July 21, 2012

One Week in Southern France - Roman Ruins and Nuns in Cars

Three days in the gorgeous Aix en Provence and a road trip to Arles is now on the menu. Why, you may ask, in a city as vibrant and beautiful as Aix, do you feel inclined to leave?

Because Arles still has functioning elements of the Roman Empire, thank you very much.

I don't mean aqueducts or municipal policing by centurions (perish the thought). I mean a coliseum that hosts bull-fights in the evening, and a Roman theater still used for contemporary concerts. It's also only an hour away.

So, a short trip by car - which includes toll booths and passing a car full of nuns (awesome) - and we arrive. Not joking about the nuns. They were flying down the autoroute in their habits, the driver with her hands at "10 and 2" on the steering wheel. I took a picture. I digress.

Arles seems to have all you'd want to see in an old, once-Roman city. Narrow corridors with minor explosions of foliage from small balconies and window sills. Pre-gothic churches and worn cobblestones. You can stand at a high point overlooking the town and see a tree growing from roof-top terraces, or a breakfast nook that makes you want to immediately befriend its owner. All this beauty wraps around one central focal point: the coliseum.

It's really big, this coliseum. I mean, at one point, in the medieval era, it became the fortress for over 100 homes to keep marauders at bay. Level upon level of stone (limestone), smooth arches, and seating, it takes you out of what you know and places you in a context of what you do not. It does not transport you to another time, but makes you aware of its magnitude.

You can stand on the upper levels and look over the countryside, or down the river where underwater excavation has yielded a host of archaeological finds - including a bust of Julius Caesar's head. But one thing I could not do was look down onto the flat central surface and imagine gladiators hewing limbs with their weapons. I tried, but I couldn't. Too desensitized by television and film, I guess, or maybe I've grown soft in my old age.

Also of interest was the theater, where crews set up a sound stage for a concert. Scaffolding, light rigging, and cables amidst stone pillars, elaborately decorated chunks of marble, and milling tourists. A surprisingly fitting collision of history and modernity - and why not?

I remember years ago traveling through Bruxelles and feeling disjointed at the tall glass commercial buildings butting up against the "old" ones. In retrospect, perhaps this juxtaposition is necessary. Perhaps history is more accessible when it continues to function today. A coliseum that hosts bull-fights in the evening; a theater that sets up for late-night concerts. The best of both worlds found in Arles. And did I mention the nuns?


Nelia Botelho said...

Very impressive how those ancient structures are used in contemporary ways today. In Rome, we found similar cases, walking down a developed street only to come by an unspecified ruin, although I am not sure if they use them in any functional way other than a tourist site in Rome. Nice post, love the photos. Carry on :)

Harry Tournemille said...

I know. The entire city was like this. You'd see these ancient buildings, like the coliseum, and right beside it will be residential homes (also old).

Can you imagine going out onto your garden top terrace to eat breakfast...and stare at the coliseum? Crazy.

Unknown said...

After reading this, I am very excited about going to France, and that Arles is actually one of the planned stops!
Maybe I'll even see those Nuns driving in their car, Harry! I'll take a picture for sure.

Unknown said...

Johanna Tournemille - the above comment was from me.