Nimes and Avignon

Tuesday 27th December 2005, Nîmes
The temperature INSIDE the two British camping cars parked at the top of the village in Ambre registered minus 2 degrees at 9am this morning. Our fellow house guests had found their nights camping on the way down from Dieppe very cold indeed and were grateful to now have the shelter of the house, chilly as it was. However, living together where we all need to share an unheated, stone-floored shower/toilet and huddle together for warmth in the kitchen is not really practical. Certainly the present electricity supply is incapable of heating enough space for us to live independently of each other.

Although the new arrivals had declared themselves quite happy to share accommodation and we would not normally have chosen to move on between Christmas and New Year when much of France is covered in snow, we decided that for practical reasons, we would move out for a few days and find either a campsite with electricity or a hotel, leaving them the same freedom that we have so happily enjoyed in Ambre.

Before moving on from the South, we have always intended to visit the area of the Camargue and the Rhône estuary. Around lunch-time therefore, we left Ambre and headed for Nîmes, hoping it was not the time of the Mistral, the biting-cold wind that blows for weeks on end from the north and is claimed to drive strong men mad! Thankfully, there has been no sign as yet and indeed the weather has been clear and bright between 9am and 3pm with a certain warmth in the direct sun. The rest of the time the temperature has fallen below zero, but the air feels dry.

For the first time in France, we took the toll-paying motorway. This ensured we skirted Montpellier easily and reached Nîmes in daylight where we located an all-year campsite with access to electricity.

As there still remained an hour or more of reasonable light, we headed south to the little town of St.Gilles - pronounced Jill in French which has always caused mild amusement here that I have a boy’s name. I fear it is certainly the nearest I will ever get to becoming a saint myself! Here this gentle hermit of the 7th century is buried and his tomb is still an important destination on the pilgrim route to Compostella. Kind to animals he lived from wild fruits and the milk of a hind he had tamed. Following an encounter with the king who was impressed by his scientific knowledge and the trust placed in him by wild animals, he was permitted to found a monastery here.

The 12th century façade of his church is highly decorated with apostles and scenes from the life of Christ. In the 16th century, during the wars of religion, the wonderful statues were hacked and damaged, the faces, even the heads of the figures were removed. Shades of the Puritans in England, the Jacobins in France and the Taliban in Afghanistan! Thank heavens for bigots! Without them there would be far too much cultural heritage to detain us! Keep up the good work!

Front of the Church of St. Gilles

Left entrance to the Church of St. Gilles

Detail from the Church of St. Gilles – Christ betrayed by Judas

Also in the church, as part of the Christmas celebrations we found a little decorated cart. This traditionally holds a couple of young lambs and is pulled through the streets of the town by a strong ram to the church on Christmas Eve.

Nearby we found the free town museum, warm and friendly in a 13th century Romanesque house with a delightful 14th century statue of St. Gilles. Other exhibits included fragments of roman and mediaeval sculptures, and tools of 19th century local crafts such as barrel-making, olive pressing, agriculture and the horses and bulls of the Camargue.

Town museum, St. Gilles

Statue of St. Gilles

The light was fading fast and it was unbelievably cold walking around the streets sight-seeing, so we returned with gratitude to Modestine’s snug interior and our campsite. Here we encountered all sorts of problems in the darkness trying to establish a supply of electricity so we had light and warmth. Shivering with cold we eventually got the fire working, only to discover a vile stench from a huge glutinous crot on Jill’s shoe which by this time had been trodden into the carpet! Leaving Jill with bare feet and an all-pervading stench, Ian departed, torch in hand, to clean the filth off in cold water at the toilet disposal unit. We are still living with the smell in the carpet! Life must have its downs as well as its ups, but there is a good argument for sten-gunning irresponsible French dog owners!

