Being back in France means traveling once again, therefore last weekend I visited the ancient city of Nîmes in the south of France. It sits between Montpellier and Marseilles and is only about 20 miles from the Mediterranean coast.

After the conquest of Gaul in the 1st century BC, Nîmes became an important Roman colony that flourished for 400 years and is today sometimes called the most Roman city outside of Italy. It would be an understatement to say the Romans left a mark, and indeed, that is the whole reason I visited.

There are many things to see right in the middle of downtown. Here is Les Jardins de la Fontaine (fountain gardens). The paths and statues date from more recent times (18th century), but they are located at the source of a spring which existed from antiquity and still runs today. The Gallic tribe that founded the city prior to the arrival of the Romans called the god of the spring Nemausus, from which the later name of Nîmes derives.

Les Jardins de La Fontaine

The garden is a large complex with trails and fountains and a wooded hill with views of the city. I saw a lot of joggers and I wondered if they knew they were jogging in paradise. Also in the gardens can be found the ruins of the so-called “Temple of Diana” which however was not a temple, and is thought now to possibly have been a library. It was built in the 1st century AD. It is open and you can wander all over it unsupervised. Which I did.

Temple de Diane

But if you do want to see an actual temple the Maison Carrée is only a few blocks away. This was built under the reign of Augustus and was dedicated to his two grandsons. After the Romans exited stage left it was subsequently used as a town hall, private home, a horse stable, a church, and a museum. Somewhat miraculously it survived all these ill treatments and remains today possibly the best preserved Roman temple in the world. Thomas Jefferson based the design of the Virginia State Capitol on this building.

Maison Carrée

According to Vitruvius (the guy who literally wrote the book on architecture), a temple should always have an odd number of steps “for thus the right foot with which one mounts the first step, will also be the first to reach the level of the temple itself.” It was apparently disrespectful to arrive at the entrance with your left foot. The builders here did not forget, I counted 15 steps.

Within a few minutes walking distance of these attractions is the Arènes de Nîmes, a Roman amphitheatre that is also exceptionally well-preserved. In fact it is still in use today for concerts, bull fights and other events, 2000 years after the Romans kindly built it for us. When not in use for other purposes you can buy a ticket and tour the place yourself. I went early on a Saturday morning and was just about the only person there.

Arènes de Nîmes

Here again I was surprised at the freedom they allowed me as well as the absence of intrusive and annoying safety precautions (ahem, UK, but America is pretty bad too). Even being cautious it would not be difficult to trip down the stone steps and bien injure yourself. In America I think this is the sort of place you’d be required to wear a hard-hat and a climbing harness and be closely supervised. Potential danger abounds not just amongst the bleachers: there is no guardrail along either the second story – where you are free to walk right through the arches to your death – nor along the top row of the stadium where you are again free to walk straight off the edge if you prefer to drop from a greater height.

The floor is prepared for bull fights during the Feria des Vendanges next week

Indeed according to information on the internet, isolated visitors have been prohibited since 2013 and you must be in a group of at least 2 people to tour the arena. At the time there had been an unusual streak of suicide attempts, five in the space of two months that killed three and paralyzed a fourth (the fifth was dissuaded at the last moment). But if that is still the rule, it was not enforced on this day. I wandered around alone without supervision, and since I am not presently suicidal, I had a wonderful time.

What illustrious Romans walked down these same steps?

Ruins, temples, and arenas are not all. The main attraction is actually the tallest aqueduct known in the Roman world, located miles out of town. It is called Pont du Gard and to visit you will need a car or you can take a bus as I did, if you can figure out the schedules and are there at the right time.

Like the temple and arena the aqueduct was built in the 1st century AD. Pont du Gard is actually only a small – but very impressive – section of the entire work which traversed more than 30 miles and brought water from springs near Uzès to Nîmes (the Uzès springs are still in use today). Much of the aqueduct was actually underground, or followed at ground level the contours of the terrain (the Roman’s preferred method where possible, even if it meant taking a longer route to the destination), but here an unavoidable valley crossing had to be made, and thus this water bridge (pont means bridge, the river it crosses is the Gard).

The structure was built using more than 11 million stone blocks. Except for the top course that carried the water, it was assembled entirely without mortar and is held in place to this day by gravity and the consummate skill of the Roman builders. The bridge rises 160 feet above ground (49 meters) and was nearly a quarter mile long.

In addition to the astronomical cost to build the aqueduct, the Romans also footed the bill to maintain it for 250 years. Following various invasions by the Vandals and Visigoths during the 4th century it began to fall into disrepair but it is nevertheless believed to have continued to carry water for another couple hundred years after the collapse of the Roman empire.

Over the centuries it has withstood the ravages of time, nature, and man (it is hard to know which of the three is most destructive). Even in recorded history it has weathered extreme weather events, including a flood in 1958 that submerged the entirety of the lower tier and completely washed away modern bridges along the same river. Pont du Gard was unscathed.

