Friday, March 4, 2011

Roman Arenas

We’ve visited quite a few of the ancient Roman cities in Provence now and they all seem to have the same kinds of ruins: the forum, the circus, the arena and the theatre. They were all built up around 100 AD during the height of the Roman empire for a couple of reasons. One, the emperor wanted to make certain the people knew the power and strength of Rome. Another reason was to impart the culture and values of the Romans to the new citizens. Some of the structures are still there and some are just memories. Probably the most fascinating part was how these monuments have been used over the years.

The Roman Arena in Arles was under renovation but that is not unusual for ancient things in Europe. The entrance had been moved and this caused quite a bit of confusion trying to find our way back out. The exit signs pointed to the wrong place and since all the arches looked exactly the same, it took a bit of walking before we arrived where we needed to be. I think we must have done three loops of the Arena at various levels before finally finding the exit! We were not alone, however, because I saw others asking for help from the construction workers. In Nimes, the arena is similarly laid out but with no construction we were able to avoid the whole “rat in a maze” thing.

Anyhow, that little excitement aside, both arenas were well preserved, although the one in Nimes had a better audioguide tour. During the middle ages, both had been used as a fort and houses were built up inside the walls and lookout towers were built on the outside at a couple of points. We climbed up one of the towers in the Arles arena for the view and watched the roofers across the way fixing tiles. It is ironic how many roofing scenarios we encounter given our own roofing problems at home. These guys were on a five story building and had a long plastic tube hanging down the side. They’d break up the tiles then dump pails full of debris down the tube to land in a loud crash in their truck below. This was good entertainment and we all spent quite a while enjoying the fun. Strangely, the arenas also had a roof back in the day. They had a retractable canvas roof that could be put up to shade the citizens from the sun or rain.

When the medieval types had used the arena as a town, they bricked up the arches to use as walls for their homes. In Arles, some are still bricked up and you can see in the picture a bit above, the gothic window built into one. The town lasted until about the 1800’s when Europe began to become interested in its history. They cleared out all the inhabitants over a twenty year period and then removed the homes and restored the arena. I’m glad they left a couple of the areas bricked up, though, because it is quite interesting to me that the arena had more than one life.

The seating was done by social status and all events were free. The wealthier citizens would pay for the events through taxes or sometimes just as a donation to the city to increase their status. The more important you were in the city, the better your seat and some seats even had names carved into them. The lesser mortals had to get in line early to try to jockey for the best seat. With upwards of 20,000 spectators, it was important to build ways for the audience to flow through the seating areas in and out. Back in the Roman times, fights frequently broke out over seating so the ability to separate people and allow them easy access reduced the violence. This accounts for the many arched entries into the arena which we still have in arenas today.

Arenas started out as wooden seating around a square in town. Gladiators from various training schools would show off their skills to the crowds. It became very popular so the Romans built the arenas. The arenas were based on the same principal as the theatres. Theatres were built against hills to support the weight of the seating where possible. If this wasn’t possible, a large wall was erected using the arches the Romans knew to be strong. Several layers of arches had to be used in order to support the great weight of the stone seats. They put two theatres together to create a circular structure so that no matter where you sat in the audience, you could still see the events. For gladiator fights, this was ideal.

When the events first began, it was a prestigious honour to be a gladiator. The gladiators were almost worshipped and attained star status in the towns. They fought for their training schools and brought their schools honour as well. Gladiators were not soldiers though, and their weapons and shields were different. The events were very popular and would last throughout the day. The beginning of the day was for animal events where people fought lions and bears. Around noon, prisoners and those being put to death came out and were fed to the animals. At the end of the day the most popular gladiator events were held.

It was interesting to me that the mid-day events were not popular. People didn’t like to see the prisoners killed. Some prisoners were tied to stakes so they couldn’t defend themselves. Some were burned. The punishments varied. The crowd left the stands when this happened. Everyone went into the shaded areas of the galleries to get drinks and food and to socialize during the brutality of the massacres. Only a few slaves and poor people were left holding seats for those not there. We thought it was interesting behaviour given the bloodthirsty crowds in the middles ages who made a social day’s event out of going to watch condemned prisoners die.

Another interesting fact was that the thumbs up and down commonly seen in movies is not true. The audience could give their opinion but the final call was left to the editor of the games and most often he would spare the life of the fallen gladiator because he had to pay the training school if a gladiator died. The training schools were paid lots of money to provide a gladiator for the day’s sport. The editor would hold a flat hand up with thumb extended to show the weapon if the gladiator was to die. The editor would hold up a fist with the thumb hidden within to indicate the weapon should be sheathed and the life of the gladiator spared.