Wednesday 28th December 2005, Nîmes (the town with an accent according to the tourist publicity.)
We woke to a frozen campsite and plucked up the courage to bare our backsides in the outside loos – the covered ones were closed for refurbishment. We are sure the Romans at Nîmes had considerably more luxury at their baths and that is where we directed Modestine this morning. Parking on the outskirts we walked through the frozen streets to the Arènes, perhaps the best preserved amphitheatre in the Roman world. Used since 1st century AD successively as a centre for gladiatorial combats, a Visigothic fortress and a massive housing tenement, since the 19th century efforts have been made to gradually restore the site, revealing the original structure. Today it is even used for its original purpose of blood sports with bull fights taking place in the elliptical arena throughout the year. Perhaps one of the most impressive things for us was the Romans’ planning and skill at crowd management, with a network of passages and staircases linking some 200 vomitaria which spewed out more than 20,000 spectators who had witnessed these blood-letting orgies. Outside the arena today however, there was nothing worse than a temporary ice rink with local families enjoying some unaccustomed skating.

Skaters outside the amphitheatre in Nîmes

The arena of the amphitheatre in Nîmes

Passageways to the arena in Nîmes

From here our way took in the cathedral with its Romanesque frieze of grotesque figures. Outside a barrel organ was played in the street while a lady sang atmospheric Parisian songs in the icy shadows for a few centimes.

Grotesques on the façade of Nîmes cathedral

Porte Auguste, Nîmes

Time to warm up with a coffee in the heated shopping precinct before trying in vain to visit the Castellum, housed inside the inevitable Vauban fort. This is the point where the waters carried across the Pont du Gard were distributed to the Roman town. So we directed ourselves towards the Tour Magne in the Jardin de la Fontaine. According to our guide book this is of no known significance whatsoever, but never-the-less we found it delightful. The warm, sunny climb through the gardens was enchanting, even in mid-winter, with ancient gnarled olive trees and decorative beds of agaves and oleaginous shrubs. At the top stood the ruin of the roman tower offering views over the town. We were just in time to witness the gardien taking delivery of his lunch from the Nîmes Pizza Express!

Tour Magne, Nîmes

We made our way back down to the 18th century formal gardens full of statues, balustrades, fountains and canals, very attractive in the afternoon sun, to one side a Roman temple, perhaps to Diana, the goddess of hunting.

Jardins de la Fontaine, Nîmes

Jardins de la Fontaine, Nîmes

Remains of a Roman temple, Jardins de la Fontaine, Nîmes

Finally we directed our steps towards the Maison Carrée, a first century temple with wonderfully sculptured Corinthian columns. Opposite, the 21st century Carré d’Art offered a more recent version with columns intended to mirror a building 2000 years its senior. This was designed, we think, by a British architect, possibly Norman Foster. It houses a museum of modern art and the city’s public library. Dream on Exeter! Constructed entirely in steel and glass it provides a superb modern facility, though we were less than impressed with the exhibition of livres d’artists, primarily those of Pierre Tal Coat - splodgy lithographs accompanying a dribble of text across a massive page – a waste of decent hand-made paper! (Ian says!)

Maison Carrée, Nîmes

The old and the new. Maison Carrée and the Carré d’Art, Nîmes

Steel and glass – inside the Carré d’Art, Nîmes

An attempt to train dog owners in the Roman city of Nîmes

The cold became too much to bear, so we rejoined Modestine and headed towards Comps where we understood there was an all-year campsite. On arriving it appeared deserted with a notice claiming that it was fully booked. We reckon the owners just fancied a break until the New Year. We heard on today's news that drivers have been stranded in snowdrifts in Northern France. Fearing a similar fate ourselves we headed towards Avignon where, by sheer good fortune we remembered the name of an all-year camp site recommended to us at the carol concert at Fontcaude Abbey on 14th December. This took us 20 kilometres along the banks of the Rhône – we have seen this river now from its birth as a glacier in Switzerland almost to its estuary in the Camargue. After a few mishaps we located the campsite literally “sur le pont d’Avignon”! There is an island – Île de la Barthelasse – in the centre of the Rhône linked to each bank by the bridge. No trouble here with the electricity so we can enjoy warmth and wine while we blog away to our heart’s content. We think we may give the bridge dancing a miss tonight!

Thursday 29th December 2005, Avignon
This morning dawned bright and sunny without a trace of frost. This is because the air is really very dry but it is icy cold. Avignon is on the edge of the Provence region and newspaper front page headlines are proclaiming temperatures here have fallen to minus 20 degrees! The man selling us stamps says it is exceptional and temperatures should rise gradually from Saturday. Maybe we had just better hibernate tomorrow! Our obsession with the weather is not unreasonable given that we are living in a tiny camping car on the banks of the Rhône rather than in a centrally heated house! We do remain warm and comfortable in Modestine but as we cannot spread outside in such cold, conditions are very cramped indeed.

