Monday, November 23, 2009

From Ancient Rome to Newfoundland Cod

In the south of France, you don’t have to wander very far to find the legacy of Ancient Rome. We head for the Pont du Gard and the city of Nîmes, parts of that Roman legacy. Taking the autoroute east from Montpellier, we follow the first road built by the Romans in Ancient Gaul: Via Domitia, which connected Italy to Spain.

The Pont du Gard, about 80 kilometres northeast of Montpellier, is both a bridge and an aqueduct, built during the reign of Augustus. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s three levels of arches that together are 50 metres high. The bottom level is the bridge; the top level is part of an aqueduct that brought water to Nîmes, 25 kilometres away. The Romans built it without using mortar; they cut each stone to fit together. Both the bridge and its setting are impressive, but we’re a bit jaded after seeing so many ancient ruins in Rome itself. But if you haven’t been to Rome, then Pont du Gard is worth a visit.

On to Nimes. More Roman ruins here, including an amphitheatre still used today for bullfighting and concerts. For lunch, as part of my Salade Océane, I tried the dish for which Nimes is famous: Brandade de Morue. It’s a purée of salt cod, olive oil, and milk. The cod comes from Newfoundland and you have to wonder: What’s the history behind Newfoundland cod ending up here? It turns out that the fishermen from Brittany came back from Newfoundland with dried cod and traded it for something they needed: salt, which Nîmes had in abundance, thanks to the nearby marshes of Camargue. The Brandade is good, but I wouldn't go out of my way for it.  With lunch, we had Freesia rosé from a nearby winery. (I had tried Freesia wines before:

After lunch, we continued our tour of the city and came upon an iconic image of southern France: groups of retirees playing pétanque in a park under plane trees. It’s serious stuff, even if (or because?) they’re only playing for pride. Some players are taking a break and one of them doesn’t mind taking the time to explain the rules and organization of the sport. There’s even an annual World Championship (!), which France has won the most times, followed by…Thailand!!

Nîmes has a reputation as one of the hottest cites in France and this day is no exception. Further inland than Montpellier, the air here is heavier and more humid. I can’t put my finger on it, maybe it’s the humidity, but Nîmes doesn’t have the same energy. Or maybe I don’t have the same energy!

As we leave ahead of the rush-hour traffic, we encounter something that I don’t remember seeing before. Roundabouts are very common in France. They’re safer than intersections with stop signs or traffic lights, and we should have more in Canada. In Nîmes, however, they've put up traffic lights to control the entry into many roundabouts, an idea that seems to defeat one of the principal benefits of the roundabout:  a smooth, safe, continuous traffic flow. I can only conclude that traffic was so heavy at times that drivers couldn’t enter the roundabouts, lost patience, and forced their way into the roundabout, increasing the number of collisions. Ah, another good idea defeated by idiots.

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