Monday, 30 July 2012

Days 233 to 234: Francefest 2012 – Nimes and Montpelliers

We didn’t visit Nimes by design; rather, the absolute unavailability of accommodation in Avignon – due to its major arts festival - forced our hand. Nimes being less than an hour away, and by all accounts not an unpleasant place, we thought it would make a convenient base to explore Avignon. In the end, it became an even more convenient base simply to explore Nimes.

My favourite fact about Nimes is one Justin told me – it’s where denim comes from: “De Nimes”. Denim is probably the world’s foremost fabric, having become pretty much part of every echelon of life. I read a report once from someone who had sat in coffeeshops around the world and counted the people walking by, totting up the percentage that were wearing jeans. Tough job. It came to over 50% everywhere in the world he went. I like denim because you can wear jeans for many days and it seems to cope with spillages; also it deals with fading so well it’s designed to look faded. The ultimate lazy garment that somehow has become fashionable: that’s my sort of trouser.

Nimes is not just a celebration of fabric though; in fact, it’s fair to say I barely thought about fabric or textiles at all during my time there. Instead, I thought about these things: food, the Romans, Norman Foster, and Claire’s ID card. Let’s have a stroll through these thoughts.


It will be no surprise that we ate well in Nimes, what was a little surprising was where my best meal was – at the chain hotel. Our hotel was a decent enough thing about 20 minutes walk from the city centre, but looked pretty generic. We didn’t hold out much hope for great food, but by the time we arrived that evening, hot and sweaty and tired from a day of driving and trudging around Avignon, nobody was in the mood for an adventure. The hotel was right here, let’s just eat and be done with it. The menu looked pretty good, but because of staffing problems, it was a full 45 minutes before out order was even taken. None of us was bothered though, particularly after we got some very good wine to scoff (the thought is that they made a mistake, and erroneously gave us an expensive bottle of wine).

The waitress was very apologetic, and lovely, and French Claire entirely reassured her that we were in no hurry and everything was fine. This worked to our advantage. Most of us ordered carpaccio, my first experience with this raw, thinly sliced, beef. Oh, it was tasty. Spirits were good, wine flowing, and everyone enjoyed a cool evening outside after a hot day, much of it in a car. Then the waitress came back, explaining that because of the initial slowness of service, and because the chef needed to finish the carpaccio, we could all have another serving for free. We tried to be polite, and say it wasn’t necessary – but I don’t think any of us were upset when that next plate came.

The rest of our meals came in the city centre, yet another historic one with charming old buildings. Oh, the  south of France, how lovely you look. We ate a couple of lunches in a little square near the amphitheatre, which did the job but never excelled, but our other evening meal took place down a little street near the old temple, and was suitably delicious.

Nimes also, notably, had an amazing invention: the vending machine shop. Think of a vending machine, then think of a shop, then picture a vending machine the size of a shop. This was what we found near the train station. An entire building’s facade as a huge vending machine, selling drinks, snacks, and other rubbish at the push of a button. Sure, it would have been much quicker just to walk into a real shop and buy stuff instead of watching the machine repeat three identical actions to get three bottles of water (instead of getting the three bottles in one motion), but what a pleasure to watch after having had a few drinks.

 The Romans

The Romans used to live in Nimes, as demonstrated by its three significant Roman structures: the amphitheatre, the temple (the Maison Carree), and a tower (the Tour Magne). Of these, the amphitheatre was the clear attraction, one of the best preserved and largest Roman amphitheatres built. I’m sure it’s got a good audio tour, but when Danielle and I arrived the queue for the guide was inexplicably massive (there was no queue at all for the entry ticket), so we enjoyed wandering around and reading the descriptions. I have a suspicion that one amphitheatre might be a little like all the others, as a lot of them were built back in Roman times, and very much to a standard design, but they are still great landmarks. I mean, this one was around 1900 years old – that’s very impressive. I’ve visited a slightly more ruined amphitheatre in Pula, Croatia, which was also impressive, and I’ve got the Verona Arena and the Colosseum on my Wonders list, so we’ll see how they measure up.

