September 13, 2003

Vers (France)

After the adventures in the tapas fleshpots of Spain it was time for a restful week at our friends Mark & Scott’s place on the border of the Provence and the Languedoc regions in the South of France. They have an art gallery here right in the middle of the old medieval village, selling paintings, sculpture and ceramics by local and international artists. The house and gallery look like an classical Roman design, complete with enclosed courtyard. The village is tiny, only about 1500 residents, but a lot of tourists pass through because it is near the Pont du Gard, the highest Roman aqueduct in existence, which was built to deliver water to the local Roman provincial capital Nimes. Despite being about 2000 years old, it has survived the recent terrible floods, so tribute needs paying to the Roman engineering genius.

We arrived on Tuesday from Barcelona on the Talgo train. At the border with France they have an ingenious device to change the rail gauge size. The wheels get pushed closer together so passengers do not need to be disturbed. (You just knew there had to be again some trainspotting involved). The train was 20 minutes late but they held the TGV to Geneva for us so we got to Nimes on time. Mark & Scott picked us up from the station, and we lounged for the rest of the afternoon and the whole of the next day, resting up after our Spanish adventures.

Wednesday night, another friend, JP, arrived by plane from London, so there was a lot of catching up to do after not seeing each other for several years. JP visited NZ in 1997 and even came to Waiheke with us before we had even built Jungle’s Edge. Ewen showed all of them the short video he had made of the new house and a general introduction to the island.

On Thursday, Mark had to hang up posters in shops and hotels for a gallery exhibition, so we tagged along to Nimes. It’s a quite well preserved Roman town, even though the buildings that are left could do with a bit of a spruce up and a clean. The old pedestrianised streets have a great atmosphere and if we had dressed up in togas we would not have looked out of place. The tourist authorities should do some whimsical things like dressing up their town and museum guides in classical garb. There is a large Collisseum-like arena still in use today for corridas, operas and concerts and a few ruined temples and city walls dating back 2 millennia. It’s amazing they have not closed off more inner city streets to traffic because it would enhance the experience so much.

M&S cooked wonderful dinners and lunches for us, and it’s great to be able to break our holiday with doing absolutely nada.

Today we went out to Arles, where Vincent Van Gogh spent some time (not all the time lucid or painting), and a very touristy, postcardy village called St Remy de Provence. The ice cream was the only thing that did something for me there. We got back to Vers for lunch and afternoon siesta.
The weather is sunny but rather cool due to the strong Mistral wind that has been blowing for the last few days. It dries everything quickly, including your skin and throat, due to the almost zero humidity level.

Not a lot of openly gay activity, as you may have suspected, since it is a sparsely populated area. Nimes has a long classical history, so that's always good in the camp stakes: Roman camps then, Foreign Legion camps now - it is home to the largest contingent of Legionnaires in mainland France, so chances are legion, as it were, that you see some of those hunks off duty but on the street. I had to dab my chin, I can tell you now. Reliable sources told us that the local sauna is worthwhile but since we were on a resting day we didn't go there. The ruined Temple of Diana, on the other hand, seemed like a perfect setting for a classical gay party. The alcoves and dark alleyways underneath the temple could be put to good use, and there is ample room for live statues for classical poses in the Greek style, if you get my drift. The park next door, an 18th century terraced affair, is a major cruising ground at night, we hear, and we could see that that would work perfectly. The city has a working arena/amphitheatre, where they do corridas, concerts and operas, but my favourite bloodsport - since the venue is there to use – would involve Christians and lions...

On Saturday morning we got up early to go to the market in Uzes, a charming town which has been restored to its former glory. Saturday is market day and the town was full of locals and tourists shopping for fresh food, clothes, shoes, books and nick-nacks. After a lovely lunch we visited the medieval garden, where they still grow medicinal and other herbs. Later that afternoon we got a closer look of the Roman aqueduct at Pont du Gard. Very impressive from close by too, pity you could not clamber up to the top to get a feel of what it has been like when under construction and how it worked. A descent of 40 centimetres per kilometer is damn good, even without computers!
M&S had bought little pies with locally grown wild mushrooms and they tasted delicious. Two course dinners and cooked lunches - we must have gained some weight!
JP left for London on Saturday night, and on Sunday Mark showed us some aqueduct fragments that were near the village.

On Monday, we did an excursion to Fountain La Vaucluse, a hidden source of a river surrounded by massive rocks in the Provence proper. Quite a little medieval town with lots of touristy things, but also a still working paper mill that uses the river water and power to make handcrafted paper. We had a perfect French lunch of trout, duck, grilled fish and prawns, and just delicious apple tart. Cost 113 euros for 4 but worth every cent. Mark did some postering for the gallery in the local antiques-laden village, and on the way home we skirted the still intact medieval wall of Avignon.
Avignon, of course famous as the home of the medieval anti-popes, a fine tradition that should be revived. That's something anti-globalisers should do: a rival power centre to that arch-doyenne of the multinational creed, the Catholic Church.
Not far to the west in the Languedoc is a small town called Albi, where the Albigensis sect started, also known as the Cathars. They believed in free love and life sans culottes, so, unsurprisingly, the pope ordered a crusade against them (this was even before the crusades to Jerusalem), and the queers were duly eliminated. United Future Party policy in action.

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