France has had a record hot September and the day I visited the bridge was a scorcher. I had somewhat stupidly followed my usual habit of avoiding all liquids on busy sightseeing days, in order to avoid having to water the bushes. Thus after all morning climbing around the arena, a long wait in the sun at the bus stop, and then walking to the bridge site I found myself already weak from dehydration by the time I arrived. I had signed up for a guided tour and my bus arrived just before it began so there was no time to see if the gift shop sold water (but it didn’t).

Anybody can walk across the bridge along the middle section but the guided tour takes you to the top course where you cross over by walking inside the water channel itself, which is quite large enough to accommodate a human. The crossing only takes a few minutes but the tour lasted well over an hour as we wandered around the woods and hillsides and stopped in the blazing sun to discuss this or that. Afterwards I had two more hours to explore until the bus arrived, which I profitably spent by getting lost in the woods, sweating, hallucinating, feeding the mosquitoes, and trying most of all to be sufficiently awed by what I knew was a once in a lifetime experience, quickly slipping through my fingers.

Pont du Gard is something I had read about and seen pictures of years ago, from the comfort of my couch in my air conditioned apartment. Considering such a fascinating historical masterpiece in a relaxed environment lent itself to long and pleasant hours of thinking wistfully about the Roman empire, the wisdom of the ancients, and all the glories of antiquity more generally. Sadly we can’t be magically and effortlessly transported from our couch to a shady riverside in a foreign land. But if by some miracle we find ourselves on the other side of the world in real life, necessarily after some long and strange journey that we have yet even to process, and possibly not even in the shade, we may find our thoughts are not what we imagined they would be. On this day I admit to thinking a lot more than I wanted to about whether heat stroke was in my near or immediate future, wishing I had brought some water, or my swimsuit, and worrying about missing the bus back to town.

Later, when I had made it back to town and sufficiently re-hydrated myself, my thoughts did turn once again to the Romans. Incredibly, I learned the aqueduct was probably more a prestige project than a literal necessity – as mentioned above Nîmes has a very generous spring right in the middle of town that fills canals and feeds water fountains to this day. But the Romans liked their public baths (Nîmes had seven), and they also wanted to be able to flood the arena in order to hold mock naval battles – you know, when the fancy struck.

Looking up at the amphitheatre in town one can’t help but wonder how on earth any people could have the energy to raise that much rock into the sky. Did the Romans never sleep in on Saturdays? But not only did they build the Colosseum in Rome, and the one in Nîmes, and another in Arles less than 20 miles down the road from Nîmes, but those overachievers built well in excess of 200 such amphitheatres all around the empire. We are impressed with the remains of but one; back in the day they were literally commonplaces – in both meanings of the word.

Like anything more than ten minutes old, the Romans are frequently looked upon cynically by the moderns. Were the Romans truly a great people? I think we’ve all read accounts of a few that weren’t so cuddly, but there is a difference between individuals on the one hand (nasty examples of which exist in all times and places), and cultures, societies, or civilizations on the other. The real question is not whether they were perfect, but rather, are we become any better?

The Artist’s Despair Before the Grandeur of Ancient Ruins – Johann Heinrich Füssli

The Romans created such beauty and grandeur that even mere remnants still awe, inspire and enrich people to this day. What are the cultures, societies and civilizations of today going to leave the people a thousand years from now? What words could we use to describe even our architectural legacy (let alone political, cultural, or philosophical)? I have thought long and hard about this one, and beauty and grandeur are not on the list.

Whatever else may be said, the Romans spent their energy on things which make me happy to see and think about 2000 years later. This earns them my respect. Indeed I respect them for many things, but most of all for their ceaseless striving towards higher things.

But the Romans don’t need me to defend them. Go stand under Pont du Gard, they can still speak for themselves.

Semnoz and the Lake

On the last day of our (online) French class in Edinburgh I discovered that my French teacher comes from Annecy. I asked for suggestions of things to see and among other places she mentioned Mt. Semnoz, a small mountain just on the south side of town. I say small, it is roughly 6,000 feet in elevation (1,700 meters). That is relatively small compared to the other mountains around here, but not by Midwestern USA standards where driving over the levee is high excitement.

Annecy Lake from the top of Mt. Semnoz

I don’t have a car but it turns out Annecy has a summer bus that will take you to the top, however it only ran through the end of August. Since I didn’t arrive until the 20th that didn’t leave a lot of time, but I still managed to go up twice – and I only had to die of embarrassment on the first trip, by the second time I had figured out the secrets of the electronic bus ticket thingy.

Les Rochers Blancs hotel & restaurant

The view from the top is of course stunning and also completely impossible to reproduce with my simple photos, or probably with anybody’s photos. As an aside on the topic of photography, one can do a lot of research about tips and tricks and “the secrets of the professionals.” You can also spend endless hours researching cameras and endless dollars buying them. I have concluded the real secret to getting a good picture is having lots of time. In Edinburgh I had six months to wander around one small city every single day, which meant I could afford to wait for just the right sunset, just the right coronavirus lockdown, or just the right trickle of dried urine on the sidewalk. But if I only spend one weekend in Beauvais, or a couple hours on Semnoz, or a few minutes in Joan of Arc’s house, then whatever the conditions happen to be, that’s all I’m getting. Inevitably during these brief times the conditions are not ideal.