What was nice about the Nimes Arena is that it’s still used, very regularly, as a venue. That night David Guetta was playing there, to the sound of hundreds of gladiators turning in their graves.

The Maison Carree was a well preserved Roman temple in the middle of the city, but we couldn’t be bothered queuing for the half-hour show, so we took a wander to the Tour Magne instead. It was up a hill, then a spiral staircase takes you to the top, to be stuffed in a small space allowing a view of the city. It’s worth doing, but not absolutely essential.

Norman Foster

Due to the Millau Viaduct, Norman Foster had become a popular name during the holiday, and felt like a personal friend. Lucy was raving on about his arts centre in Nimes, which is pretty much next to the Maison Carree. I think here is where my own interests diverge from that of an architect’s. I don’t doubt that Foster’s arts centre (the Carre d’art) is architecturally great, very influential, sympathetic to its surroundings, and full of subtle, genius touches, but my, isn’t it all a bit boring? Arts centre usually do have a whiff of the sterile, and Foster’s one certainly cultivated this. Even the staff were a little unfriendly, after a holiday in which the French were almost universally nice. I suppose it just goes to show that good design doesn’t necessarily mean exciting design, and that functional bridges are a little more fun to visit than functional arts centres.

Claire’s lost ID

Claire, who is French, used her European ID card to travel from the UK to France, as her passport is currently expired. Unfortunately, at the Carcassonne camping site, she failed to take her card back after handing it over for security reasons. She realised this earlier on in the holiday, and had phoned them about it. No problem, they said, they’d post it on the to the Nimes hotel, upon her giving them the address. Thus, she expected the card to be waiting for her when we checked in. It wasn’t. It didn’t arrive on the first morning either, so she phoned the campsite again, finding them resolutely uncooperative and unhelpful. Eventually, she managed to extract from them that they’d sent the ID card, but only the day before. And only by regular post.

Without her ID, Claire would be stranded in France. Her home country, sure, but she’s lived in Scotland for ten years, and was due back at work on Tuesday. Fingers crossed then that the campsite was telling the truth, and the following morning would see the ID card arrive. But – nope. And suddenly a little stress began to creep in. Among the rest the group, there were whispers that things really didn’t look good. British immigration wouldn’t let someone in without ID, and Claire wouldn’t even be allowed on the flight. Perhaps she’d be trapped in France forever, and we’d never see her again. So on our final morning and afternoon in Nimes, Claire went on a phone and paperwork extravaganza, getting various documents from the police to back up her claim that she was a real, legal person. Still, if you’d asked me that day if she’d be flying home with the rest of us on Sunday morning, I’d have murmured a quiet “no” (although not to Claire – she can get very angry when she wants to).

We were flying from Montpellier, and had a hotel booked for one night, so we all headed there for one final night. Nobody was expecting much, but gosh if it wasn’t another town/city with a historic centre and lots of charming streets and buildings. It was definitely a little rougher round the edges, with quite a lot of weirdos and dirty hippies, but had a lot of life and character to it. Entirely to our surprise, we enjoyed one of the best meals we’d had – no mean feat after ten days of guzzlemania. I had more steak tartare, and we all squealed for a while with food excitement. It was a fitting way to end the trip.

No, it wasn’t. The fitting way came the  following morning, at the airport. Claire approached the Easyjet desk with her documents, and they made a variety of calls. Finally – yes, it was ok. She was cleared to travel.

And thus ended the holiday. Danielle and I had a few hours to wait at London Luton before arriving at Edinburgh airport, then getting a lift from Danielle’s parents to Glasgow. It was cold and it rained a little. Danielle looked at me with sad eyes. Goodbye France, hello Scotland. The blue skies had filled with cloud. Holiday over, time for normal life again. But oh, what a holiday.

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