Tuesday, January 29, 2008

A Roman Day, but no Italians

I headed to the world famous Roman Aqueduct, Pont du Gard, midday, and after my other escapades was watching for the right bus stop carefully. Fortunately there were a number of people with the same destination and the bus driver very kindly turned around and announced that it was the Pont du Gard stop when he realized none of us were disembarking – good thing as who would have guessed that this world-famous site rates an unmarked bus lane on a highway rotary. We all got off and looked around: no signs, no maps, no arrows – you have to love the French. An Australian couple and myself started walking towards the direction we suspected was the right one and the Koreans followed. Sure enough, down the side road there was a huge sign saying “Site Pont du Gard”. I might further add that since it is off-season, you can take a bus to Pont du Gard from Avignon, but not really back since the only bus returning leaves 20 minutes after you arrive which even the Avignon bus station attendant said was too short an interval since it is a 10-15 walk from the bus “stop” to the Pont du Gard. So my itinerary was Avignon to Pont du Gard, then Pont du Gard to Nimes, returning to Avignon from Nimes where there is regular bus and train service to Avignon. There was only one bus from Pont du Gard to Nimes today, but it left more time to tour the site than the bus back to Avignon.
Pont du Gard has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. It originally spanned over 1000 feet, but some of the arches are gone so it is a little shorter now, but still quite impressive. Standing about 150 feet high, the bridge was part of an aqueduct that brought water from a spring in Uzes to Nimes about 30 miles away. According to the tourist information, the bridge, completed in AD 52, took 1000 men and 50,000 tons of stone to build it (www.pontdugard.fr).
I could tell by the expansive parking lot and walkways that the tourist area around Pont du Gard had been designed for a sea of summer tourists. I could not only imagine the crowds, but also the beating heat. Other than the limited bus schedule, and the gift shops being closed (no great loss), the off-season is a perfect time to visit the monument. There were so few visitors it was down right serene. I was able to hike up a stone-stepped path and meet no one heading up or down. Down by the emerald green water there was only one couple taking in the sun and magnitude of the site.
The cool thing about the site – besides seeing first hand the staggering brilliance of the Roman architects and builders – is that a newer section of the bridge has been built to match the old one, so you can walk across the bridge right next to the ancient aqueduct, getting great views and a close up of the original.
Nervous about the French bus system, I curtailed my visit and walked back to the bus “stop” so I would be there in case the bus came early. I read and reread my information, and had especially asked the Avignon bus-information attendant if I picked up the bus to Nimes at the same place that the Avignon bus dropped me off and she assured me that indeed it was the same stop. The bus was not early, but I was nervous about the stop. There was a schedule inside a glass box with condensation on it, making it hard to read, but it did indeed give the schedule to Nimes that I held in my hand. Somehow I was still nervous. The road signs made me think that the bus would not be coming in the direction of this bus stop. I looked across the road, and sure enough here was a bus with its electronic sign saying “Nimes” stopping not only across the highway, but on the other side of the rotary. I basically stopped traffic and ran across the highway, waving my arms frantically at the bus, knowing that if it didn’t stop I would be stranded on this highway until tomorrow. Thankfully, the bus driver was a kind soul, and he stopped in the middle of the road to let me on. Honestly! How hard would it be for the French bus system to put a sign on the bus stop? Especially the Pont du Gard bus stop!
There and then I decided I would take the train from Nimes to Avignon, not the bus.
It was a short ride to Nimes, a major Roman city in the day. Nimes has two very well preserved Roman buildings. The Arena, which holds 24,000 people, was built in the 1st century for gladiator events. It has been partially restored so that it can be used for present-day bull-fights. The Maison Carree Temple is one of most intact buildings from the Roman Empire and dates to something like AD 4. History oozes from all these sites with deeply worn stone steps and weather beaten walls.
I toured Nimes quickly and took the train back to Avignon – not only did they announce the station stops, but it took half the time of the bus and cost half the price.
At 8pm I made my way to the old Avignon theater in the large square below the Palais du Popes. It was a one-night run of the opera La Boheme, which seemed appropriate to see while in France. My 20 Euro ticket got me a seat in the bleachers way at the top of the theater. The seats in this section are not numbered and are just carpeted steps, so it is first come, first choice, which makes a huge difference since at least two thirds of the seats have very limited views of the stage. I had arrived as soon as the doors had opened so from my seat I could see over half of the stage. There was camaraderie amongst those of us with limited views, as we craned our necks and backs to see the action – a great French experience. Bon Soir from Avignon.

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