Monday, 13 September 2010

London to Nîmes

Friday’s journey from London to Nîmes had its hiccoughs: first, the ordered cab didn’t turn up on a grey, wet morning, and proved, on inquiry, to have not been put in the book. Fortunately, my obsessive need to allow plenty of time when traveling paid off as we made it to St Pancras without panic via the bus.

Then there was security, with The Other Half getting pulled back so that they could examine one of his bags in minute detail – and even run a chemical trace test. The problem hit me as soon as it happened: the small fruit knife that we’d bought in Perpignan a year previously was in the picnic bag that was in his small rucksack. I’d packed it for the journey, thinking it might be useful.

Unfortunately, I’d completely failed to realise that, since the blade opens out and then locks firmly in place (as you require to do something as criminal as cutting fruit), it counts as a ‘switchblade’ and it is, therefore, illegal to carry one in the UK. I think it was my first personal encounter with batty, OTT British laws – the sort that are made on the hoof when the middle classes and tabloids are squealing about some latest incident of something or other.

In this case, it was about knife crime. So a legislative hammer was taken to a peanut and it becomes illegal to carry a fruit knife.

Oh: and we still have knife crime.

It wasn’t the fault of the man who searched his bag – and confiscated the offending weapon: he was most apologetic. But the situation added to my irritation, following the invisible cab and the fact that I was starting a holiday with a case of the sniffles.

But leg one of the journey, London to Paris, went without a hitch (and with a perfectly pleasant breakfast), and the yomp across the French capital to Gard de Lyon was stress free too as, finding ourselves among the first passengers off the train at Gard du Nord, we hopped a cab instead of hunting for a train.

Paris to Nîmes proved no more eventful. Seats downstairs in a quiet TGV carriage took us south through terrain that was, on occasion, almost blotted out by mist and the lowest cloud imaginable.

But the terrain changed and with it, the weather. Cloud lifted and then cleared; fields of sunflowers appeared and the foothills of the Alps rose jaggedly in the east.

We drew into Nîmes in good time and left the train to sunshine and soaring heat. Northern Europe was behind us.

When you’re only stopping for a night in a hotel, there’s no need to unpack. So after a quick freshen up, we were out into a hazy late afternoon in the town itself.

Sitting right on the border of Provence and the Languedoc, Nîmes was, a couple of millennia ago, a Roman centre. And there are still quite a few remains to show for it.

It could be a little galling (or perhaps that should be ‘gauling’ in this context?) to see all this evidence of the Roman empire. We Brits might not take kindly to being invaded, but neither might we take kindly to the thought that our grey little islands were only really a minor outpost as far as Rome was concerned.

The facts speak for themselves: for instance, the Romans did build an arena in Britain. In wood.

The amphi-theatre – or Arènes – in Nîmes was built with rather more longevity in mind; from stone. It’s still there. And it’s still being used after almost 2,000 years. It played host to gladiatorial contests once. Now, it hosts bullfights.

Wandering around it was an extraordinary experience. Look at football stadia today and you see little real difference to how the Romans designed an amphitheatre, with the same concerns evident, from egress and excess to space for food and drink to be sold and consumed.

Mind, the steps were so steep – and The Other Half pretty much insisted that I haul myself up right to the very top, over three or four final ‘steps’ that would have required giants to justify calling them such – that when we got back down to ground level, my knees were trembling, as though I’d just done three sets of 10 reps on a quad machine with an awful lot of weight stacked up. Two days later, I could still feel the effect.

We'd already seen the remains of a rather grand Roman gate were around the corner from our hotel. The famous aqueduct is just outside the town, while one or two other antiquities still stand. We gazed at the fabulously preserved Maison Carrée – although part of it was under scaffolding and tarpaulin for work. Still, there was a Norman Foster building opposite to admire by way of compensation, its slender modern columns mirroring the ancient ones. But I do find myself wondering … as much as I like Lord Norm’s architecture (this was another of his buildings I’ve now ‘collected’), will it be around in even a few centuries?

Then, wandering into a formal garden, we came across the Temple de Diane. Goodness knows why it’s called that, since there appears to be no historic connection to the goddess of hunting. But this rather romantic ruin, which dates from around the same time as the Arènes and remarkably still has some roof left (it only got battered around at all in The Wars of Religion – rather after the decline and fall of the Roman Empire), is fascinating for plenty more mysteries than its name.

It’s covered in graffiti – but not new graffiti; scratchings that date back centuries. And not just names and dates, but Masonic symbols too; set squares and compasses. The earliest one of these that either of us spotted was from the middle of the 18th century.

Now, I don’t want to go all Dan Brown on you, but just what about this particular ruin fascinated Masons so much? We could see no mention of it either on the brief (ever so) explanatory plaque outside the building or in an equally brief tour guide to Nîmes.

My curiosity was further piqued the following morning when, inside a vast shop that sold everything from imitation knights’ armour to art materials, we also saw a selection of new pill and snuff boxes with Masonic symbols painted on them. But still no explanation for this apparent link.

But let’s not pretend that Nîmes is all Roman ruins and Masonic graffiti.

After our Roman wanders, we walked back through the town; a burning sunset behind us, huge dragonflies zipping to and fro, with swifts darting after them in search of dinner, and the clicking of cicadas all around.

We found a small, very plain square with three little restaurants on three sides, all sharing the space around a small fountain in the middle for their clientele to dine al fresco.

Menus were in French alone and we seemed to be the only non-locals. We dined on boeuf à la gardiane, a fabulous dish of casseroled beef – beef, indeed, from a bull minded by the gardians, the local 'cowboys' of the nearby Camargue. It had been slow-cooked with very little except the basics of a sauce, and simply melted in the mouth.

Served with gratinee potatoes and a lovely grilled tomato (I don't know how the French do it, but they make something as simple as a grilled tomato an utter delight) it was simplicity itself and a knockout. And for an utterly unbelievable €12 each for the main course – I tell you, we were robbing them!

The word that sprang to mind, which I have never used before but which was perfect for the food and the setting, was authentique.

And so it was, that when we headed to the station to continue our journey south early the following afternoon, it was with a memory of a wonderful meal – and an intriguing question gnawing away in our minds.

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