Provence and the French Riviera Take Center Stage
|In Arles, bullfighters provide exercise and thrills but no blood.|
|The Pont du Gard was an architectural marvel during the Roman era, and still is today.|
By Rick Steves
In 2003 Steve Smith (director of our tour department and co-author of our France books) and I spent two weeks immersed in the South of France. The result: a new book (just out this month), scripts for two TV shows (to be filmed in the summer of 2004 and aired in October on public television), and a special enthusiasm for our Provence and the Riviera tour. The region so famous for its soft light and fierce wind is asloved by Americans as it is by the sun. It inspired Vincent van Gogh, causing his brush to absolutely scream "I love life" on a pile of canvases before he self-destructed. We'll be careful to take the magic of Provence and the French Riviera in measured doses.
Bullfights in Arles: Sitting in the same seats fans have warmed for 2,000 years, visitors to Arles can enjoy a bullfight à la Provençal. These are more sporting than bloody Spanish bullfights. Bulls have a ribbon on their forehead laced to their horns. The fighters are generally local school boys. Armed only with a special hook, they have 15 minutes to snare the ribbon. Local businessmen encourage the fighters by hollering out how much money they'll pay for the ribbon.
Roman ruins: Scholars claim the best Roman ruins are actually in the south of France. And after a visit to the Pont du Gard — a critical link in a 30-mile long aqueduct bringing water into the ancient city of Nimes — you'll agree. The Pont du Gard (the second highest standing Roman structure) spans a canyon with the largest arch the Romans ever built. The state of the new art
museum puts you virtually there in the quarry. In the museum you can glide like a bird over the entire 30 mile course and can feel the excitement of that day nearly 2,000 years ago when cool fresh water gushed into the city.
Boules anyone? Travelers really connecting with the south of France play a little boules or pétanque. It's the horseshoes of this culture (with rules about as easy). Last year one of my groups played boules late into the night. Our driver taught the entire group, and we played by flashlight late into the night. Even if you don't end up tossing the big iron balls, boules is a great spectator sport. In the cool of any evening, in any French village, you can hang out with the gang and actually become part of the scene.