le Pont du Gard, les Arènes et les deux carrés de Nîmes with notes regarding a spectacular taxonomy or the common root of the popular degradations of pornography, acting and public victimisation in gladiatorial spectacle, in the round, while art & religion prefer the square! &, of course, the origin of blue jeans, because they did not, as some of you might believe, on the evidence of these snaps, simply fall from the sky

On the way to le Pont du Gard, I sucked up a La Jaunie into my windpipe. Not a pleasant thing, since they’re pure liquorice root. It was stuck in the folds of my vocal cords, so it felt, until it dissolved. Quite hot.

Pont du Gard looked from the guide like it was going to be another French money-making operation, now a ‘great place to spend the day, with a new complex – museum, cafes, boutique, cinema – set in extensive grounds, with a playground for the children and picnic areas, walking tracks, blah blah.’ I just wanted to see the aqueduct. So on approach, knew that the 15 Euros requested to park would be the first in a line of extortions. But no. The parking fee included the access to the film, museums and so on.

We took a bite in the warmest weather we’ve had so far in the South, Q. a crepe salee, meaning savoury, and hotdog, meaning wrapped around two Salzburger sausages with ketchup, J. and I the cheapest espressos we’ve had, 1.50 each, and a pain-au-raisin. Cafe and creperie share the same counter, but when I asked for coffees, I was referred to the cafe side, a matter of sliding two feet to the right. Coffee tasted burnt. Nevertheless.

On the short walk to the river, I tried to take a snap of a very angry snake. Larger than a grass snake. It lunged at me and escaped from the camera into a gap between stones in a wall.

The aqueduct represents the remains of a 50 km stretch extending to Nimes, over that length a drop of 17 m. Astounding accuracy. It was big and impressive and a marvel of Roman engineering. It gave us an opportunity to watch the swallows wheeling out and back, through the arches, weaving. And the pigeons, hanging off the side until allowed to enter their roosts by those already ensconced.

The museum turned out to be the best use of audio-visual tech we’ve seen, with nothing, however, to indicate it was open. A door that happened to be unlocked into a darkened room. It was evocative, atmospheric, involving the ears as much if not more than the eyes. Displays centred on Roman plumbing, with examples of lead pipes, impressed with the welders’ seals, faucets and taps, pumps, and models showing how supply was circulated and distributed, within a house, a city, how water was carried across a landscape. Audio stations, beyond the environmental sounds specific to each display, gave contemporary reports, for instance, Seneca to Lucilius: ‘Now that spic-and-span bathing establishments have been devised, men are really fouler than of yore.’ His point being that no civilized Roman would deign to step on anything but marble, ergo the moral decadence of the Romans.

Above, a kids’ museum was also surprisingly good.

In Nimes we parked down three levels, linked by an narrow spiral ramp, disconcertingly lit with vertical fluoros in white, blue and red, on Rabbit floor. We found Notre-Dame-de-St.-Castor austere, large, nothing special, except from the outside, where its square basic tower caught the sun. Came across La Chapelle St. Eugenie, also of the twelfth century, from which the snaps of a column decorated with a geometric pattern.

Les Arenes are the best preserved of any in Europe, smaller than the Collosseum, built a decade after, under the aegis of Augustus. The audioguide informed us of the Greeks’ establishment of a major port at Marseilles, the Roman entry into the area being in order to aid the Greeks against the incursions of the indigenous Celtic-Ligurian peoples. Under Augustus, son of Julius, Provence became a colony, a province of Rome, hence the name.

I had not previously understood that the arena developed from the putting of two stages together, two semi-circular amphitheatre. In some ways, the history of Roman entertainment including the decline of gladiatorial spectacle mirrors that of live theatre, of which it is a precursor, mirrored in many of the attitudes to putting flesh on show. But, in its most gratuitously bloodthirsty incarnation, the Midday sessions of disposing of criminals by public dismemberment, and other forms of spectacular victimisation, resembles rather the excesses of pornography; which again, cannot be entirely disentangled from good clean viewing fun for all the family.

Seneca wrote with the Midday shows in mind: ‘In the morning they throw men to bears and lions. At noon they throw them to the audience.’ A sense of what popular entertainment is really about. Also, gladiatorial spectacle was an urban phenomenon. With the barbarian threats the cities retreated into themselves. The slow attrition of the Roman civitas brought it to material poverty as well as poverty as an ideal.

Around the fourth century the spectacle ceased to be staged probably for lack of money and professional competence as for any moral reasons. In broad strokes, you might overlay this story of the loss of the idea of the city onto what is happening to the city in our own era under the pressure of displacement of communication technologies.

The Maison Carree was, as has been typical of our timing, under repair, its facade hidden behind scaffolding. We visited Sir Norman Foster’s Carre d’Art, a house for modern art, with reading- and study-rooms, a shop and space for temporary exhibitions.

Out the front punk kids messed around; out the back hip-hoppers were practising moves; and in the roof cafe, more of Nimes youth felt quite comfortable just hanging out, possibly because it was kind of grotty, modern-grot. I enjoyed my coffee made with espresso in a glass, two-thirds cream from a can and choco sprinkles. I’d asked the fifties-cool waiter what those people were drinking. He’d looked at me as if to say, Are you kidding?! A cappuccino of course!

The exhibition was patchy. Works by our friend Miquel Barcelo. And the artist featured at the Pompidou, whose name I can’t recall. Odd curatorial choices. So I made an arty snap of the lockers.

The receptionist stopped us on the way in. In a very thick accent, she said, No entry without tickets. How much? I asked. Free, she answered. But you have to have them. And you can’t take the scooter in, indicating Q.’s scooter strapped on his shoulder.

I asked if we could leave it with her. This apparently was the right thing to ask. She nodded, smiled slyly and proceeded to tear from a book the required tickets.

Form accomplished, just inside the door to the exhibition, our tickets were checked. Glancingly. (See earlier note re: French arrogance is not.)

Home via Beaucaire and Tarascon, which face each other over the Rhone, each with their crenellated, machicolated castle towers. Got lost in Chateaurenard. A bit. Losing a bit of time. And the sun going down across the scrubby flats, the garrigue. But finally finding our way out and over the Durance. Whence a short run on familiar ground to L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. Well, first to Super-U gas-station to top-up just in case the pumps run out. These strikes! Footage on TV of rubbish piling up on the streets of Marseilles, having to be cleared by emergency sanitary workers.

Lucky we didn’t head there. Nimes, I must add, as note to self, is the original source of the cloth that became known as denim, exported to the American South to clothe slaves: de Nimes, i.e. from Nimes. And Nimes itself takes its name from the Greek name of a god of springs, those that first attracted settlers.

Baguettes still oven-warm from our local Frometeria. And pesto pasta, with left-over pork. The pasta here tastes better. The bread’s delicious. The butter’s the best. Tonight’s wine, Les Cardinalices, Cotes du Rhone, 2009, is OK.