If you asked me what my favorite part of France is, I would probably have to say Provence. It is so beautiful plus lavender is my favorite scent and color. I even made lavender ice cream last year during a bit of an ice cream making phase. Beyond the lush fields, vineyards, olive groves, and rocky terrain, there is a bit of history within Provence that dates back to the time Julius Caesar conquered Gaul. The Southern part of France became a part of the Roman Empire with Nîmes as it’s thriving city.
As I have mentioned in the past, my son is a history junkie. He reads these British books called Horrible Histories and has now found a TV show by the BBC that goes with the books. One of those books is called the Rotten Romans and he has become quite interested in the Roman Empire since his devouring of this book. He bought after our trip to Rome. Naturally (being a bit of a Francophile) I told him that if he found the ruins of Rome interesting, the ruins of Provence would blow his mind. Even before we landed in France in January, I knew I wanted to take him to Roman Provence, it was the first place I took my husband in France for our first anniversary over a decade ago. I love this part of France even more than Paris. Imagine my delight when I found out that Nîmes celebrates its Roman History with gladiator style re-enactments each year in their beautiful Roman Arena.
Off we raced to Nîmes this weekend with tickets in hand for what was an incredible event. The arena at Nîmes is not as big as Colosseum in Rome but it is actually still able to hold events such as concerts. Can you imagine a structure that is 2000 years old and still works as a venue? Well that is where we went to watch staged gladiator fights this past weekend. They acted out the story of Spartacus, the great Roman slave who escaped to lead a rebellion against the strength of Rome. We sat in an incredibly sunny ancient arena and watched a re-creation of events ancient Romans would have seen.
We also took a side trip up to Avignon and the Pont du Gard. The Pont du Gard is a bridge containing a 2000 year old aqueduct that brought water down to the city of Nîmes. The Romans actually had running water in their cities. The structure is beyond words and was one my favorite things about France when I first visited over 20 years ago. Back then they actually let you walk across the top of it (48 meters in the air with no railing) but today, you can just walk through the section that carries a water. My little engineer-in-training was fascinated by the construction and the beauty of the structure.
After our time at the Pont du Gard, we spent most of the rest of the weekend in Nîmes enjoying the festival. We did a scavenger hunt for children that had my son climbing through the ruined Temple of Diana and pulling treasure out of locked rooms with secret codes. The city was literally full of people dressed as if it were 2000 years ago. Even children were dressed as little ancient Romans. The crowning jewel in the festival was the spectacle of roman games that were staged in the arena. Since it was so sunny, we all had to buy hats to protect our sensitive little faces. My son bought a fedora because apparently “he has a fedora face”. We had so much fun that after the event, he told me he wished I was as into Roman History when he was born because then maybe his middle name would be Spartacus.
While he really enjoyed the events, there was a part of me that found the whole thing a bit surreal. I keep thinking that this was what actual Roman citizens would have been doing. Each time a gladiator won, we had to signal to the Emperor whether we (the crowd) wanted to let him live or die…so morbid, even when fake. I couldn’t help but see the parallels to modern sports. We were all randomly given napkins at the beginning of the games (red, blue or white) to indicate which team we were to be supporting. It seemed almost like the random assignment at birth to a certain sports team. People are born in to that sports team or this sports team based on who their family and friends root for. Not that one can’t go against family and friends to choose a different team but this process it seems almost as arbitrary as the napkins in Nîmes. One could go with the color assigned or switch teams. But do people really switch teams? If so, how do they make a decision to switch? In the arena, it seemed people switched to root for the winner. Maybe it is the same today, but at least we don’t vote to kill the winner at the end of the games.