This morning we left Modestine on the campsite and walked across the bridge from the island, straight into the heart of Avignon. The view of the city walls, the Palace of the Popes and the remains of the famous 12th century bridge protruding into the Rhône were spectacular in the clear morning air.

Avignon seen from the river

Papal Palace and Cathedral behind the ramparts, Avignon

Papal Palace and Cathedral from the Place du Palais, Avignon

Cour d’Honneur, Papal Palace, Avignon – used as an auditorium during the summer festival

Cloisters, Papal Palace, Avignon

Petit Palais, Rhône and Villeneuve-lès-Avignon from the terraces of the Papal Palace, Avignon

Hôtel de la Monnaie on the Place du Palais, Avignon

Avignon is a delightful city despite being an obvious tourist Mecca with Japanese visitors posing in front of every historical site. Almost immediately we encountered the square in front of the Papal palace. It is one of those sites one absolutely must see. So we joined the crowds and hoped for warmth and shelter inside. The palace is so huge it is impossible to heat it however and we were aching with cold as we passed from room to room with a hand-held recorded guide explaining the complex history of the papacy at Avignon during the 14th century when political and religious intrigues in Italy and the election of a French pope made it safer to transfer the seat of the Catholic Church from Rome to Avignon. Although the papacy eventually moved back to Rome, the palace at Avignon continued to be owned by the papacy as an extension of Rome under the control of papal legates. It was not until the French Revolution that the people of Avignon finally became French citizens in 1791.

Nine successive popes at Avignon between 1309 and 1409 each improved and enlarged the palace at huge expense. Viewed from the square the old palace to the left is austere and more like a fortress than a papal residence. It was built by Benedict XII from 1334. To the right the more decorative and clearly Gothic new palace was added on by Clement VI from 1342. More than twenty rooms can be visited, most of them vast, some with medieval frescos by Matteo Giovannetti and Simone Martini - the presence of the popes made Avignon an important artistic centre. But perhaps the abiding impression was of the complex administration that was contained within the solid walls – notaries, canon lawyers, accountants, gathering taxes, hearing law cases arranging the enormous banquets given during state occasions, coronations, receptions or other commemorations or keeping records of the hundreds of workers employed on the massive building projects. It was very much a big business undertaking and particularly significant was the proportion of the papal revenues that were spent on wars.

Several hours later we left the palace and made our way along the ramparts, which extend unbroken around the city for some 4 kilometres, to the remnants of the original bridge still with its old chapel. It was this bridge that really made Avignon important as it was one of the only crossing points of the Rhône between Provence and France.

Pont St. Bénezet, Avignon

We made our way back through the town to the cathedral of Notre Dame des Doms next to the old palace with the tomb of Pope Benedict XII. Behind the cathedral we climbed to the gardens -Rocher des Doms - with spectacular views towards the Rhone from its ornate grotto.

Frozen assets in the gardens. Avignon

View from Rocher des Doms to the Île de Barthelasse. Avignon

Below in the town we walked through the Place d’Horlorge with its Christmas market, bright roundabouts, happy children eating candyfloss or excitedly demanding chocolate crêpes and waffles. We followed the crowds thronging into the Hotel de Ville to look at the huge crib displaying not only the Holy Family but tableaux of regional interest with ceramic figures in local costume gathered around the stable bringing gifts of lambs, bread and flowers. There was also a separate tableau depicting a typical 19th century peasant family of the Provence region celebrating the New Year’s supper. Unlike today, when the feast of St. Sylvestre holds as much significance for the French as Christmas, this was a simple meal of soup, cheese, fruits and nuts. On the walls of the town hall, carved in huge marble slabs, were the lists of those of the town who had lost their lives during the two World Wars and other wars in which the French have been involved, such as Algeria and the Franco-Prussian war.

Seasonal celebrations in the Place de l’Horloge, Avignon

By now dusk was falling and so were temperatures which had never risen to zero all day anyway. So we made our way back across the windy bridge, returning with gratitude to Modestine.