Agde to Arles

Up until now, I havent been impressed with the beaches of the French part of the Med. The whole Cote D’ Azur you have to do breastroke to keep your head above the used condos and frite packets floating around in there. Nice has pebbles instead of sand, which brings to mind when I thought I’d get out of London for a day at beach in Brighton. I was that depressed to find rocks bigger than my fist instead of sand, and a turgid sea of cold brown water. Anyway, Agde, or more precisely the Cap D’Agde, which is on the Southwest side of the Rhone mouth, had decent sandy beaches and sea that you could see the bottom of. Speaking of bottoms, where we camped was right next to Europe’s largest Naturism camp. Id been once before to a nude beach in Brazil, hiking for miles through the scrub near Buzios with Karina to discover she was the only women on the beach. But this place was like a city. Curiousity got the better of us and we decided to pay it a visit. Now I’ve grown more comfortable in my own skin as I’ve got older, but pushing a shopping trolley down the supermarket aisle starkers was an eye opener for me, and I decided not to have sausages (or bearded clam) for dinner that night. The place was huge, with hotels, campgrounds, shopping malls, bars and beach. We had a lay on the beach, after some precautionary sunscreen, and I have to admit swimming then showering and laying on the towel are better without the possiblity of sand in your bathers. They advertise as this clean, back to nature lifestyle, and there were a few bare-arsed families that probably fitted that bill. But I detected an undercurrent of sleaze, with lots of single blokes with jewelery in interesting place, and 3 or 4 stores selling bondage gear. Then again, maybe they were just Germans.

After a few days in Agde, and a more extensive suntan than Im used to, we headed to Montpellier. We had a friend of a friend to catch up with, but I was buggered if I could find where I’d written his number. Montpellier is a big town and an old city that seemed to have only one way in or out in the van. We thought we’d keep pressing on as I was eager to see Arles before night fall. This involved driving through the Carmargue, the swampy delta where the Rhone meets the sea. Famed for its Carmargue horses, of which we saw one munching forlornly in a drainage ditch, and mosquitos, of which we saw plenty.

Coming into Arles is like approaching any French town. First you have farms and light industry, then the big Hypermarts, then a zone of service stations and car dealerships that give way to some high rise apartment buildings, then a commercial residential zone of lighting shops and bakeries, and finaly the elegant architecture of the old city at it’s centre.

I had my heart set on visiting the roman arena in Arles. Id never been in the Coliseum in Rome, due to a combination of big queue and general miserliness, but this time I wanted a gander. It was very well preserved and had been in use since 56AD, not to mention it’s appearence in the rather good film “Ronin”. The old city was a narrow maze, and we were lucky to make it out of there, let alone find a parking space. We manged to find one by the river and wandered in and up to the arena. They were selling tickets to the Bullfighting that had just started, to which Karina bluntly refused to go (see earlier posts). But someone explained it was a special “Carmargue” style where the object is to take a ribbon from the bulls horns with a small handheld hook, and that no bull were killed, she relunctantly agreed to join me.

There must have been 25 guys in the arena with the bull, who took turns to run at the bull before leaping quite athletically (you would to if you had a bull’s horn just about to turn your date into a shashlik) to safety of a fence with running board around the bottom. The bulls varied in size, with the bigger bulls provide more entertainment (i.e. chance of gore). The first one managed to jump the fence and terrorise the front row spectators. Sitting on a sunny evening in a 2000 year old arena was quite atmospheric, and I thought “put this crowd in togas, have a couple of albatross sellers, and I could be Alius Maximus”

After the last bull trotted out of the arena like he’d done it a hundred times before, they had a fairly over the top awards ceremony with marching bands and women in traditional dress (they looked like milkmaids) that seemed to drag on until every last partipant had an award. We took the opportunity to jump into the arena and get a bulls eye view on things.

After a glass of wine we wandered back to the van and drove out along the backroads towards Aix en Provence. We stayed on the outskirts of a minor town, where the local kids took turns to ride a loud trailbike up and down next to our camper. I unscrewed the back of a powerbox in an effort to ‘borrow’ some electricity (it’s not stealing if you cant see it) but the bastard hadnt been wired up to the mains yet, so I stopped short before attempting this and probably electricuting myself.

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