The title of this blog is not entirely accurate since Nîmes lies in the Languedoc-Roussillon region and not in the Provence region but once we got to know of another ancient Roman city in the vicinity of Avignon, there was no way we were going to miss it. So we set ourselves for another early start, took a train from Avignon Centre Railway Station and reached Nîmes in half an hour. Nîmes has just three major attractions and these can be covered easily in a few hours.
ESPLANADE CHARLES-DE-GAULLE & FONTAINE PRADIER
As soon as we exited the station we were greeted with a wide boulevard lined with trees and benches with many people just sitting there and soaking in the sun. A five minute walk on that boulevard got us to Esplanade Charles-de-Gaulle – a large square cum garden. The square had a lot of greenery and broad pathways and seemed a great spot to hang out and relax. The major attraction of the Esplanade Charles-de-Gaulle is a beautifully sculptured fountain known as Fontaine Pradier. This marble fountain contains the statue of a lady standing on a pedestal surrounded by 4 other statues in a seated position. These statues are allegorical as the lady symbolizes the city of Nîmes with her headgear being one the city’s famous monuments while the other four statues symbolize the four rivers of the Nîmes region.
Just ahead of Esplanade Charles-de-Gaulle lay the Nîmes amphitheatre. After the Colosseum in Rome and the Arena of Arles this was the third Roman amphitheatre we had seen in the span of less than 20 days. Nîmes amphitheatre was quite similar to the one at Arles. It was also a two tiered structure and was in a pretty good state considering it was a 2000 year old building. We bought a combined ticket for the 3 major monuments of Nîmes at the entrance. After that we walked the galleries of the amphitheatre and climbed to the top of the seating arena for a fantastic view of the city. We did not spend much time inside as it was our third amphitheatre and they were all beginning to look the same by now.
Just 500 metres away from the amphitheatre is the monument that adorns the head of the statue of Nîmes at Fontaine Pradier – Maison Carrée. This limestone structure, which was originally a Roman temple, was built towards the end of first century BC but it has been so magnificently preserved that it doesn’t look more than few hundred years old. The huge pillars at the entrance have carvings of leaves above them which are typical of ancient Roman monuments. There were also carvings on all sides of the roof.
Maison Carrée offers something completely different inside. A 20 minute movie that shows the origin of the city of Nîmes. By the time we reached Maison Carrée, the current show was already full so we went ahead and covered the remaining monument of the city before returning. Once we returned we immediately joined the queue for the next show. Expecting a documentary kind of movie we were completely blown away after watching a short movie in the mould of LOTR/GOT. There was a proper story, actors, costumes, sets, props, effects etc. It was something Peter Jackson would have been proud of! It also showed how much the Europeans value tourist engagement and entertainment.
JARDINS DE LA FONTAINE & TOUR MAGNE
Between our two visits to Maison Carrée, we visited the famous Fountain Gardens of Nîmes and the Magne Tower. The 500 metre path, known as Quai de la Fontaine, that leads to the gardens was among the most picturesque path that we walked on during our entire trip. With trees on both sides of the path leaning in to form a green tunnel and a canal with embankments flowing in the middle, it was as charming as it could get. At that point, I really envied the people living in the houses built on both sides of Quai de la Fontaine.
Soon after, we reached the centre of the garden and unquestionably it was a sight to behold. It was a large green space consisting of canals, bridges and staircases. The gardens were built at the site of the spring around which the ancient city of Nîmes was established. Towards the left end of the gardens were the ruins of an ancient temple of Diane. The structure seemed right out of one of those mythological fantasy movies. We explored the temple for a few minutes and strolled around the garden. Due to the presence of very few people it was quite serene.
The gardens were located at the base of a hill known as Mont Cavalier while at the top was the ancient Magne Tower – the third monument on our ticket. There were many winding paths which led to the top of the hill. We chose a path and started climbing, enveloped by with trees and plants on all sides. Not content with just following the simple path, we tried to take a few shortcuts and unorthodox routes which drew bemused looks from other visitors. Eventually we reached the top of the hill which was the highest point of the city and in front of us stood the Magne Tower.
The tower was originally a pre-Roman structure but it was modified and incorporated in the Roman city walls by Emperor Augustus in around 15 BC. It was, in fact the tallest and most prestigious tower of the city, visible from afar indicating the power and importance of Nîmes. The top storey of the tower has been lost with time but it still rises to an impressive height of 32 metres. Inside the tower there was a staircase which got us to the top. From the top we got stunning views of the old town, the newer multi-storey buildings at the outskirts of the city and vast green plains beyond the boundary of the city.
THE FAILED PLAN
From the Magne Tower we walked down to the gardens and then all the way to Maison Carrée. After watching the movie there, we headed back to the railway station. The bus station could be accessed from the back exit of the railway station. Our plan was to catch a bus and visit the most iconic monument of South France – Pont du Gard but just like the previous day, the bus we were waiting for did not arrive. Feeling helpless and a little angry we headed back to Avignon. During our return journey we brainstormed on how we could salvage our day and searched for alternate destinations eventually settling on the archaeological excavations of Glanum.
To reach Glanum, we had to go to the town of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence and then walk further. Once we reached the Avignon Central Railway Station we walked to the bus station and approached the lady at the ticket counter.
