When one has a limited amount of time available to spend in a European country it can be difficult to justify squandering a moment of it anywhere but in the capital city. That’s understandable. One may not really believe one’s been to France if the trip doesn’t include visits to the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre or the Cathedral of Notre Dame.
However, there’s a lot more to France than Paris. For someone with a few days to spare and an interest in history that extends further back than the wars of the 20th century, a trip to the southern region of Languedoc-Roussillion can reveal a host of treasures.
The area encompasses the old province of Languedoc, where the historical highlights of the last 2,000 years can be discovered by exploring just a few of the cities of the region.
Without the city of Nimes and its traditional textile industry, the western world would look very different than it does today, because without serge de Nimes, or denim, blue jeans would never have been invented.
But Nimes has more to offer than its position as the font of the ubiquitous fashion staple. It’s a treasure trove of Roman ruins, some of which don’t look very ruined at all. Three of them are not to be missed and one ticket gains access to them all.
Standing guard over the city, high atop Mont Cavalier, sits the Tour Magne or Great Tower, a former communications and watchtower. It’s almost the only thing left of the previous double walls of the city, and a climb up its winding staircase (after a steep climb through beautiful gardens to the base of the tower itself) affords a magnificent view of the town and the surrounding countryside.
In the centre of the town lies La Maison Carree, or the Square House. It’s a beautifully proportioned edifice and is billed as the only fully preserved temple of the ancient world. Inside, a somewhat cheesy 3-D movie chronicles the heroes of Nimes through the ages.
By far the jewel in Nimes’ crown is the amphitheatre. Built at the end of the 1st century AD, it has been in continuous use for the past 2,000 years — it is still used today for bullfights — and is in an almost perfect state of preservation.
Like the Colosseum of Rome on which it is based, its interior walls are lined with placards detailing its history and enough information about gladiators to satisfy even the most avid fan.
One learns about the different styles of fighting and kinds of fighters, as well as small tidbits such as the fact gladiators were seldom condemned to death (and never with a thumbs down gesture). They were expensive to train, and their trainers expected a fat fee in compensation if they didn’t make it out of the arena alive.
Moving ahead several centuries, the UNESCO World Heritage site, the cite de Carcassonne, appears like a fairy tale on the skyline. Although originally settled in pre-Roman times and substantially improved upon in the 7th century, what remains now is a completely restored medieval fortress.
However much one may argue with the decision taken in the late 19th century to attempt to recreate the place as it might have appeared in the Middle Ages, there’s no denying its charm. Perhaps it does bring to mind a kind of Disneyland without the rides, but it’s beautiful nonetheless.
The cobblestone streets are choc-a-bloc with shops stocking an astonishingly wide range, in both quality and variety, of medieval-themed souvenirs.
Everything from plastic swords to jewel-encrusted cloaks is brazenly proffered to the swarming tourists eager to drop a few euros.
Cafes and restaurants are plentiful and not as expensive as one might expect.
But the buildings are beautiful, especially the cathedral, with its array of comical gargoyles looking down at the crowd below, and if one takes the attitude that one has happened upon a medieval fair, it’s fun to walk around and take in all the sights.
Roses climbing on 1,000-year-old walls are always stunning, even if no one actually lives there and the building’s owner packs up and goes home every evening.
The region’s capital is Montpellier, which lies midway between Nimes and Carcassonne, but appears much more modern than them both despite the millennium-old medical school that was attended by such long-deceased notables as Rabelais and Nostradamus.
Like Carcassonne, shops of every description are to be found lining the winding cobblestone streets.
Unlike Carcassonne, they seem a much more authentic part of a real city. An hour can easily be wasted just marvelling over the fascinating wares stuffed into the many tiny rooms of a corner toyshop.
The entire city centre is one huge pedestrian mall, and when one has left the shops behind one can walk through parks lined with statues and food stalls. It’s a great place to sit on a bench and watch the world go by.
At one end lies the baroque grandeur of the chateau d’eau, and the arc de triomphe, both presided over by a magnificent statue of King Louis XIV.
Jumping forward in time, the other end boasts the Esplanade Charles de Gaulle housing the craziest Dr. Seuss/Salvador Dali inspired playground that one could imagine. Oh, to be seven again and give it a try.
And if travelling 2,000 years through time in just a couple of days isn’t exciting enough, Languedoc even offers the future to a select few.
The village of Bugarach, at the base of an upside down mountain — the top part is older than the bottom — is calculated to be one of the only safe places in the world when the Mayan calendar’s predicted end of the world takes place in 2012.
But for the present, when one has tired of the sights and the heat that beats down in a way unimaginable in Newfoundland, one can repair to the luxuriant swathes of white sand beaches that stretch for kilometres along the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, only a 15-minute train ride from Montpellier.
Now that’s something that visitors to Paris can only dream of.