It is Friday evening, and the Belgian Pied Piper of the Camargue is standing by our camping pitch scratching his head in disbelief. When he came by earlier this morning everything was as he expected it to be. There was our wonderful, large, bright blue, family sized, Fistral 4 tent in all its glory, with me sitting outside in my bright red, really comfy, chair … but now, in the evening, although I am still sitting in my bright red, really comfy chair, our wonderful, large, bright blue, family sized, Fistral 4 tent, has been replaced by a much smaller, bright blue, pop-up tent! ‘Sacre bleu!’ the Belgian Pied Piper of the Camargue exclaims. ‘What ‘as ‘appened?’ ‘Honey’, I reply, ‘I shrunk the tent!’ He hasn’t got a clue what I am on about? Obviously not a ‘film buff’ then!
What has happened, of course, is that whilst the Belgian Pied Piper of the Camargue has been out for the day, Julia and I have spent the day slowly breaking camp, dismantling our big tent, packing away our cooker, and tables etc., and loading our car ready for an early get away on Saturday morning … the beginning of our leisurely four day jaunt back up through France to Calais, the tunnel, and back home to Chipps Barton. Because this has been our final main campsite, of the three we have stayed in during this year’s extended ‘Tour de France’, we wanted to clean everything thoroughly and pack it all away in the car sensibly, before commencing our journey home. We are thinking that this might actually be the very last time we will use our wonderful big tent. God-willing, Julia will be returning to the Baptist Ministry full-time in the next few months, and we will not be able to take as much time as we have over the last four years for lengthy camping holidays in France. Our Fistral 4 is still in excellent condition and we would like to pass it on (possibly with various other pieces of camping equipment) to someone … maybe a family … who would be able to make good use of it.
So, although we are not leaving until Saturday, we take most of Friday to clean the tent and pack it away properly, and load the car with all our ‘stuff’. We plan to sleep in our ‘between main campsites’ pop-up tent on Friday night, and then all we have to do on Saturday morning is pack away the pop-up tent, stow the small single burner cooker and the few other things we need available for our last night, in our car … and then we are off!
It has been an excellent holiday for us all round, and these final two weeks in the Camargue have been particularly good. The weather has been hot and sunny (perhaps almost too hot at times) but we have had a really enjoyable time, met lots of new and interesting people, and visited some wonderful places. This last week has been especially good. We began it with a trip to the beautiful city of Nîmes, located between the Mediterranean Sea and the Cévennes mountains. The estimated population of Nîmes today is around 175,500. It has a rich history, dating back to the Roman Empire when the city was home to around 50,000-60,000 people (many of them Roman veterans). It is the Roman history of Nîmes we particularly want to explore.
Because of the heat down here in the Camargue, we get up early and take a packed breakfast with us. We stop off in the Aire de Vergeze – the same Aire where we helped the ‘Chechen rebel’ (I recounted the story in an earlier blog, you will recall) – to eat our breakfast. We are joking with each other, as we pull in to the Aire, that it would not surprise us to find the Russian Secret Service waiting for us when we get there? As we park our car, in a shady spot under some trees, we notice a large camper van full of young men – there must be a half dozen at least. ‘Is this a drop-off point for Chechen rebels?’ we ask ourselves. ‘I expect the police will arrive in a moment?’ Julia wonders out loud, as the camper van drives off. No sooner has she spoken than a car load of Gendarmes, plus other Gendarmes on motor bikes, come roaring in to the Aire. They are escorting another van that they have ‘picked up’ on the motorway. They stop right by our car and makes the occupants of the van all get out. They then start to empty the said van of all its contents. They are obviously looking for something or someone. We beat a hasty retreat before we get arrested as well … and we have finished our breakfast anyway!
