After our goodbyes to Sophie and her family, we headed east to see the celebrated city of Nîmes. After our usual loop of the city centre looking in vain for a suitable parking space, we finally settled on an out of town supermarket, where we abandoned Benny in a quiet corner out of the way and walked the remaining few miles into the centre.
The weather was clear and dry, but the air was very sharp and chilling, so we wrapped up warm for our walk. Arriving from the west of the city along Avenue Kennedy, we cut through small residential streets to reach the main artery of Avenue Jean Jaurès that led us north to the Jardins de La Fontaine. The gardens were very grand, with classical formality and lots of water features, filled with large, colourful carp. The gardens were almost entirely empty that morning too, allowing us the opportunity to wander and play at our leisure, and we enjoyed the open spaces and the fresh, crisp air. We passed by the ruins of the Temple de Diane and climbed many steps up to enjoy views back over the formal gardens below. We continued to climb through the softer, planted gardens on the steep hillside, still pretty and neat although little was in bloom in January.
We descended from the gardens and followed the Quai de la Fontaine, a wide boulevard dominated by a formal canal lined on both sides with tall plane trees, to the historic centre. We reached a small plaza with the local Tourist Office where we acquired a map of the centre with a useful walking route.
Almost immediately opposite the office as we left was one of the most famous squares in Nîmes, housing the pristine classical temple of La Maison de Carrée. Dedicated to the grandsons of Caesar Augustus in the 2-4th century CE, the temple is centrally placed on a high plinth, raised above the square in a dominant position, with porticos to both sides. The most recent refurbishment of La Maison de Carrée and the concurrent design of the new Museum of Modern Arts building and public library, the Carré d’Arts, were both undertaken by Norman Foster and Partners in 1993.
We followed the route of the suggested walking tour on our small city map, turning left and right as it dictated and this allowed us to see much of the main points of interest. We passed the Cathédrale Saint-Castor in the heart of the medieval streets, but were denied entry due to remedial works being undertaken to the foyer. We dawdled along the ever-winding route, appreciating the almost silent, still streets.
We passed the Mairie before we circled the Arènes, the massive Roman bullring, and then stopped for a bite of lunch on a sun drenched timber bench in the Esplanade Charles de Gaulle. The space was lined with tall trees, a few churches, wavy sculptural shade features in mild steel and had at its centre an ornate stone fountain. This was the only place in Nîmes centre-ville where we saw more than a few people at any one time; it seemed a popular hangout for teenagers and for local workers to eat their lunch. All the small streets adjacent felt empty and quiet in comparison.
After our picnic lunch we again circled the exterior of the restored bullring, the prize site in Nîmes, before entering to explore the interior. There were only two other visitors in the entire arena, a site we are sure would be packed full in summer. We had what felt like a personal tour, and ran around like over-excited teenagers exploring each area and seeing the huge oval venue from all angles. The bullring doubles as a large, and quite special, concert venue, creating a steady revenue stream to help fund maintenance works and restoration projects.
We saw modern bullfighting costumes and videos of them in action. We experienced a history of the many types of gladiators, how they were armed and how they fought, each with different merits and skillsets. But mostly we loved the view from the highest tier of the seating, back over the city and out into the far countryside; a wonderful sight.
After our visit, we returned to Benny by the same route, completed a quick shop and drove off to our proposed aire for the night, in the small town of Bellegarde. We parked up by a scruffy canal bank that was lined with many boats over-wintering there, and settled in just before the sun began to set. A deep red sunset greeted us, along with the almost instant sharpness of the night time temperatures dropping well below freezing. The current cold snap France has been experiencing is highly unusual; the same time period last year the temperatures were in the high teens.
The next morning we awoke and drove a short way to the town of Saint-Gilles and parked up, again on the side of a canal, and walked along a dirty, busy road to the local tourist office. We asked about local, circular day walks and found a suitable 16km walk in the Petit Camargue, through vineyards, along canals and full of wildlife spotting opportunities.
We chose first to visit the town of Saint-Gilles itself, with a short walk around its historic streets. We began with the renowned Abbey Church, set tall in the Place de la République. Built in the 12th century, the intricate façade displays detailed sculpted iconography, dedicated mostly to the Passion of Christ. The church was constructed to welcome the many pilgrims moved by the reported miracles of Giles, a Greek hermit accidentally hit by an arrow fired by the Visigoth King Flavius, who later funded the Abbey as a way of asking for forgiveness. The church remains an important pilgrimage landmark on the French routes to Santiago de Compostela, and has been a recognised UNESCO World Heritage site since 1998. Behind the church, an enclosed spiral staircase is the last remaining portion of the former choir of the Abbey Church, standing tall in the ruins.
Leaving the town behind, we walked south west out of the centre, and into rural vineyard country. Our chosen walk, known as the Cougourlier Trail, took us first alongside many vineyards, before it passed through a small wooded area and then broke out into a wide gravel trail running alongside the Rhône-Sète canal in the Petit Camargue region.
We ate lunch in a shaky timber bird-watching tower with expansive views over the canal and the clear flatlands surrounding us. It was a little exposed to the chilling winds, so we didn’t linger too long, although the view was fantastic. We passed through natural tunnels formed from tall bamboo growing naturally at the side of the path.
We followed the path near wild meadows flanked by marshland and reed beds, all alone in the countryside except for the growing menagerie of local wildlife; camargue horses and black bulls roamed nearby fields, egrets, herons and many other birds enjoyed sanctuary in the sheltered reeds. We passed apricot and peach orchards, olive groves and rice fields on the way, and saw some new-born lambs in pastures attached to the vineyard farmhouses.
We returned to town by the same route and relaxed by the canal for the afternoon, watching busy fishermen catch nothing in the murky waters. Later we walked into the old town centre of Saint-Gilles again to stretch our legs and buy some bread, before enjoying a leisurely evening reading, writing and planning our next few steps in the region.