Go slow with the flow in the south of France


The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - ROBIN TRINCA

A FEW paces from my ho­tel in Nimes, moth­ers sit soak­ing their feet while kids splash up and down the nar­row, shal­low ‘‘foun­tain’’. A mov­ing foot­path of wa­ter runs down the broad mall link­ing the train sta­tion to the Ro­man arena at the edge of the old city.

Horse chest­nut trees spread their shade over wooden and stone benches. It’s the south of France; it gets very hot here in sum­mer. But when it does, even the poor African im­mi­grant youths have some­where to come.

Two cafes sit im­me­di­ately out­side the sta­tion. Cus­tomers lounge and wait, en­joy­ing a quiet drink or meal. I es­cape the heat of my room to sit with them and ob­serve.

Clos­ing his lap­top, a fa­ther rouses his snooz­ing son. They dis­ap­pear into the sta­tion and emerge with a tired­look­ing woman hold­ing a brief­case — Ma­man, com­mut­ing from work in Mar­seille or Mont­pel­lier.

Two old ladies in sun-frocks col­lapse into the seats be­side me. The waiter greets them with great re­spect and apol­o­gises: the cafe is clos­ing soon, all he can of­fer is a pres­sion (beer) or a glace (ice cream). They set­tle for the lat­ter and the waiter pa­tiently makes sep­a­rate change for them.

Nimes does not jump to mind when trav­ellers think of the south of France. It’s not St Tropez or Nice, or even Avi­gnon or Aix. But it’s a lovely city, mix­ing lost gran­deur and mod­ern re­de­vel­op­ment. Some years ago ar­chi­tects were en­cour­aged to cre­ate mod­ern build­ings to smarten it up. One re­sult is Nor­man Fos­ter’s beau­ti­ful Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art, which sits per­fectly across the road from a tiny, ex­quis­ite tem­ple dat­ing from 5AD. The mod­ern in­ter­acts with the an­cient ev­ery­where in Nimes.

The big-ticket Ro­man ruin is a small, ex­traor­di­nar­ily in­tact arena, host­ing a se­ries of pop con­certs in sum­mer. Ly­ing in bed one night I hear mu­sic drift­ing down the mall and then pro­longed clap­ping and whistling for Mark Knopfler.

I walk through the ex­ten­sive gar­dens on the edge of the old city, now an is­land of calm amid busy thor­ough­fares. Les Jardins de la Fon­taine were de­vel­oped in the early 1700s around a se­ries of tanks built to cap­ture the waters of a spring used by the bur­geon­ing tex­tile trade (denim is a cor­rup­tion of de Nimes).

With their stonework and stat­ues, the tanks are rem­i­nis­cent of an­cient Ro­man baths. The gar­dens climb a hill and in­cor­po­rate two sig­nif­i­cant Ro­man ru­ins — a tem­ple to Diana and a tower with a com­mand­ing view.

Back down in the old city I stum­ble on Les Halles, the cov­ered mar­ket. I swivel on a tall bar stool at a lunch counter while the cook pro­duces sauteed veg­eta­bles in sea­son, a plate of jam­bon ser­rano, bread and a glass of wine. My day ends with a visit to the mu­seum of bull­fight­ing. The nearby Car­mague is fa­mous as the breed­ing ground of the white horses and black bulls used in bull­fights, as pop­u­lar in this part of France as in Spain. The re­gion has its own tra­di­tional form of bull­fight where the mata­dors en­ter the ring un­armed and the bull sur­vives.

A life-sized statue near the arena is that of Nimes’s fa­mous mata­dor son, Chris­tian Mont­couquiol, known as Ni­meno II. Sadly, he took his life two years af­ter be­ing ren­dered a tetraplegic fol­low­ing a gor­ing in the bull­ring.

But per­haps the con­stant pres­ence of death is part of the fas­ci­na­tion for those who en­ter the ring. It’s not a sport that sits eas­ily with our sen­si­bil­i­ties, but it’s part of the story of the beau­ti­ful city of Nimes.

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