Wednesday, May 6, 2015

St. Remy de Provence: The Romans Slept Here

We waited out a rain event in Florac at the edge of the Cévennes, then up and over a pass and then it was all downhill to our goal, the city of Nimes.  We dropped down to the coastal plain following the Gard River.  And just like the Romans who dominated this area over 2,000 years ago, we needed to cross the river to get to the other side.
First view of the Pont du Gard
Nimes was a prosperous town in Roman times with a population of over 60,000 people.  To support the people and industry, water was transported from the north via aqueduct, and the Pont du Gard is a remnant of this aqueduct that spans the Gard.  We arrived at the entrance gate mid-morning along with a stream of cars.  For some reason we thought we were early enough to have the place to ourselves.  We found out we could wheel our bikes across, so we entered the area, passing through a canopied mall with the standard food and souvenir shops, but also a nice display of all the other UNESCO World Heritage Sites and Grand Sites of France locations.  We exited the 21st century commercial zone, turned the corner, and there was this immense and impressive structure.  In an instant the Disneyland atmosphere evaporated and here was this massive spectacle of Roman engineering. 
Find the man in orange in this picture.

No mortar was used in construction of the aqueduct.

People were scattered on the banks of the Gard, enjoying a weekend picnic.

Aqueduct supports, all in a row.

My lucky day -- the sun came out for ten minutes so I could take this picture!
We spent the next couple of hours circling it from every vantage point.  There were people everywhere on the bridge taking selfes or having picnics below on the banks of the river.  But no matter how long all of us looked and lingered, it would never be as long as it took to build it or how long it has remained standing.
The weathered limestone of the Arena in Nimes.
It was overcast and muggy on our layover day in Nimes, gray and dingy just like the limestone of the Romans sights in the old city.  We visited the immense amphitheatre, and the entrance price included an audio guide.  Interesting, although there were a few more details of gladiator fights and feeding prisoners to the lions than we cared for.  We connected the dots through the city to other Roman hot spots -- the Maison Carrée, the Temple of Diana, the Tour Magne, the city gardens
The inside of the Arena, where workers were clearing aparatus from the weekend's gladiator renactments.

View of Nimes from the highest tier of the Arena.

Tourists enraptured by their audioguides.

Contrast of the pre- and post-renovated sections of the Arena.

Columns of the Maison Carrée.

Waterway in Nimes fed by deep springs.
Arles was also an important city for the Romans and we did a quick pass through the town on our bikes after leaving Nimes.  There are remains of an arena, although smaller and different in character from the one in Nimes, as well as baths, a theater, and an impressive cathedral from the Middle Ages.  Vincent Van Gogh spent time in this city because he loved the light.  And this is where we first crossed the Rhone River, the subject in my favorite of Van Goghs’ paintings -- Starry Night Over the Rhone
Plein air artist in the main square of Arles. 

Remnants of the Arena in Arles.

Detail of the facade on the cathedral in Arles.  I am not sure what is going on here, but it doesn't look good.
On our way to our campsite that night we took a right turn where the sign indicated there were some Roman ruins.  We looked around, and right next to an orchard of olive trees there were the remnants of an aqueduct, diminutive in comparison to the Pont du Gard, but with no entrance fee and with the look that it has been ignored since the Romans abandoned it centuries ago.  Thanks to Wikipedia we now know it was the site of 16 water wheels that powered a flour mill with a capacity to produce 4.5 tons of flour a day.  And here it sits overlooking the wheat fields in the valley to the south just waiting to be discovered by us.
Roman mill water works near Barbegal.

Sections of the aqueduct in place where they fell.

Looking north towards the Alpilles on the first sunny day in a long time.
That night I looked up in the sky and noticed that the moon was nearly full and breeze was blowing.  It occurred to me that I had not seen the moon for at least a week.  The mugginess blew out by morning, and we had brilliant blue skies.  We were now in Provence, in the town of Saint Remy.  On the outskirts is the Glanum archaeological site, a Gaul settlement in the 6th and 7th centuries BC, and then a Roman colony until the middle of the 3rd century AD.  A good day for taking pictures and discovering something old, but new for us.
Roman columns unearthed at the Glanum archeological site.

Amazing that this fountain was unearthed where the thermal baths were located.

Pillars with inscriptions.  Sorry, no translation.  I am having enough trouble with French.

It is not hard to imagine the layout of the town from the excavated walls.
So at the end of this little mini-Roman tour, I believe I am starting to think like a European.  We stayed in a campground one night and the reception office was inside the building where the campground operators lived.  The room had high arched ceilings like a church.  I asked how old the building was -- the mademoiselle said maybe 300 years.  Not that old.  Structures from the 12th century are everywhere -- churches, walls, fortresses on hills -- and are still used.  Not unusual.  And Roman structures from 2,000 years ago are just old.
Overview of Glanum, looking north into the heart of Provence.

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