For whatever reason, maybe because it was the very end of the French summer vacation period, there was almost no one on the mountain when I visited. There were however lots of cows roaming the hillsides, each with a surprisingly loud bell, which all together created a beautiful and very alpine music. The cows are brought up in summer to graze but I have no idea where they are hidden for winter, and how do they make the trip up and down the mountain – do they have French cowboys? In addition to a few restaurants (closed of course), there is also a fromagerie near the summit selling reblochon cheese. The US has banned imports of reblochon because it does not meet their silly rules, which I guess just means more for the Europeans then.

Fromagerie at the top of Mt. Semnoz

But every country has their own rules. The irony was not lost on me, standing on the top of Semnoz, that while in Edinburgh I was never able to walk the two minutes from my apartment to the language school and meet my teacher in person, yet no one had any problems with me travelling across international borders, and rubbing shoulders with hundreds of people along the way, to visit her hometown.

Later I took a narrated boat tour around Lake Annecy which was quite relaxing and a great way to feel a cool breeze for an hour. The narrator, who also happened to be the captain, had what I call foreigner-friendly French – he spoke slowly (by French standards) and clearly articulated every word. With such assistance, and my vast reservoir of knowledge and intelligence, I was able to understand maybe ten percent of what he said.

Like everything I to do for the first time it took me several tries to finally get on the boat, in fact it took me three days. First the departure times on the website were not the same as the departure times in real life, as I discovered when I walked the half hour to the quay and the ticket office wasn’t even open. On returning at the correct time the second day I discovered they couldn’t take contactless payments: otherwise universally encouraged, even at my boulangerie. I tried my card the old fashioned way but of course my credit card company randomly decided to decline the transaction since this must be suspicious. At least I wasn’t trying to get out of a parking garage. Since cash is becoming universally discouraged I had not brought any with me. Finally on the third day, and after a combined total of three hours of walking, I came back with paper money and got a ticket and took my ride. (I have left out a description of all the eloquent French I had to use and how many people in line behind me had to roll their eyes.)

Yeah we learn as we go, but nothing ever gets figured out the first try, and everything always requires lots and lots of walking and gluing your shoes back together in the evenings. This is not a complaint, it is just a description of what life is like for a clueless idiot abroad. In case you wondered.

Dents de Lanfon, Lanfonnet, La Tournette
Chateau de Duingt

The city of Annecy claims their lake has the clearest and purest water of any lake in all of Europe. Some say it may be the cleanest in the world, if we only consider lakes in populated areas. I don’t have a way to verify that but when you walk along the shore it is not hard to believe, the water is nothing short of crystalline. It is considered safe to drink even without treatment, and testing shows it exceeds the standards for bottled spring water.

The lake was apparently not always so clean, but starting in the 1950s a collection system was built that encircles the lake and captures any runoff that would otherwise drain into it. Today the mountain streams and rain from heaven are the only sources of water that enter the lake. Ironically it has become so pure that little plant material or algae can grow in the water. Aquatic wildlife has declined, recreational fishing has had to be limited and today it is estimated there are only 30 or 40 swans left. However you can still see the swans – it is a big lake but I assume they like to hang out where people and human food can be found (of course you are not supposed to feed the swans but it happens all the same). For Annecy’s sake I will hope the swans do not disappear completely because they are a central icon of the city’s self identity, appearing on postcards and all sorts of other touristy items.

Some people say the French are not very fond of rules so I wondered what the real coronavirus situation would be like here, as opposed to what I read about before hand. I have found the reality to be a mix of adherence and laxity. The one thing that is strictly observed with zero exceptions is the wearing of face masks. If you like to wear a mask, France is the place for you, it is required not only indoors but many outdoors places as well; in Annecy that includes the entirety of old town.

Pigs may not be flying yet, but they are wearing masks

Other rules however don’t seem to be followed too closely, to my great relief. The website said the summer bus to Semnoz was limited to 15 passengers at a time (it can probably hold 50 people). This concerned me somewhat as I could just imagine being the 16th guy trying to get on at the top of the mountain, and end up stranded there with not a soul on this continent to call even if I had cell phone reception. As it turned out there was almost no one taking the bus at the mountaintop, but earlier down in the city we boarded a lot more than 15 people and the driver didn’t care.

The website for the boat tour said that due to coronavirus we wouldn’t be allowed to go on deck and we’d have to stay glued to our chair inside the cabin the entire time, which didn’t sound like a lot of fun. But once we got underway the captain said do whatever you want, stand up, leave your seat, walk all over, the only thing you must do is keep your mask on. I spent the entire trip on the roof of the boat.

In general I have found in France you really can not rely on information found on the internet the same way you can in America. Stores can be closed any time for any reason no matter what some website says, less frequently I have even seen it go the other way, where a shop is open even though my phone just told me it was closed and am I sure I really want directions after all? Public transportation schedules are not necessarily what Google says they are and bus stops can differ even from the official published list. Confusingly there are two official websites for train schedules, SNCF.com and OUI.sncf.com and they don’t always agree with each other (best to go to the train station on foot to look at their ticket machine). Indeed the only way to know anything for sure is to walk all over creation and go everywhere in person, that or I guess live here your entire life.