Monday, 15 February 2016

Nîmes, France

Checked the bus timetable twice yesterday. OK, maybe three times. It's not straightforward if you're not used to all the codes and, also, it's all in French, but still basically totally usable. So, 8.45am saw me waiting in the blustery Esplanade watching the school kids get off their buses and slouch off. And then – hurrah! My B21 bus hoves into view. "Un pour Nîmes, si vous plait."

"Non, jfljasfj f ljskflj s pas."

"Pardon? Répéter, si vous plait?"

"Pas de Nîmes sfl;jsfls sklfj;jfopzx ox xjl direction."

"Ah, d'accord. Merci."

No, I don't know what he said really, but it seemed to be, as best I could guess, that he was coming from Nîmes, not going toward it. Or something. All those French classes and get me out with real people speaking real French and – boom. Rien. Is alright, because a few minutes later, here comes the E52 bus - phew!

"Bonjour. Un pour Nîmes."

"Vous allez Nîmes? Clasdfljflnf pas sllsjf s x sdlsljfos direct."

Oh, dear. Think hard. "Ici?"

"Oui. Dix minutes."


Better this time. I actually got that he was telling me there was a direct express bus in 10 minutes.

Third time lucky. And, like in Spain, the public buses here are very nice: clean, comfy, heated... So pleasant to look out the window at the beautiful scenery. And then, after a mere 40 minutes from Uzès, where I got on, we pull up behind the Gare Routière (train station) and I actually manage to ask the bus driver what time the return bus goes. Even he has to look it up. Eh, bien. But just as well I asked, because it's a half hour different from what I'd written down the day before...

But enough about buses. I'm here to see the sites and, with just three hours (I must be back in time for the dogs' dinner and walk – I'm pet-sitting, you remember), I have it all figured out. First stop, the Roman Arena – or ampitheatre: the best preserved of its kind. And it's stunning.

Nîmes was the most important Gallo Roman town in the region – known as the Rome of France – and had a fortified wall all around it and a population of over 50,000. I plump for the 3-in-1 ticket, which gives you entry to the Arena; the Maison Carrée (which means 'square house', but in ancient Rome, a square was anything with right angled corners, so rectangular Maison Carrée sneaks in), the best preserved ancient Roman temple anywhere; and the Tour Magne, which is on Nîmes's highest point and all that's left of the old fortifications. The ticket is €12 for all three and includes an audioguide at the Arena, a film at the Maison Carrée (there's actually nothing else inside but the cinema) and entry to the Tour and is a bargain even if you only get to two of them, like I did.

As well as a good commentary, so I came away actually having learned something about gladiators and the whole business around them – for instance, they weren't slaves who had to fight to the death, but more like today's boxers, who gave themselves over to learning to fight and living the life to get fame and fortune, and didn't usually fight to the death – there's also two very small exhibit rooms: one about gladiators, with replica weapons and armour and clips from Hollywood films depicting them; and one on bullfighting, which was, to my mind, the more interesting, especially when it came to the horses the matadors ride in the ring with the bulls. This is top-level dressage in action.

Although Lonely Planet says not to bother with the film shown in the Maison Carrée, I disagree. It tells a compelling, watchable story, the computer graphics showing how the Gallo Romans built the town are impressive and I wasn't bored for a minute. Also, helpfully, there are English subtitles.

Staying in Uzès, which is hard by the Vallée de l'Eure, where the source of the water that travelled 50km by Roman-built aqueduct to Nîmes is – and which I've been to see at its source – makes it even more special watching it arrive, very prettily, in the Quais de la Fontaine. The fountain (way down at the end of my picture, but not really visible here – sorry!) marks the entrance to the Jardin de la Fontaine, which was one of the first public parks in Europe and features a beautiful statue of a water nymph, a Roman temple dedicated to Diana and the entrance to the green bit of the park where the Tour Magne is.

Unfortunately, this was where my time ran out, so I made my way back to the Gare Routière, bought a slice of French pizza – the only food in all of France that leaves a tinge of disappointment – and waited in the bright but chilly sunshine for the return bus.

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