Driving down the road, I noticed a large number of young, black bulls grazing in a field. These animals are bred here for both their meat and the curious and incredibly popular ‘sport’ of bullfighting. Not every bull ends up in the arena, however. Every little town has its summer ‘feriá‘ or Feast – usually overlapping or close to the festival of the Assumption. Whereas in England, such events are characterised by grown men rolling large cheeses down hills, here it’s a little more red-blooded. This is mining country – I was reminded irresistibly of Wales, not only because of the geography, but also the stocky brawniness of the locals – including the women – and the brass bands. Everywhere. With almost no concept of noise pollution. Standing almost in the middle of a nine-piece outfit in a café in Quissac – they set up wherever a space exists, it seems – left me feeling (and probably looking) like Quasimodo.
I was directed up the hill to the arena, which was a space about sixty metres in diameter with an ominous barred lorry at one end and bars, seven feet high and two inches thick circumscribing the space. Young men, perhaps with something to prove to appraising female eyes in the crowd, stepped into the ring and waved their shirts as the bull was released. The aim of the game, it seemed was to bait the animal until you were chased by it, leaping nimbly over the barrier or climbing the scattered bales of hay out of reach of the eighteen inch horns. These were padded, but a number of the contestants retired ‘hors de combat’ with alarming bruises, keeping the Croix Rouge busy. If the beast, which could accelerate rapidly and corner astonishingly fast, actually caught someone they were tossed in the air like a rag doll. I was told that if anybody has to be hospitalised, they might stop the show. Thus, young men returned grimly to the arena, sporting antiseptic-coated welts and bruises. The bull had a disquieting habit of charging the barrier randomly, so, for the most part, I maintained a discreet presence behind it. The finale of the evening was a bull run. Camarguien cowboys armed with long, steel-tipped staves and riding their small white horses, wearing trademark leather hats and flowered shirts, corral a bull and drive it through the narrow streets, barricaded in the same way as the arena. Meanwhile, the local youth run in between the horses and the bull to try to wrestle it to the ground. A five hundred kilogram bull which is disinclined to be so treated can lose its temper very fast. The stench of fear, adrenalin, testosterone and, well, bullshit was quite unforgettable.
With thanks to the anonymous Flickr poster whose daylight image was so much better than I could get at night.
The Romans were here for quite a while and their presence is everywhere. The Arena at Nîmes is better preserved than the Coliseum in Rome and is used for both bullfighting (but more of this later) and also rock concerts; Mark Knopfler was here in July. The town of Uzès still has a duke in residence complete with a castle in the centre of town. Should marauders wish to invade his lordship’s privacy, the battlements overhang the walls, presumably to facilitate the pouring of boiling oil.
At the head of the Ardèche is the Pont d’Arc, a natural rock formation carved out by glacial erosion. The image isn’t great since i got there about an hour before nightfall, but you get the idea. Further south is the spectacular Roman aqueduct, over the Gardon, the Pont du Gard, built to take water from Uzès to NÎmes. The angulation is exact ensuring a smooth flow of water along a 40km stretch; these guys knew their sines from their cosines, for sure. Apparently, the engineering is so exact that even with modern methods its accuracy cannot be duplicated.
It would have been so helpful if everybody still spoke Latin since as I travel further south, words become more and more difficult to understand. I was reminded of the line from “Kingdom of Heaven” ‘..travel east until they stop speaking Latin and start speaking something else.‘ That’d be about here, then. Occitan is not a dialect, it’s a completely different language and even when the locals speak French, the accent and intonation is as thick as wet cement. With much grunting and shrugging. Beh, oui. Bieng.
vennes are rather like the Appalachians. It might be Scotland, but grander and warmer, with purple heather and pine. Old mountains, worn down into gentle, rolling woodland, the landscape stretching grey and blue to the horizon. Tiny villages with dwellings clustered around either a church or a simple Huguenot Temple. This is the land of the Rebellion where for a hundred years Protestant Camisard guerillas fought the armies of King Louis for the right to worship freely in much the same way as Wallace harried Longshanks’ troops. “Braveheart” could have been filmed here.
During the rebellion, the austere theology of Jean Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon shaped understanding and family Bibles were read illegally while the women watched the windows for approach of the King’s troops. Meetings were held out of doors or in specially camouflaged dwellings – a mobile pulpit could in seconds be transformed to look like a small grain silo. This temple was erected after the Revolution when freedom of worship was finally transformed into reality. Many are still in use, while Catholic churches have fallen into disrepair.
