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Exploring Roman ruins – in France! June 21, 2011

Posted by Steffan Slater in Travel Log.
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This was quite the action-packed week this past week.  On Wednesday was our first GTL field trip.  We visited the Lorraine American Cemetery in Saint-Avold and the Hackenberg Fortress, part of the Maginot Line.  The cemetery was very impressive and yet another strong reminder of the less pleasant parts of Europe’s recent history.  The Hackenberg fortress was also a reminder of European history in that time period, but not as vividly.  I really think that it is fantastic that GTL puts does these trips (there are two total) for the students, as it lets us see nearby things which we might not get to see otherwise.  We also had a fantastic lunch at a local restaurant paid for by our program fees.

The evening after our field trip, the first lunar eclipse of 2011 occurred, and it was visible from Europe (although not from the United States).  Unfortunately clouds blocked the view of the moon for quite some time, but eventually it was visible.  It didn’t become visible until after the totality of the eclipse had passed, though, so we got a view of the moon as it came out of the Earth’s shadow.  This was a very interesting eclipse because it was the longest one in quite some time (100 minutes of totality) as well as one of the darkest: typically the moon turns reddish during an eclipse, but during this one it was more or less black.  I did get some pictures; they’re not very clear but they look pretty cool since I captured the moon as it was coming out of the shadow.

Lunar Eclipse

And now we come to the most important part of this past week: the weekend!  I spent this past weekend in southern France.  Saturday was a very busy and long day, but extremely satisfying.  I got off the train at six in the morning in the town of Avignon in the Provence region of France.  Avignon is an old medieval city, with much of the city walls still standing.  It is also the site of a famous bridge (now broken and only partially crossing the river) as well as a papal palace.  Apparently, back in the 1400s, a French pope was elected, and he decided that he didn’t want his church based out of Italy, so he essentially moved the Vatican to Avignon.  The Italians weren’t too happy about this and elected a new, Italian pope who ruled from Rome.  So for a while the Catholic Church had two popes.  In any case, when the French pope moved to Avignon, he had a large number of buildings constructed in the town and approximately doubled its population.  The buildings included offices for staff, housing for cardinals, and this, the Palais des Papes:

Palais des Papes

At 8:45 I caught a bus out to the main attraction for the day, Pont du Gard.  Pont du Gard is a massive Roman aqueduct bridge spanning a valley.  The aqueduct was built to take water to the town of Nîmes and was 30 miles long.  Incredibly, the vertical distance traveled by the water from the source to Nîmes was only 56 feet!  Most of the aqueduct is at ground level or below it, but at Pont du Gard it has to cross the deep river valley, leading to the second tallest Roman structure still standing today.  There are a lot of visitors, but the site is surprisingly peaceful, as you have to walk for a couple minutes to get from the entrance to the actual site.  The aqueduct is of course extremely impressive, and there are a large number of trails on the adjacent hills which allow for great views of the site.

Pont du Gard

I was at Pont du Gard for about 4 hours.  Unfortunately I did not get to do two of the activities I was interested in doing at the site, canoeing under it on the river and hiking along the water channel on top.  The weather was not very good for canoeing (it was overcast and not very warm) and the tours on top only run in July and August.  The visit was wonderful despite those issues though.  I caught a bus back to Avignon and visited the Pont Saint-Bénezet, the famous bridge of Avignon.  Less than 20% of the bridge’s original length remains today, but it is still pretty cool to visit and the museum associated with it has some interesting displays about bridges, including some very impressive modern ones.

After that, I took a 20 minute train ride to the town of Arles.  Arles is another medieval city (also with walls still standing), although it is much smaller than Avignon.  The primary attraction in Arles is the very well preserved Roman amphitheater.  For 4.50 Euros you can go in and walk around the entire structure.  One of the really interesting things about this amphitheater is that during the Middle Ages, the arches were bricked off and some towers constructed on it, and it was used as a housing area.  Three of the towers still stand, and by climbing one of them you can get some good views of the city and the amphitheater.

Arles Amphitheater

In this picture you can also clearly see that there are metal bleacher-style seats in the amphitheater.  It turns out that this arena is still used!  There are bullgames, which are non-violent affairs, as well as traditional bullfights hosted throughout the year.  And from July through September there are reenactment gladiator fights on Tuesdays and Thursdays!  I’m really considering going back down to see one later in the summer if I can.  I mean, how often do you get to see a gladiator fight in a real Roman amphitheater?

After Arles I was on my way to Cannes, home of the international film festival and beaches.  My train ride there took me through Marseille, which struck me as kind of a sketchy city.  I spent my layover there near the train station, especially since I didn’t really have any information about it anyway.

The next day was spent in Cannes.  I spent the morning on the beach, but a couple hours was enough for me.  I’m not really a beach person.  In the afternoon I hopped on a boat out to the nearby island of Sainte-Marguerite and spent a few hours exploring it.  There was a small fortress and prison there, which is what the island is known for.  The prison once held the infamous Man in the Iron Mask.  Most of the island is wooded and crisscrossed by trails, so I spent a good deal of time walking around the island after seeing the prison.

All in all, this was a very, very enjoyable weekend.  Seeing the Roman structures has me very excited for next weekend, when I go to Italy!





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