It was only towards the end of the Roman empire that the arenas became bloodbaths. The word arena means "sand" and it was used because the arena was filled with sand to absorb the blood that spilled. The sand was turned over after each day to keep the smell down. Lovely, eh?
The training schools were closing due to lack of money and there were no longer well trained fighters so more and more prisoners were used. It was thought that the Christian faith may have influenced the closing of the arenas but it is more likely that there was just a lack of money to support the games.
Today, the arenas are used for bullfighting in both Nimes and Arles. The Nimes arena is the only one outside of Spain where the bulls are still killed. In Arles, the bulls live long and happy lives, often attaining star status themselves. They only hold the events in July and August though, so we won't be able to meet any of the stars this trip.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Nice Carnival

Our trip to Nice was fantastic. As you can probably tell by the two blogs before this one, Carnival was a real highlight. What a wild festival. I don’t think it was just me when I say things got more lawless as the weekend progressed. Once you got past the idea that spraying silly string directly in a performer’s face was rude, you had arrived. Adults behaved like children, spraying each other silly and racing around through the crowd. Some of the performers balanced on the fences around the stands while people threw things at them to knock them off. Yet, strangely, everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves and very few people looked angry about excessively rude behaviours.

I tried to imagine getting permission for this kind of parade in Canada and could practically hear the outraged environmentalists. There were bags of confetti thrown endlessly everywhere. A whole troupe of performers carried leaf blower type machines on their backs and sprayed rolls of tissue into the air while a comrade with a cannon shot small tissue circles everywhere. Pounding dance pop music blared from speakers while costumed crowd pleasers danced interspersed throughout the stands. Every so often they would simultaneously all shoot coloured bits of foil into the air from exploding party makers. Many of the spectators were costumed as well. On the whole, chaos was the theme.

We started blandly enough with the Bataille des Fleurs on Saturday. This parade was held on the Promenade des Anglais, along the beach. Bleachers were set up on the beach side though, so you couldn’t actually see the water. Not that you were looking for it. The parade was awesome. Huge beautifully decorated flower floats went by, each one covered in real flowers. The “flower” girls on board were dressed like fantasy princesses and tossed the flowers to the crowd over the next few hours as the floats did loops around the route. At the end, the floats were completely stripped of flowers. Nice is the flower capital in France. Their flower market here is the biggest one but knowing how much flower bouquets cost, this city must go into debt over this carnival. They do the parades at least three times over the three weeks.

This parade had more costumed performers, marching bands and dancing troupes than the others. I think Tom’s favourite were the girls from Brazil who were wearing mesh outfits covering strategic points minimally. Some of the costumes were just fantastic. The girls dressed as brightly coloured flowers were stunning. The costumes were welded together with wheels on the bottom to make supporting the weight easier. There were many characters on stilts, some of whom bounced on what looked like pogo stilts. I particularly liked the insects.

The kids have posted movies of the evening parade. It was spectacular. Keep in mind we had just seen the Flower Parade a few hours earlier and were awed then. This parade is when they pulled out the big floats for the first time. Two of the floats had been on display. One was the Sun God that you saw in the movie. It was jaw-dropping watching that thing move. They moved very slowly because unlike the Flower Parade, during this parade there were no fence barriers to keep the standing room guests contained. We all stood along the parade route and some of us stood ON the parade route. These floats were absolutely HUGE yet people just stood right in front; usually to get a picture. It really only was getting started in the evening, too.

The next day was the final “Carnival Parade”. We’d seen most of the floats before so I guess the only thing left was to ramp up the chaos. During this parade people flowed around the floats as the floats progressed. They moved slowly and the crowds parted for them but we were perhaps 3 metres away, able to touch some floats that were wide and we were at the back of the crowd most of the time. Rhys and Julia were right at the front, armed with silly string and covered in confetti.

Each float had a theme and many of the Mediterranean countries were represented, although not all of them. Several middle Eastern countries were missing and a few north African countries as well. I can’t see Muslims being particularly tolerant of many of the antics so perhaps they declined the invitation. Italy was highlighted because it was the 150th anniversary of their becoming a unified country. They had several floats, one of which included several men dressed in drag with huge balloon breasts. This apparently wasn’t enough as the men were about as raunchy as you could ask for, lifting their skirts, grinding their hips, making lewd gestures at the crowds. They were very funny and more than a bit scandalous. The most interesting thing was that on the same float further along were five and six year old children. The kids weren’t dressed in drag but it did create an interesting picture of the Italian way of life.

We did wander the streets of Nice a bit but most of our time was spent at the Carnival. We return to Nice for a few days when we drive from Spain to Italy and I am looking forward to seeing the beaches and feeling the warmth of the French Riviera on our return.

The carnaval.

The carnival

Today we went to the third part of the carnival. We started out waking up and feeling awful because yesterday we stayed up really late and then did a long uphill walk.

Anyways… we took the train into town and walked around for a little bit.
At two thirty the parade started the first float was called the Kings float. It was a big sun-man, that was covered in silly-string. Not actually a big surprise though, because everything was covered in silly-string. And confetti. It was chaos, it was so much fun!

Confetti everywhere, in your face, in your hair, in your pants. There were no barriers to tell you where to go only the floats would direct you out of the way. There was everything, but my favorite float was the dead dinosaur thing. You could actually go inside the mouth! Only one person at a time, and I didn’t get picked, but it was so cool because the head moved around everywhere it must have been hard to stay in.

