Dwight Peck's personal website

Ten wintry days in the South of France

Montpellier, Arles, the Camargue, and lots of et cetera

You may not find this terribly rewarding unless you're included here, so this is a good time for casual and random browsers to turn back before they get too caught up in the sweep and majesty of the proceedings and can't let go.

Nîmes at New Year's 2015: Amphitheatre, Musée des Beaux Arts

Here's the Arena of Nîmes, as good as it gets amongst surviving Roman amphitheatres.

Built in about AD 70, by all accounts, the amphitheatre entertained the locals with all the usual attractions, like chariot races, naval re-enactments, gladiatorial combats, singing and dancing, and perhaps feeding Christians to the lions though there's no evidence that any such thing took place in this particular amphitheatre.

With the dissolution of Roman imperial authority in the Western Empire, the Visigoths, who'd carved out their own kingdom in southwestern Gaul both with and without Roman permission, fortified the arena and constructed their own wall all round it. The Muslim Saracens from Spain moved in in the early 8th century, with the cooperation of the locals at the time, but the Frank Charles Martel, out Saracen hunting some years later, wrecked both city and amphitheatre and then went home.

Apéritif in front of the amphitheatre

The pre-Carolingian Pepin the Short captured the city in 752 and turned it over to a local strongman (Radulf) to administer the region as a 'count' or agent of the crown. The amphitheatre served as the city hall and fortress.

Following the slow collapse of Carolingian authority throughout western Europe, in the 10th century the city and region passed into the orbit of the powerful regional lords, the Counts of Toulouse; amidst the insane bloodshed of the 'Albigensian Crusade', the city was occupied by Crusader knights from 1215 to 1224, only to be signed over in 1229 by the then Count of Toulouse, Raymond VII, under coercion, to young St Louis IX, King of France, and the regent, his mother Blanche of Castile.

Imagine Roman war galleys being rowed all round here and ramming into one other in two feet of water. How exciting. Imagine Christians being fed to lions! (But probably not here.) In Roman times the amphitheatre could seat 24,000 spectators, all out for a good day of wholesome entertainment.

Nîmes in the Middle Ages was basically co-operated by the royal officials, based here in the arena (with a sort of police force called the Knights of the Arena), and the Bishop's appartus based over by the cathedral. In 1358, in an argument over the sale of grapes to the papal household in nearby Avignon, Pope Innocent VI excommunicated the entire city, which was probably not as funny for the citizens as it sounds to us.

During the French Wars of Religion, like many towns in southern France Nîmes was a strongly Protestant city, and as tensions mounted throughout the country, the Huguenots of Nîmes rioted on Michaelmas Day, 29 September 1567, and massacred many of their Catholic neighbors, including 24 priests. Called the Michelade, that unhappy event was one of the triggers for the so-called Second War of Religion. (Catholics repaid the favor with the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre in Paris five years later.)

Throughout its medieval and Renaissance-era history, the amphitheatre was in effect a small city within the city, filled with houses and a few churches and with up to 700 residents -- evidently it was Napoleon who ordered it cleared out in 1809, and in 1863 it was fitted out for use as a bullfighting ring.

Much of the original structure has been well preserved, and of course additional seating has been supplied in recent times, making the area a colorful venue, not only for the bullfights (including the Féria de Nîmes, which attracts a million fans over five days around Pentecost in spring and at harvest time in September), but also for a wide array of public, theatrical, and cultural events.

Arena scenes

The old and the new

The Sainte Perpétue Church

A ferris wheel adjacent to the amphitheatre and the park of the Esplanade Charles-de-Gaulle

Apparently at least some of the fights here are of the "Provençal" or "Camargue" tassle-grabbing, non-lethal style of bullfighting, but the much bloodier Spanish-style kill-or-be-killed bullfights seem to dominate, and during the feria there is also a 'running of the bulls' through the streets as well.

The Cathedral bell tower

Sainte Perpétue again

The Tour Magne up the hill a ways

Eglise Saint-Paul to the north

The inner workings

A confrontation

A recreated gladiators' dressing room in the cellars

The Ferris wheel and Sainte Perpétue Church

The southern side

A young lad can dream!

Now for the Musée des Beaux Arts, a few blocks south of the Arena

The city's art collections were originally housed in the Maison Carrée, which instantly became overcrowded. The present building was finished in 1907 and remodeled in 1987.

The mosaic is fabulous, and the wild boar is an unexpected grace note.

It's not a great collection, but there are a few well-known works, a lot of interesting lesser-known ones, and a great presentation.

The wild boar stands guard. Artistically, a lot depends on how you feel about wild boars.

'A gallant scene', by Jacob Duck (ca. 1635)

The upper floor

Inimitable Andrea della Robbia

-- Just over here, lady. You gotta see this! ('The combat of love vs. chastity', by Lagrenée, 1781)

It's a fairly small collection, and we're ready to leave.

Back to the amphitheatre

Late afternoon street scenes

The Place aux Herbes and the cathedral

Cash Converters City -- all your gold into CASH! Now for dinner in (it turned out) a crappy tourist rip-off brasserie, and tomorrow northward on the A7 autoroute, over to Chambéry and Annecy, and home via Thonon-les-Bains for the grocery shopping at the Carrefour.

The Wayback Machine

Nîmes in July 1980

Feedback and suggestions are welcome if positive, resented if negative, . All rights reserved, all wrongs avenged. Posted 23 February 2015.

South France, December 2014

SW France, June 2009

SW France, November 2008