Nîmes is beautiful. So clean, and well looked after, with wonderful buildings, and gardens, and fountains. It is easily the most beautiful city we have visited during this extended camping holiday. We cannot possibly see all that Nîmes has to offer, so we are limiting our exploration to its Roman history. Several famous monuments are in Nîmes, such as the Ampitheatre, the Maison Carrée Temple, and the Tour Magne. Because of this, Nîmes is often referred to as the French Rome. The site of an ancient spring, thought to have religious and mystical properties, Nîmes became a Roman colony sometime before 28 BC, although it was Augustus who made the city the capital of the Narbonne province, and gave it all its glory. An aqueduct was built to bring water from the hills to the north (part of which was the spectacular Pont du Gard that we visited during our first week here). There are fountains everywhere and we are reminded of the words of Jesus in which he described himself as the ‘source of living water’ which would become a ‘fountain of living water welling up from within’ all who (in every age) would believe on him (John 7:37,38).
We spend most of the day in Nîmes. We visit the amazing Roman Amphitheatre, that dates from the end of the 2nd century AD, and is one of the best preserved in the world. The main arena is set up with chairs and a huge stage (which spoils the internal view somewhat) ready for some kind of ‘rock concert’ later in the week. We thoroughly explore the site, however, and climb right up to the top tiers, where we are amazed to find that ‘health and safety’ just doesn’t apply. There are no safety barriers. People are sitting with their legs dangling over the edges of what must be all of a 70 foot drop to the ground? There is nothing to stop small children running off the edge? But then (as we have often remarked) ‘This is France!’ There are lots of ‘rules’ … but none of them seem to apply? We visit the Maison Carrée, one of the best preserved temples to be found anywhere in the territory of the former Roman Empire, where we watch an excellent short film about the early history of Nîmes (told in story form), and even climb up to the Tour Magne, and to the very top of the tower itself. The views are quite amazing.
As we descend back down to the city, through the wonderful gardens that lead up to the Tour Magne, we hear the sound of bagpipes being played. ‘Oh no!’ we both say out loud, ‘It’s the Belgian Pied Piper of the Camargue … he’s followed us to Nîmes!’ We turn the corner … and there is a Scotsman playing a hurdy-gurdy! (O.k., I am lying about the hurdy-gurdy player being a Scot). There is no one … except us … within 100 yards of him! We beat a hasty retreat … as everyone else has obviously done!
We return to our campsite after a truly memorable day. After dinner, we take our dirty crockery up to the ‘wash up’ area to wash them. We pass a group of young people playing with a football. We know them – two of them belong to a nice French family staying in one of the cabins just up from our pitch. They are batting the ball to each other, volley-ball style, and sometimes heading it to each other. We have to pass right through the middle of them and, as we do, I call out to one of the lads, ‘On me ‘ead, son, on me ‘ead!’. The lad looks at me blankly. I explain to him (in French) that I am teaching him some English? His sister gets it straight away. ‘Sur la tête!’ she shouts to him, ‘Sur la tête!’And then (mimicking me exactly) cries out to the lad with the ball, ‘On me ‘ead, son, on me ‘ead!’. ‘Arry would be proud of me!
Our final week passes too quickly … but we manage to fit in a wonderful boat trip around the nearby canals and rivers of the Camargue, including an opportunity to see once again the famous semi-wild black bulls and white horses, together with their ‘Gardiens’ (the cowboys and cowgirls) of the Camargue. We also enjoy a wonderful fish dinner on one of the floating restaurants at Le Grau du Roi, a final swim in the Mediterranean, and a night market at Port Camargue. We have so many wonderful memories to take home with us.
Later on Friday evening we go for a final stroll around the campsite. The kids are heading a football to each other. They are playing their new favourite game … they call it ‘On me ‘ead, son!’ They throw the ball in my direction … I jump and nod the ball (Alan Shearer style) powerfully into the top corner of the imaginary net! ‘Yes! You’ve still got it … even at pushing 72!’ I tell myself. When we get back to our pitch we discover that the Belgian Pied Piper of the Camargue has recovered from the shock of seeing our large blue Fistral 4 tent shrink to much smaller blue pop-up tent. He has his bagpipes with him and he is doing the rounds, taking requests. He comes over to us. ‘Is there anything you would especially like me to play for you?’ ‘Do you know Silent Night?’ I reply … with as straight a face as possible.