Thursday, December 16, 2010

What we saw, Part 2: Roman Holiday

Since my kids and husband love all things Rome, we decided to spend part of our vacation in the Provence region.  France has an amazing variety of Roman ruins and, since we didn't want to spend our whole vacation in Paris this was an easy choice.  The hard part was deciding how to limit ourselves.  On the map these little towns look close together and it is very tempting to say, "Oh, we'll go here, and then hop over here and then end the day in this little town."  Somehow it takes twice as long to get everywhere as you think!

Wisely, we centered our Provencal time around Nimes because of the huge amount of Roman "stuff" there.  It turns out that was good because Nimes was all we had time for!  I said in our last post that we got a late start leaving Lyon.  Poor M--he hadn't been feeling good but shortly after we left Lyon we had to stop.  He was sick!  M gets the trooper award for the whole trip because, in spite of a stomach bug that hit him hard this first day and then came and went for the rest of the week, he hung in there and still had a great time.

Our first *planned* stop was just a quick meal, where J had his first crocque monsieur:

Then off to Pont du Gard, which we hit in the late afternoon:

This was our first Roman ruin of the trip, an amazing aquaduct that still stands proudly over the river Gard.  (I had been here on previous trips but DH had never seen it.)  The PdG was an aquaduct built to provide water to a nearby town.  There are so many cool things about it: 

It's huge! 

No mortar!  Each block cut to fit.

Three hundred year old grafitti left by stonemason apprentices!

It is even hard to defend.  Engineering advances like this couldn't be made if your soldiers were always worried about sabotage and you had to constantly worry about enemies poisoning the water.  This is an indication of the relative peace and prosperity of the area during the time of Roman rule.  If people are so worried about the next attack, or even their next meal, useful buildings like this don't get built.

Then we sped off to Nimes, about 20 miles away.  Note to self:  Do not follow Mapquest directions in France. 

After some lucky driving and about 90 more minutes in the car (!) we made it to our hotel, the already-described-and-delightful Hotel des Tuileries.  We dropped our bags and M (poor baby, still sick but just wanting to sleep) and headed across the street to La Palette Gourmande and quite possibly our best meal of the trip.  I wish I had taken pictures...Veronique was delightful and we are STILL talking about the scalloped potatoes!  All five of us had the three-course Beaujolais Nouveau meal (no beaujolais for the kids!) and I was so happy that we all had real French food, like salade saucisson (mixed green salad with a sausage baked into bread), those scalloped potatoes and lots of sliced baguettes!

After a good night's sleep we were ready to explore Nimes, an ancient city that long ago outgrew the bounds of its original walls.  First was the Arena, the best-preserved Roman coliseum in the world and still in use today!  We took the audio tour which was excellent.  As you can see all the kids paid close attention:

The top of the Arena gives some lovely views of the city, which has a real Provencal vibe with its wide tree-lined boulevards.  It was a damp, cold, windy day, but you can see the clouds threatening here, too:

We strolled down this street, stopping occasionally to confirm our status as tourists:

And then we arrived at the Maison Caree, a very well-preserved Roman building.  The amazing thing here is that all four walls are intact.  Below you can see two of the walls.

I'll note that Nimes is small enough that we never even considered getting our car and driving anywhere.  We walked everywhere.

After lunch the threatening skies followed through, and opened up.  Our very smart hotel had umbrellas, though, and so we set off to see the Tour Magne, about a 15-minute walk.  This is another structure that had no purpose but just to be built and look cool, one more thing that only a peaceful and prosperous society builds.  (I'm pointing this out because it is such a contrast to the extreme squalor and poverty of the Middle Ages.)  It rained and rained and rained, but we walked and walked and walked, and the kids laughed it off for the most part. 

The Tour Magne is on a hill over the Fontaine Gardens.  Here are some of the stairs up to the Tower--can you see the waterfall?!

So we went up those steps and many, many more to the top of the hill to find, um, the Tower.  This is what we saw:

But we couldn't figure out how to get in.  So we looked around, said "great" and started back downhill.  That's when we saw much more than we'd bargained for.  The gardens were built in the 17th century, around a series of canals that held water to supply the booming silk fabric business that was Nimes at the time.  I was standing here, thinking, "Wow, for once they didn't do something symmetrical, what's up with that?" when I saw a plaque that describes the Atheneum this garden was built around.  The Atheneum is this curved section to the right.

It's not a Roman bath but something they used more ceremonially, and they are extremely rare.  So, cool!  It also meant that I stood there and looked around and saw the best ruin of the afternoon, the Temple of Diana.  This was a really tumble-down building, but wide open and we could walk all around it to the extent that we wanted to get wet.  DH and P got really wet.  Creeping around this old building in the pouring rain is something we talk about a lot.

Up early the next morning to do a crazy drive:  Nimes to Paris via Chambord.  DH and I had never seen the heart of France, and we both thought it would be fun to at least see it at 60 miles per hour.  Turns out it was good to give M a down day, as he continued to recover and eat very carefully. 

One thing that is very cool about driving across France is how quickly the landscape changes.  What we saw:  deserts, hills, snow-covered alps, deep evergreen forests, plains with rich black dirt waiting to be tilled, volcanoes (extinct, I hope!), sheep, cows, farms farms farms, rivers, leafless forests (it IS November!), little half-timbered villages, and finally, this:

Chambord, one of the great Loire valley chateaux.  Built by Francis I, this was his hunting lodge.  It also contains a famous double-helix staircase designed by Leonardo da Vinci.  It took six years to build!  The double-helix enables two people to ascend and descend without seeing each other.  The entire chateau is stone inside and out, and on a damp November day it was COLD.  The chateau was interesting, but there wasn't really much to the tour other than a bunch of empty rooms.  We would loved to have felt a more human touch, to understand how such a huge place would run, where they prepared meals, where they ate, even where the horses lived!  We made a quick stop here, only about 1 1/2 hours, and then headed north to Paris.

Driving into Paris on a Sunday evening is a slow affair, and another note to self:  Don't print out the Mapquest directions in miles when the car and road signs are in kilometres.  Also, apparently lots of Parisiens leave the city for the weekend, only to pile back in when the weekend is over.  The roads were very, very crowded.

Finally, our first glimpse of this most Parisian of sights:

More soon!  A bientot!


musicalmary said...

This is very interesting, Cheryl.... we are going to be learning about ancient civilizations starting in January and I may refer back to this blog post - or even have Anna talk to you! Again - what a great experience for the kids.

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