintes Maries de la Mer; it is not the place unknown to tourists it once was. The grand fortified church is still there and they still hold two vast pilgrimages every year. The story of Saintes Marie would be simple to tell, if it had not been for the number of Marys involved. This has led to much speculation and a few fortunes. In a nut shell, according to legend three Marys landed here and were saved from a watery grave, they then erected a simple place of worship dedicated to the Virgin Mary (that makes four). The fact is that the Marys celebrated here are neither the Virgin nor Magdalene but the others (Mary mother of James and Mary Salome)
I know that there are far more famous cities in Provence, but Ma Belle France is about getting you to discover things off the major tourist trails. Why Arles is not on the map as far as destinations go is beyond me. This is a truly exquisite city, visually and historically. It combines those rarest of things, a respect of its past and love of its present. At the risk of being accused of being sexist, I have to say, that nothing in Arles has been sung higher than the beauty of its women. Whether in music (Bizet’s Carmen), in writing (Mistral and Daudet) or even in painting (Van Gogh and Gauguin) sexist I may be, but I am in illustrious company. Arles is joy to walk in, so visiting this cornucopia of Roman and Romanesque places is easy. Roman Arles was quite a serious city; it was even permitted its own battlements some of which still remain. The arena is larger but not quite as in good repair as Nîmes, it is however still used. More interesting (if you have gone to Nîmes and are in a hurry) is the Roman theatre and the Alyscamps. The theatre is more like the Roman ruins we expect, but still manages to offer up its original seating, stage and orchestra pit and is still used for concerts and other events. Alyscamps is “worth the detour” as they say in this part of the world; it is one the worlds largest ancient Necropolises. It was used form Roman times to late in the Middle Ages. Unlike many a site in Provence, this has been sadly hit by modern and ancient vandals alike. But the place is still breathtaking; it is the sheer number of sarcophagi and their diversity that enthrals. The long alleys are sheltered by a variety of trees that add to the magical feel of Alyscamps.
Arles is place where it would be a crime to go from place to in a hurry, take your time avoid the large streets and you will be richly rewarded. The place is goldmine of Hotel de Ville, grand private houses with luscious internal courtyards, each vying with the other for beauty and tranquillity. This was not a question of “if you’ve got, flaunt it” this is “if you’ve got it, exhibit it” I have not forgotten the Romanesque, the best example of which is the delightful Eglise de St. Trophime. Actually it was a cathedral, but in a city of such fine taste, large overbearing edifices were not for them. This is a beauty of simplicity, and though added to since it was built in the 11c it largely remains true to its origins. Notable addition of a truly delectable wooden carved doorway and cloisters that whisper serenity only add to the whole.
When I first visited Arles, I was confused by the paisley patterns that seem to abound, as far as I was concerned this was a Scottish thing. Further investigation back in Oxford revealed that in fact the origins are neither Scottish nor Provençale, they are in fact Indian or Persian. They say that a boat carrying a load of patterns run aground near Arles, the locals loved the patterns so much they adopted them.
So there we have my Provence, famous to all but still so undiscovered. A place that has inspired a pantheon of great artists and even more mere mortals. Just taking Nîmes and Arles, a place where the ruins are not ruined; sorry Rome 2 -0