I had always wanted to visit Avignon. Quite a shame, really, since it turned out to be something of a disappointment. Not because it wasn’t beautiful in all its medieval splendour but because it seemed so much like other, smaller and prettier local towns, with the exception of the chic little boutiques with Paris prices on every ticketed trinket. The old town is walled throughout and the walls are remarkably well-preserved. Pius V built a large monument when the papal seat was here rather than Rome and the papal palace is grand indeed, but one seventeenth century castle seems much like another with the inevitable snail with audio link craning its collective neck to admire yet another mildewed ceiling and being disgorged into the gift shop at the end. Perhaps I’m just getting touristed out. The French occasionally juxtapose ancient and modern to mixed reviews and here was no exception. Which drink-sodden urban planner in their right mind places an eighteen foot carbuncle of a bronze elephant balanced on its trunk in the Papal square…The girl smiled winningly at me, so I left her in for scale. The famous bridge – it’s actually half a bridge – over the Rhone was a bit lame, I thought. There’s a tiny church perched like a wart at the end which I really didn’t see the point of getting out of the car to visit.
A little bit further on was Arles. Quite a different pickle of clams, this. Van Gogh painted here. I was encouraged by the fact that there was a parking space conveniently vacated a second before my arrival along a narrow street (they’re all narrow, in fact) in close proximity to the Arena. This one is smaller and more modest than the one in Nîmes, but there was shouting and clapping coming from within, so I bought a ticket. They had got to the second bull. Fifteen white-clad, fit-looking young chaps with their names emblazoned on the back were in the ring, together with a bull which pawed the sandy ground aggressively before charging the nearest young man to a four foot barrier, which he nimbly leapt over. Another young man attracted the bull’s attention. It charged him and at the last moment before leaping the barrier, the young man tweaked a ribbon from between the two foot long horns, waving it in triumph. The bull, it seemed, was wearing a number of these and the crowd erupted into thunderous applause every time the bull lost a ribbon. After a while, the bull was coaxed back into a pen under the arena and another took its place. The crowd apparently rate the performance on the ferocity of the bull and the nimbleness of the participants – one animal which partially demolished some of the red wooden slats surrounding the arena was particularly warmly received.
It struck me that the locals here had been going to the Arena for centuries. Despite the presence of many young families, children waving hats and balloons, mothers with tissues mopping up their spillages, there was almost a miasma of dark, suppressed violence about the place. It was a short flight of fancy to imagine bloodsports of all descriptions happening here, martyrdom, gladiatorial duels to the death and slaves raking over the bloodstained sand. One imagined the thousands of ghosts of the slain in silent witness. Images from ‘Gladiator’ sprang, unbidden, to mind. H’m.