This is a disused mill. Brits are buying up these old places, and the old crafts like silk-weaving are dying out. Shame.
Being a long way from a Starbucks, persons hereabouts are infrequently troubled by the Internet, wet string and hope being the connection medium du jour. Blog posts therefore back up, like buses, and three or four arrive at once. So sorry…
I miss the mountains. Apart from a brief trip to Lebanon, I haven’t seen them for ten years. Being close enough however to Annecy and the gateway to the Mont Blanc massif was too good to miss. The wild woman herself was more than worth the trip. Standing 4810m, the highest peak in Europe, gave me tantalising glimpses as she shrouded herself in cloud, the summit only partially visible for most of the day. Had I been thinking on my feet, I might have managed a morning’s skiing on La Vallée Blanche but the cable car ride takes an hour and I didn’t have equipment.
Instead, lunch at a restaurant recommended by a friend at the top of the Col de la Croix-Fry – no Parisian ‘nouvelle’ here, with chic little diddles of balsamic – the ham slice on offer would have been sorely missed by its parent animal and sausages the size of cucumbers – then down into Chamonix – inevitably full of grimy unshaven climbers, some of whom, quelle surprise – were English. I spent the afternoon on a glacier, as one does hereabouts. The cable car takes you to its base, and the snowline, blue-black in parts, finishes about 300m higher, torrents of meltwater finding least path distance to the valley below. I must be getting old, the climb – probably no more than half a dozen flights of stairs, at 1450m left me breathless. Dinner in St Gervais, pleasanter and cheaper than the tourist overkill in Chamonix. Elderly persons go there, you know. For their health.
The land I know and almost love – the one east of the 30, that is, is a sham. A cardboard cutout, a mirror image, a Romford Rolex or a Chinese Calvin Klein. Here, in the birthplaces of the iconic names in food, wine and fashion, chic has a totally different connotation and is not exportable. Copied, transplanted, yes. The real deal somehow floats effortlessly above all attempts at plagiarism, even with the right labels. Buying Louis Vuitton in an airconditioned bus station somewhere off the Sixth Ring doesn’t quite have the same cachet as buying it at the iconic architectural masterpiece at 101, avenue des Champs-Elysées. As a matter of interest, I ran across a 1920’s Louis Vuitton trunk in a B&B in Burgundy the other week, complete with the name of the original owner on the front and its own unique lock with hand-made brass key. At auction, it would have fetched the price of a modest house.
Shopping (window or otherwise) in and around Place Madeleine – yes, it’s the Magdala again; amazing how she seeps in and out of my consciousness – reminds me how lumpen and oafish I really am. Coffee at the original Fauchon. A tea shop containing possibly five hundred different varieties of tea, a crowd gathering outside the discreet caviar store where 1kg of best grey Caspian sells for 3500 euros, to watch the sturgeon swimming in the aquarium window, a fish I have to admit I have never ever seen in the flesh. A shop selling over a hundred different varieties of mustard.
I had to go into the church and restore balance. It’s a beautiful building – I missed the free concert by an hour – a Romanian choir were doing Byrd, Mozart and Fauré. Never mind, Verdi’s Requiem is being sung there later in the month.
Food at one of Paris’ little secrets. At 7:30, I nodded to the maître d’ and secured what looked like the last available table. Simple French food, no frills at a price that didn’t make the eyes water. When I walked out, a hundred people were waiting in line. I swallowed my pride, pretended to be a tourist and photographed the napkin.
Sacré Coeur has been described as ‘the ugliest cathedral in the world’. According to a prominently displayed placard, JP2 was impressed, however, on his visit, and so was I. I haven’t wandered, aimless as a cloud, around Montmartre for a while and, usurious prices and tourists notwithstanding, it still has a village feel about it, and one might imagine the smell of linseed from painters, scratching and starving in chic little garrets, as women in need of a shave with husky voices eye up the punters at the pavement cafes and small children whine at the number of stairs they have to climb.
It came as quite a pleasant surprise to find myself in the middle of Mass on arrival. The gawkers, like myself, were steered in ragged platoons around the nave and chancel, while the curé intoned the liturgy to the assembled faithful – quite a turn-out as it happened for a warm Thursday afternoon, hands akimbo at the appropriately religious angle, punctuated by a remarkably melodic precentor singing responsorial prayers. I arrived just in time for the Peace, which will make one or two readers snigger. At least they get it over with rather faster than elsewhere, moving smoothly into the Pater Noster. I stayed for the Agnus Dei, then left, restored and comforted, before the collection.