280In this blogposting...
*La vie en France / Life In France
Our next AGM will take place at 1100 on Sunday 12 June at Grey’s Monument in Newcastle.
A splendid time is guaranteed for all - so if you’re not there, you only have yourself to blame.
LA VIE EN FRANCE / LIFE IN FRANCE: LES VACANCES / HOLIDAY
(For a description of the first day of this holiday, see blogposting 279)
In a suburban garden in Newcastle’s West End lie a few rectangular stones which form a square on someone’s front lawn. The square has the footprint of a small garage and is all that remains of the temple of Antenociticus, a Romano-British deity worshipped over 2,000 years ago by both the invading Romans and by the local people they conquered.
It’s not easy to find; the giveaway is the small English Heritage board by the garden gate. Once found, it isn’t particularly rewarding, either. It really is just an oblong of stones on someone’s front garden and gives the onlooker little or no idea of what the temple looked like or what happened there.
One of the closest places to Newcastle where you can see what a fully-fledged Roman temple looked like is in the southern French city of Nimes (founded by the Romans, who called it Nemousos). The temple stands in its own square in the city centre and looks now exactly as it did when the Romans finished it in about 2 or 3 AD.
It is not a reconstruction. Nor is it a ruin or a vestige; these are not ‘the remains’ of a Roman temple. This is a temple still standing to its full height, walled and roofed.
It is one of the finest complete Roman buildings still in existence; it was in the first list of ten ‘Buildings To See Before You Die’ (for the latest, see below) and when you first see it, you realise why. It quite takes your breath away.
It had already been in use for 50 years when Britain was invaded by the Romans. When Hadrian started building his Wall, the temple at Nimes was already well over 100 years old.
It’s almost 86ft long, 50ft wide and the roof’s apex is almost 56ft up. It’s no baby.
Looking at it when we first arrived in the city made me wonder exactly what it is about classical Greek and Roman architecture which still speaks so loudly to us today. The lines are clean and crisp; there is ‘unity of design’ - everything seems to fit together like a jigsaw so that the buildings of that era look ‘just so’; and somehow, the grandeur and nobility, the grace and the ‘presence’ of the building, never seem to be overdone.
The Maison Carree (‘Square House’) - as it is now known - exemplifies these characteristics to perfection. It is the essentially human scale of Greek and Roman architecture that is so appealing to the senses. The repeated columns, capitals, plinths, lintels, pediments and rooflines each seem to have a satisfyingly mathematical and geometrical relationship, one to another - and to the smiling onlooker, too.
The Maison Carree was, on reflection, the first complete Roman building I had ever seen and it was worth making the journey to Nimes to see it.
Not that we’d travelled very far. Avignon is the gateway to the Rhone delta and we had simply driven down the wide, flat valley of the Rhone for a few kilometres from Avignon to Nimes.
To give the journey some non-motorway spice, as it were, we had deviated from the (always distressingly busy) main road up into the hills in an attempt to find a rather peculiar monastery I’d read about: the Abbe de St Roman. Apparently, its monks decided that simply building their abbey with rocks in the conventional way did not glorify the Lord quite enough and decided to hew it out of the rockface itself, thus producing Europe’s only troglodyte monastery.
All we found, though, was the car park. Two unfriendly-looking and very dusty old Renaults were parked there, alongside a camper-van (which the French call a ‘camping car’ - kompeeng kahrrr) outside which three tired-looking women were slurping red wine. It looked inexplicably intimidating so - my British stiff upper lip having gone limp decades ago - we scarpered for the safety of the main road again, and on to Nimes.
It is unexpectedly difficult to explain to a Frenchman why - along with its Roman history - Nimes has claimed a place in the sartorial and philological record-books as well. During the 1849 gold rush in California, a certain Levi Strauss was manufacturing trousers for the miners. Looking for a tough, hard-wearing fabric, he began importing the traditionally blue ‘serge de Nimes’ cloth from here.
De nimes. Denim. Geddit?
Unfortunately, the French themselves do not call this cloth ‘denim’; they call it ‘jean’. They therefore did not even begin to understand me as I pointed more and more frantically at my jeans and then waved my arms at the Maison Carree. ‘See? Denim! Denim is ‘de Nimes’! See?’
They plainly did not see. The looks turned from puzzlement to indulgence to despair. ‘The English!’ they must have been thinking ‘are truly and genuinely mad. It must be the heat’.
The pedestrianisation of most of France’s historic towns and cities is a mixed blessing. The typically winding, narrow - and invariably traffic-free - streets are wonderfully calming and tranquil to wander round. But the price the natives pay is high: insufferably crowded and stuffy ring-roads - peripheriques - to which all traffic is banished. You have to negotiate them to get into or out of town and progress is without exception slow, smelly, noisy and bad-tempered.
Which makes the centres all the more blissful when you finally arrive. And Nimes was blissful indeed. We were now deep in the south of France, where Mediterranean ‘cafe culture’ predominates. Countless tiny lanes winding away in front of you, tempting you to follow them - usually to intimate little town squares lined with tables and chairs.
As in so many French towns, almost none of it had changed or been altered since the streets were first laid out. The atmosphere in the city centre was relaxed, slow and friendly - as well it might be, with such an enchanting maze of streets to meander around. (The French call this aller en vadrouille - ‘going for a wander’.)
And if you wander purposefully, you eventually find yourself gazing with disbelief at the second of the city’s Roman marvels: the amphitheatre (or ‘Arenes’).
Incredibly, this is the best-preserved amphitheatre in the entire Roman Empire. It was built in about 100AD to seat 24,000 people who really were entertained by all the bloodthirsty ‘attractions’ which the Romans thought were so much fun. It’s unsettling to report that, to a certain extent, they still are. I was surprised (and disappointed) to learn that there’s a very strong tradition of bullfighting in this part of France and that the annual Feria is very well supported.
I didn’t let that cloud my judgment, though. Nimes’ amphitheatre is a truly awe-inspiring monument. I suspect that it would not have surprised its builders one iota to know not only that it was still standing after 2,000 years but also that it was still in regular use.
It was dark when we eventually found our way back to the Maison Carree. It was splendidly floodlit, almost inviting you to sit down and take another look at it - perhaps with an evening digestif or two.
So that’s what we did.
1,001 BUILDINGS TO SEE BEFORE YOU DIE
Time once again for the next ten ‘buildings you should see before you die’, as recommended in the lovely book I got for Christmas.
The buildings in the book are in chronological order. This list brings us up to 1360.
If you’ve seen any of them, or plan to, please get in touch. I’m delighted to say that, with numbers 72, 75, 77 and 79, my tally has gone up to thirteen!
71 Hospital of Santa Naria della Scala, Florence, Italy
72 Lincoln Cathedral, England
73 The Buried Church, Jutland, Denmark (pictured)
74 Great Enclosure and Chief’s House, Great Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe
75 Notre Dame de Paris, France
76 Ightham Mote, Sevenoaks, England
77 The Leaning Tower, Pisa, Italy
78 Alhambra, Granada, Spain
79 Castelvecchio, Verona, Italy
80 Alfriston Clergy House, England
Three of the buildings in this latest list are in England - and I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never seen Ightham Mote or Alfriston Clergy House.
National totals so far are:
Italy 16, France 7, Egypt 5, England 5, China 4, Ireland 3, India 3, Spain 3, Syria 2, Croatia 2, Iraq 2 - then 1 each for Afghanistan, Armenia, Cambodia, Denmark, Ethiopia, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Indonesia, Iran, Isreal, Japan, Libya, Mali, Mexico, Morocco, Myanmar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Scotland, South Korea, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, USA, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and Zimbabwe.
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