There are zillions of reasons to visit Provence, and plenty of authors have explored them for you and me in best-selling books.
Those are all good reasons.
But for me, right now, the reason I swung us through that very western section of Provence was for the sake of Roamschooling – we had “done” prehistory in the Perigord, the site of a great deal of wonderful prehistoric sites – caves and such – and so now it was time to move on to the Romans.
And reading Asterix and Obelix a zillion times over is not quite enough!
So off to Provence – so named because it was a “provincia” of the Roman Empire.
Based in Uzes, we were only about 40 minutes from both Arles and Nimes. There are lots of important Roman sites in this area, but these two cities are easy to get to, well-developed, and have, conveniently, Roman arenas in which boys can imagine people fighting and stuff.
(Yes, we went to Pont du Gard…more on that later!)
We hit Arles first, on a Sunday afternoon. It really is amazing, especially to an American, how these ancient sites are just right there in the middle of traffic.
I was a little hesitant to go to Nimes the next day because I was thinking, “Roman arena? Now used for bullfighting? Yeah, been there, done that. ” Plus we will indeed end up in Rome at some point on this journey. But the boys were still pretty interested in Nimes, so I wasn’t going to squash those glimmers of curiosity by saying no, and I’m very glad I didn’t, for while the arenas are quite similar, of course, the process of touring them is very different, and it is worth doing both.
In Arles, you pay your admission, then you are on your own. You have access to almost every bit of the arena (excluding two of the three remaining towers). You can walk all around them at every level. You can ever run, if you really have a mind to.
There’s information around, but it’s minimal. It’s mostly just about being there, imaging, and pondering how we have changed and how we haven’t changed at all.
Nimes is far more organized. It’s part of a group of cultural sites managed by a group called “Culturespaces” It features extensive signage and a very detailed audioguide. Very informative, but also more controlled. I am not going to argue with the need to control access to a 2000-year old structure – at all! – but I was glad we had both experiences. In Nimes, to learn, and in Arles, to just wander.
I also had some quibbles about some of the audio guide content as it related to Christianity, but I’m going to have to look stuff up to make sure I am right before I go on a public tear about that….
I asked the boys if they would ever want to go to a bullfight – the Nimes site featured a smallish display of costumes and some video – and they both firmly answered, “no.” That’s good. It’s not exactly on my list, either, although I find it culturally and socially quite interesting.
The cities are quite different. Arles is smaller and scruffier. (We got to one Van Gogh site, as well – this one) Nimes was larger, sprightlier, and more expansive.
And yeah, we learned stuff.
Most especially I learned to be wary of parking in a parking garage in Arles if the need every again arose. I actually didn’t think I was going to get out, ever. I could see us sleeping there for the night. I paid, and got my ticket validated in the machine, and then the exit machine wouldn’t take it. I tried both lanes – no deal. It was a Sunday, and there were no attendants working. I contemplated trying to race out behind someone else, but upon observation, saw that whoever designed the barrier arms anticipated such a move since the thing slams down within half a second after you pass.
I pushed a button near a speaker, and got some odd, repetitive recorded message I couldn’t understand. I went to another machine and punched a similar button. This time I got the voice of a person who told me, upon being asked, that he didn’t speak any English. I strung together some words about my billet and not being to departer – probably incomprehensible – but the message must have gotten across because when I returned to the car, the barrier arm was up, waiting for us to pass.
Next time? Park in the street.
(Oh, and speaking of parking and paying, I am pleased to say that it hasn’t taken me two weeks to figure out parking here in France as it did in Sicily. The systems are pretty consistent from place to place – there is a lot of free parking in smaller cities and towns, street parking is connected to machines which you pay ahead of time that then give you a slip to put in your dashboard while you are gone, and lot parking usually involves getting a ticket when you pull in, which you then use to pay when you are done, and then which you insert in the gate to get out. It seems to work. Most of the time.)
(Both arenas served many different purposes over the centuries. What interested me the most was that during the Middle Ages, both had villages - really, towns, – built up within. The walls you see in the arches above are remnants of that time.)