I promised the kids a break from castles and I have lived up to that promise. In order to avoid more towers and moats and ramparts and winding staircases and royal gardens, we have traveled further back in time. About 2,000 years to be exact. When the Roman Empire extended into Gaul, or what is now current-day France.
Those Romans really knew how to build. We started our visit with the Latin speakers in Nîmes, where we toured the Roman amphitheater, which remains one of the world’s largest and best-preserved structures of its kind. A marvel of symmetry, in its heyday (i.e., the first couple of centuries after Christ), the arena entertained up to 24,000 spectators of all stripes, from slaves to senators, whose seats were determined based on social standing.
Violence was the theme of the day. The morning session was for the “hunt” when wild beasts – including men – chased and fought other wild beasts to the death. The noon session was for executions (apparently not so well-attended because people preferred to break for lunch while wild animals lunched on the doomed souls). The afternoon session, always the most popular, starred the gladiators.
Contrary to what the movies have taught us, gladiators generally did not fight to the death (although it did happen from time to time). And the losing gladiators usually did not receive a death sentence from the senior Roman statesman in attendance. Gladiators were the professional boxers of their day – they trained for months, if not years, at special schools and some of them were very famous. And like boxers, there were different categories of gladiators. At least seven by my count, all distinguished by the defensive armor they wore, the weapons they used and the other categories of gladiators they fought.
After Nîmes, we moved on from the Romans’ sadistic ideas about entertainment to their much more impressive ideas about engineering with a visit to the Pont du Gard. The largest surviving antique bridge in the world and the tallest aqueduct in the Roman Empire, the Pont du Gard was built in the 1st century AD and transported water between Uzès and Nîmes for 500 years, until the local population realized that it could steal the stones used in its construction to build their own houses. The bridge portion of the aqueduct still stands 2,000 years later, however, and has undergone only minimal restoration.
Interesting fact: The Romans managed the feat of fitting the stones together without the use of any mortar, like the Incas 1,400 years later.
We climbed to the top level of the bridge, which served as the conduit for the clean water to cross the river. From on high, we were treated to a spectacular view of the surrounding countryside.
Our visit was made complete by an afternoon spent swimming in the river below. A couple of notable things happened there. First, Sophie and I skipped stones, and although she didn’t really appreciate the exceptional surroundings, I appreciated them enough for both of us. I don’t think I’ve ever skipped stones in such a lovely place.
The second memorable event occurred while we were picnicking on the river bank. I need to preface this anecdote by mentioning that the other day we stopped for lunch in a medieval village called Sommières. The town was having some kind of celebration (most towns in this particular corner of France seem to be having festivities this week) that required most of its attendees to get rip-roaring drunk.
It was quite the scene. As I was desperately searching for a place to eat and pee, we turned into an alleyway and happened upon a drunk man relieving himself in the street. And he was as goofy and happy as could be about his ability to relieve himself wherever he wanted. I was jealous because I had to pee so badly myself. In any case, the girls were lucky enough to witness it (although they shielded their eyes from any close-up views) and have been talking about it ever since. Sophie’s comment about the incident was full of innocent irony: “Isn’t France supposed to be fancy?” Little does she know.
Now that I’ve set the stage, today’s related incident will be that much more meaningful to you. As we were enjoying our lunch by the river, with the majestic Pont du Gard watching over us in the distance, Chloe noticed that a little boy’s penis was hanging out of his shorts. He peed. And then his mom came over holding a diaper in her hands so that he could squat and crap into it (hey, at least the mom had the decency to catch his shit in a diaper). You can imagine the hysterics in the audience. The girls were beside themselves laughing at the scene. I remarked to them that the drunk man peeing in the alleyway in the medieval town got his start just like the boy on the river bank.
The icing on the cake occurred a few minutes later when the boy’s little sister joined the party and took a leak through her bathing suit. By that point, Chloe practically peed herself from laughing so hard. Actual bathrooms, by the way, were just up the hill. Only in France.
We capped off the day with a visit to Uzès, a town (just assume from now on that any town I mention is medieval, unless I say otherwise) on the route back to our apartment from the Pont du Gard. Sophie was hungry and tired, but I promised her it’d be worth her while, even though I had absolutely no idea if it really would be worth her while.
I was able to keep my promise because in sitting down to dinner, we were privy to prime viewing seats for the town’s very modest version of Pamplona’s running of the bulls. Several boys were dumb enough to try to catch the bulls as they made their way up and down the avenue. We witnessed one kid suffer a head injury from being briefly dragged on the ground by one of the poor animals. Chloe and Sophie were dumbfounded by the boys’ stupidity and Sophie, being Sophie, felt bad for the bulls because they had to put up with such idiots.
Needless to say, after such an action-packed and memorable day, what a treat to see this beautiful field of sunflowers readying themselves for a good night’s slumber as we made our way back to our apartment this evening.