Moving to the country (French Edition)

After cruising around the coast jumping from city to city we were excited to get off the motorway and head to the countryside… Unfortunately our research failed us and our first small countryside town, Arles, had a population of well over 50,000. That being said it was still a change of pace from cities such as Nice and Marseille and we had picked a hotel out of town by the river so that it was a little more chilled out.

Arles is quiet well known, it quickly became apparent, for its Roman ruins… Thats right Roman ruins again. This time we had no idea until we turned up and it would be fair to say that one of us was at least moderately more excited than the other to run around exploring the ruins. No points for guessing this time 😉

Our first stop was the local tourist centre where we were served by a guy who spoke seven languages, switching to Mandarin to serve the customers following us. Fairly impressive. He hooked us up with a two day pass that would allow us to visit all of the sites in Arles, Jess however had a look in her eyes that suggested we’d only need one.

Stop one in Arles was the Roman Theatre, an amphitheatre which was used for plays and town meetings. The seating had been incredibly well preserved, the stage area had been fairly ravaged by time however a modern stage has been installed in its place and this forum is still used to host plays and musical events for the city. Pretty incredible to see the theatre still being used for its original purpose thousands of years later.

Our next destination was the arena, not quite as vast as the Colosseum in Rome, however it was still one of the larger and more prestigious arenas in the Roman Empire at the height of its power. Very free range tour here so wandered around and explored for quite a while. At one stage in the medieval period the arena walls were used as fortifications and a small town was sheltered inside. A legacy of this time are the guard towers that were built onto the arena, you are free to climb these and check out a pretty great view off the city.

Much like the theatre the arena is still in use today, regularly hosting French bull fights. Unlike in Spanish bull fights the animals aren’t speared or injured, instead the “fighter” has to race in and pluck a garland of flowers hanging in between the bulls horns. No bull fights on during our stay so we didn’t partake but I daresay it is a fairly spectacular venue when at full capacity.

After the excitement of Roman ruins we headed to the St Trophime Cloister to catch our breath. It is a remarkable space with a tiny green space in the middle of the cloister, it was constructed between the 12th and 14th centuries and all of the pillars are covered in incredible carvings.

When we visited they were gearing up for Christmas and had an intense nativity display. People categorised as both amateurs and “professionals” had submitted over forty different nativity scenes to the display. The quality of the craftsmanship definitely varied… the one thing that was 100% consistent was the creepiest Christmas music we had ever heard. It actually chased us out of the building and I have complete certainty that it has already proven to be the soundtrack to someones complete mental breakdown. We were close.

We escaped into the subterranean tunnels under the city, these foundations are a legacy of the cities Roman construction and run underneath the majority of the major civil buildings.

It was actually a lot darker and creepier down there than it looks in the photos, a legacy of the incredible low light ability of Jess’s camera. We wandered around for a while and managed to navigate our way back with minimal incident. Jess did however mange to fall down a hole in the darkness and jolt her back which was unfortunate!

The final stop on our itinerary for the day was the Roman baths, largely ruined and now completely inhabited by cats which seems to be a consistent theme throughout the sites we have visited. The baths must have been huge in their day, fairly standard layout though… We are pretty much experts of Roman design at this point and it was disappointing to see that the architects went for the same old design. Expected more.

Before heading back to the hotel we swung by the bakery, we had heard good things online and had been thoroughly impressed by the quality of fresh local produce on display around town so thought we’d enjoy a bakery feast instead of doing another restaurant.

We had a fairly long walk home along the river and we were both footsore and hungry by the time we got home. Our smorgasbord from the bakery definitely hit the spot with the tiramisu and citrus tart clear winners for me. A criticism of the blog has been not enough food pictures, without fail because we always devour our food well before we think to take a picture. At least we remembered on this one occasion…

Having hit all the big sites in Arles on day one and had a decent explore of the city we decided to jump in the car and head for Avignon, largely on the basis that we had heard of the name in The Three Musketeers and we’d been told it had a nice bridge. The drive was pretty comfortable and we were there in under an hour but it was terrible trying to find parking. We had researched a free car park and put it into the GPS, turns out it was the uni car park and had an even bigger shortage of spaces than our old university in Launceston.

We eventually found a park, unfortunately a half hour walk away from anything of interest, and made our way to Pont d’Avignon, an incredibly famous bridge considering it only crosses a third of the river.

Legend has it that the current bridges construction was started by a shepherd boy who under the advice of Jesus left his flock of sheep and headed down the river to engineer a massive bridge. Some scientists dispute this theory.

Throughout history possibly as far back as Roman times there have been many successful attempts at spanning the Rhone, not many stood the test of time as the river is very powerful and also frequently floods. The bridge was definitely worth a look, it had a good audioguide and a museum and is right next door to the Papal Palace.