There were also acrobats, one of the groups had a mat type thing and I got to go on it. It was really cool, because they threw me up in the air…hehe. All of the floats were very cool, and big. The audience was chaos. But everything was perfect.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011


We went to Avignon this past week but we did not dance upon the famous bridge. No one did, actually. It’s just a song, people. The bridge is too narrow for dancing. If any dancing took place near the bridge it was probably under it, on the island in the middle of the river Rhone. I did sing the song, but quietly, as Julia’s horror was intimidating. The children’s song is still sung most commonly in France and Canada. Yes, the audio guide actually said that!

So not only did we not dance upon the bridge but we also did not cross the famous bridge. You can’t cross the famous bridge. You haven’t been able to cross the famous bridge since the 1600’s when they gave up trying to fix it. The Rhone river kept flooding, taking out sections of the bridge until it just became too much to maintain.

So we didn’t dance upon the bridge, we didn’t cross the bridge. Actually, we didn’t even visit the Pont D’Avignon because the famous bridge of song in Avignon is not the Pont D’Avignon. It’s the Pont Saint Benezet. Somehow, Saint Benezet got left out of the song. It is rather a mouthful. Maybe the tune came first. Regardless, Saint Benezet has a bridge named after him that people once danced…under.

Saint Benezet was a shepherd who had a vision. Didn’t they all back then? In Saint Benezet’s vision he was told to build a bridge, so he took himself down out of the mountains and over to the church to see the bishop. I guess there was a crowd there that day as well there might have been if the bishop was giving audience to the common folk. There were quotes from eyewitnesses to this account so it must have been recorded.

When Benezet (he wasn’t a saint yet) presented his idea, the bishop was quite taken aback. The town mayor laughed outright along with several others. The mayor challenged the shepherd, saying that if he had truly had a vision from God then he should lift a nearby stone and carry it to the river to lay it as the first piece of the foundation for the bridge. The mayor pointed to a large heavy stone that lay nearby, still unmoved because it was too heavy. To everyone’s surprise, the shepherd walked over, lifted the rock, carried it to the river and dropped it in. They build the bridge. I have to wonder if there is a statute of limitations on visions, however, because the bridge obviously didn’t last.

Only four arches out of 22 still remain today. You are allowed to walk on the small remaining section but when it was whole it must have been quite impressive, connecting the Avignon Vatican on one side and France on the other.

Did you know that the Vatican was moved to France for 100 years around 1300? Apparently, they elected a French pope. Times were uncertain with lots of wars and scrambling for land and power. The French king offered protection to the Vatican and the pope obviously like the sound of that so literally bought the town of Avignon and moved the whole kit and caboodle over! The Italians of Rome were none too thrilled about this and things went poorly for quite a while until finally two Vaticans and two popes were established: one in Rome and one in Avignon. It didn’t take long for the Catholics to overcome theis ridiculous mess and soon the Vatican left Avignon and has stayed rooted in Rome ever since. Mind you, the Italians have never quite forgiven the French and in the past 600 years there has not been a single French pope elected.

So Avignon is a lovely city with a huge Papal palace and many beautiful homes built for the holy rollers. I’m going to assumer that the elephant in the square outside the old palace wasn’t there when the pope was. Just a guess.

We found some cute shopping streets and wandered hungrily hunting for food. None of the places listed by Rick were open. Tom remembered Peter Mayle saying Place Pie had all the good eateries so we headed in that direction. Sadly, after 15 years none of the cute eateries were open…or even there. How is it some buildings last for hundreds of years but food joints shut down after a season? We did see an interesting food market. The wall was covered with foliage that reflects the season. I was pleased to see that although it is winter, brown and dead was not the predominant theme. Sadly, the market was closed as well. We didn’t starve though, as we found a cute pasta place back among the shopping lanes. Overall, we decided Avignon is a delightful city.

Mmmmm.... cheese

A video about me opening a epic babybel cheese-- one size bigger than the large ones.

Babybel is delish.

Monday, February 28, 2011

The Nice Carnival

This weekend we went to carnival in nice, and it was spectacular. The giant floats were astonishing; some of them were taller than the buildings surrounding them. they moved their arms and danced and walked and did all sorts of amazing things that floats don’t normally do.

My personal favourite float was a hydraulic dinosaur that could pick people up. The controller would put its head down and someone out of the audience could climb in for a while. The Dinosaur resembled a tyrannosaurus' bones with a painted steel hydraulic under structure, no legs and weird wings. The float would also release smoke from its nostrils every once in a while.

There were also people with a trampoline like piece of cloth that they would throw people up into the air with. Julia volunteered to be thrown up into the air. We saw 3 parades there and most of the floats were used all three times. The first time was during the day behind a fence, and we were spectators. The second one was the same day at night and we were a lot closer, we were participants. The third parade was the next day in the afternoon, and in this parade, we were part of the show.

Each parade was progressively more chaotic than the previous. While the floats were getting old, (but still fantastic) the party was getting better and better. I think that the most impressive parade was the first one, because everything was new and colourful, while the parade I had the most fun at was the third one, because it was such a great party.

Here are 19 videos i took of the night carnival.

there are so many because I was conserving battery.

Here's a playlist of all the videos, and the individual video links:

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19