Me: Bonjour, we want to buy two return tickets to Saint Remy De Provence.
Me: Two return tickets Saint Remy de Provence.
Me: SAINT REMY.
She: Ohh, SainRemyThProvan.
Well, apparently that’s how you pronounce the place. Finally we did get our tickets and reached Saint-Rémy in 45 minutes passing picturesque towns and countryside on the way. The bus dropped us on the main road right opposite the Saint Martin Parish following which we immediately set out towards Glanum. A narrow one way street with houses and shops on both sides soon gave way to a wider road named Avenue Vincent Van Gogh.
THE VAN GOGH WALK
After spending a little over one year in Arles, Van Gogh moved to Saint-Rémy where he admitted himself to Saint-Paul Asylum. He produced some of his best works there and made an indelible mark on Saint-Rémy’s history.
As we traversed the Avenue Vincent Van Gogh, we found small circular metallic plaques with ‘Vincent’ engraved on them embedded every few metres in the pavement. Apart from that, on the sides of the road there were information boards carrying replicas of paintings made by Van Gogh in Saint-Rémy along with their current location and Van Gogh’s messages to various people depicting his inspiration behind each painting. We captured each and every one of those information boards on our camera.
We were so engrossed with Van Gogh that we almost didn’t notice that we had left the main town behind and were surrounded by pretty houses in the outskirts of the town which soon gave way to a countryside-esque setting with large grassy fields and olive tree plantations. After following the main road for 1.5 km (though it definitely didn’t feel that much), we finally reached Glanum.
While walking back we took a detour to visit the Saint-Paul Asylum. The path to the asylum was extremely beautiful and serene and carried more information boards on the legendary artist’s paintings. The asylum was already closed by the time we reached thus our desire of seeing Van Gogh’s room remained unfulfilled. We moved on and rejoined the main road. As we reached the town we saw some old men playing a game by tossing steel balls. Overall, it was a kind of town where you would not mind settling down and living a laid-back carefree life. That particular fantasy of ours was interrupted by the arrival of our bus and with that our fourth day in Avignon was over.
After visiting Glanum I can certainly say that if someone took me back 20 years and ask me what I would like to become when I grow up, I would have said without a moment’s hesitation – an archaeologist. This is because the two hours I spent at Glanum were the best two hours of the entire trip. In fact, I was running around from one ruin to other like an excited child which amuses me now because that behaviour was completely unlike me. But again, in the excitement of writing about Glanum I have got ahead of myself and broken the chain of the events so let’s go back a little.
A few metres before the main site of Glanum, we saw two structures to our right in a clearing just next to the road. These two monuments – a remarkably well preserved and intact mausoleum and a huge stone arch with its top missing – are collectively known as Les Antiques. They are also part of Glanum though why they are not inside the main site is anybody’s guess. The mausoleum, named Mausoleum of the Julii, was the first ancient Roman mausoleum we had seen on our trip. It was a tall structure with excellent stone carvings depicting what seemed like battle scenes to us. The arch, which is the oldest in France, was built to display the power and triumphs of Romans. Its sculptures, though not completely intact, show Gaulish prisoners alongside Roman victors.
Next up was the main site of Glanum, the source of our excitement. There was a large ticket office from where we bought our tickets, collected a leaflet containing a map of the site and other details and exited via the side door. In front of us now lay the glorious ruins of the ancient town of Glanum surrounded by extensive greenery and the stony Alpilles Mountains.
Glanum does not belong to a single era or civilization. It was established by the Gaulish people in 7th century BC around a sacred spring, got influenced by Hellenistic style after interaction with Greeks began around 2nd century BC and ultimately became a Roman colony in around 50 BC. After being inhabited continuously for close to 1000 years, the town was abandoned towards the end of 3rd century AD. It was gradually lost and forgotten with time before excavations to unearth this ancient town began in 1921. There is probably nothing that exemplifies the layers of history in Provence better than Glanum.
The town of Glanum was based on both sides of its main street. This street also acts as cover for the town’s drainage system which shows excellent city planning. When we crouched and listened closely we could still hear water flowing beneath the street. There were remains of elaborate houses, simple houses, a market, thermal baths, a forum, an assembly hall, a large administrative building, a wine preservation room, a fountain, wells, the sacred spring, ramparts and multiple temples and shrines.
Despite being a remarkable site, Glanum ran the risk of looking like a collection of broken pillars, ruined columns and worn down walls which might not have been very appealing to the visitors. But here I have to applaud the people who have worked on this site and studied it comprehensively. There were detailed information boards alongside each major ruin describing the purpose of the building and having illustrations that showed how it must have looked in its prime. It was magical when we looked at these images and could actually connect them to the ruins in front of us. For example, an image of a house showed a drain and we could actually see the remains of a narrow drain running from the house to the town’s main drain.
We saw all the ruins taking our own sweet time with each one. After that we climbed up to the belvederes which were built on the hill to the west of the main site. It was a fantastic vantage point that provided panoramic views over the entire site. From up there we noticed a guy who seemed to be searching for someone and we suddenly realized that he was looking for us as it was almost closing time and we were the only ones in the entire area. We quickly came down and exited the site. Before exiting we saw one last thing in the ticket office – a large model of the entire town of Glanum as it must have looked in the Roman era. I still curse myself for not taking a photo of that model.