The Papal Palace (Palais des Papes) is one of the largest and most important medieval Gothic buildings in Europe, so Jess was rather excited. It was the seat of Western Christianity during the 14th century when the Pope left Rome.

The audioguide informed us that not long after completion the Pope of the time returned to Rome, as the town of Avignon carried a rather horrid odour. History tells us there were many reasons, primarily political, to return to Rome but perhaps the town did have a kind of unique smell to it. The palace went through many years of neglect, sieges and a revolution which have required some serious restoration work, but it is in good hands now and has over 650 000 visitors annually.

The palace is certainly vast, and impressive. We shared an audioguide and these ones were loud enough that even on the lowest volume we could stand two metres apart and still both clearly hear the information. This did lead to some embarrassed and panicked smothering when groups of people were trying to listen to their actual real-life guide, but it was worth it for the small cost as not all the signage had English translations and Jess’s Year 8 French lessons were getting us nowhere.

After finishing up at the Papal Palace we discovered that there wasn’t a heap to do in Avignon and decided to get out for a drive and head to Pont du Gard, a Roman aqueduct and one of France’s most popular destinations.

The aqueduct consists of three levels of arches and is almost fifty metres tall. It was a key component of a system that transferred up to two hundred thousand cubic metres of water a day down from a mountain spring to the city of Nimes.

As well as being able to walk across the bridge, along the river and hike up to the top and check out the tunnels that the water came through to the bridge. There is a really impressive visitor centre, it doesn’t look like much when you enter because you have to descend down into the museum proper which is a giant underground cavern. It was highly interactive and delivered heaps of great information about the aqueduct, it’s construction and history and about the structure of Roman colonies. Definitely worth a look!

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The next day we left our hotel at Arles and headed to Nîmes, maybe one of Jess’s favourite cities of the trip. It has a very large park. And Roman ruins. It also boasts wide clean streets, many cute boutique stores and a rather interesting town crest. We started off by parking underground in the centre (will never complain about Australian parking fees again) and when we managed to exit the maze found ourselves face to stone with an arena, next to a Christmas fair! What an excellent start to the day.

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We came to Maison Carrée, (I believe the literal translation for this is ‘square house’) the best preserved Roman temple facade to be found anywhere within the former Roman Empire. It was built between 4 – 7 CE and is in magnificent condition considering. Unfortunately the interior bears little resemblance to what it once may have been and is now used to show a short film about the city in Roman times.

Nîmes experienced a period of prosperity during the mid 17th century, which lead to the redevelopment of many areas within the city. The most interesting to us were the Fountain Gardens (Quais de la Fontaine). The gardens are really quite lovely, even in winter, with many fountains, ponds, pools and fish throughout the large park.  

Would you also believe they even have Roman ruins in the park?! A former temple, that had potentially been dedicated to Diana though they have found no evidence to suggest this.

When you arrive at the top of the hill you are greeted by the remains of an old Roman watch tower, which we obviously immediately found a desire to climb. The tower was in quite good shape until the 12th century when a local gardener read the predictions of Nostradamus that a ‘great treasure would be found in a building in Nîmes.’

He received permission to dig in the tower from the King, almost destroying the tower in the process. He didn’t report finding anything. A modern supporting pillar had to be inserted in the centre to keep the tower from collapsing, this also happens to have a staircase around it that allows folk to climb to the top and look out over the city.

From Nimes we drove on to Lasalle, a tiny town in the mountains where we had AirBnb’d a beautiful little cabin to stay in and regroup and relax after our crazy tour of Italy and France, during which we had barely stopped for long enough to take a breath!

The majority of the time we were in Lasalle we hung out in the cabin, we had no wifi so weren’t distracted by the internet. We did have a massive kitchen and access to some great markets and local stores so did a heap of cooking. Due to the generosity of our hosts as well as our shopping exploits we also ended up with a few bottles of wine, some crazy 9% Belgian beers and some mead we had been carting around since Ireland. We were giving the car up soon after our stay so everything had to go as we no longer had the ability to transport it… Suffice to say I had some really enjoyable evenings cooking up gourmet treats and depleting our beverage stores.

We did get out and explore the region a couple of times, hunting out a couple of nice chateaus and doing an incredible hike through the mountains.

The path got a wee bit intense at times and we did feel like we were going to emerge at a gingerbread house and have to do battle with a witch. We managed to successfully navigate our way through and emerged on top of a mountain to take in some panoramic views of the area before delving back into the foreboding woods and battling our way home.

After four very relaxing days at Lasalle our foray into the French countryside was complete. The next blog will cover our adventures in the medieval city of Carcassonne and our trip to Barcelona.

As always thanks for reading!!

LF & JT


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