26 June 2008

Kill everyone. Let God sort them out.

The same day that I returned, recovered, from Mt. Ventoux, I left Avignon for Nimes. I had hoped to see Arles, as well, but given the time I had, I decided that my secret love for the Robert DiNiro movie "Ronin" was not a good enough reason to rush through my last day in Provence. Anyway, the big draw in Arles is a Roman amphitheatre, and Nimes has one, too--in fact, the best preserved one in the world. Score for me! Little did I know, but the day before they played in Milan, Radiohead performed in the f*cking Roman arena in Nimes! Maybe it's a good thing I didn't see them there, because I might have had an ultimate bliss-out heart attack. Isn't it cool that they still use these 2000 year old performance spaces, though?

I arrived in Nimes full of a renewed determination to enjoy life, having just had it saved. Much to my horror, however, the train station didn't have a left luggage room. "Why?!" I screamed in my heart, before heading out, with backpack, to see what sense I could make of the world. Walking along the main drag, I soon passed a hotel. Ah, I'll simply ask... "We cannot store luggage for non-guests" the sign read. So, I was not the only one who had faced this problem, and I was also facing an unfriendly city. The next hotel I passed was a posh Novotel. Figuring my chances were slim, I confidently strolled up to the desk and begged the sweet-looking young woman there to have mercy on me. For security reasons, she informed me, they were not able to store bags for non-guests. I asked why Nimes, unlike every other city I'd ever been to, was at Defcon 2. I asked if I looked dangerous. I asked if it was the beard. Finally, she relented, this proving to me once again that I am charming enough to get anything I want (but remembering the lesson of the previous day, it did not make me cocky).

I then went off and walked around and around the amphitheater, blithely (that's right, blithely) ignoring the "passage interdit" signs, walking on the top rim and through all the different levels of passages. I am still a kid when it comes to ruins, especially Roman ruins. I met my Canadian female counterpart when I boarded the bus to another ruin, the also Roman aqueduct known today as the "Pont du Gard" which I have really, like her, always wanted to see. She (Michelle) even turned out to be a graduate student, so, in addition to ancient hydrodynamics, we had much else to talk about (like how ridiculous it is that bottles of water at the Pont du Gard cafe cost 3 euros). Sadly, we only had a short time to visit the Pont before the return bus. She had to organize her travels for the following day, and I had to catch the train that evening to Carcassonne. Back in Nimes, I drank two beers with fruit-flavored syrup (a European thing we haven't adopted yet in the States), picked up my backpack, and went up to the train platform to await my next TGV...

...to Carcassonne! Carcassonne is a famous castle town in Southern France named after a popular board game. Strangely, I could not find this game for sale anywhere in the city. A woman working at the castle gift shop told me that it might be because it, like her, is German. European prejudice strikes again! It may be for much the same reason that, as my previous host Stephane had informed me, it is impossible to buy foreign wine in France. Like everything else I've been visiting lately, "I've always wanted to go to Carcassonne." "Whatever!" you're saying to yourselves by now, but I mean it! And it's not even because of the board game, though you are within your rights to suspect it. No, it's because the Kevin Kostner movie "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" was filmed here. If there's a better reason to visit a place than that it once served as the set of a Kevin Kostner movie (also starring Alan Rickman!), I'd like to hear it. Of course, I wouldn't tell most people this. To the man on the street, I say that I'm fascinated by the medieval heresy of Catharism, one of its main centers having been Carcassonne. This is not untrue--I love the Cathars! They were a Christian sect so radical, they actually believed people should live according to the precepts of Jesus. Naturally, the Roman Church had no choice but to eradicate them in the 13th century, thus inaugurating the Dominican order of monks and the Holy Inquisition (cue Mel Brooks musical number) of much fame. It was during this "crusade" against the Cathars that the commanding priest, when asked how the soldiers would be able to distinguish Cathars from Catholics, famously uttered the quote headlining this post. Great religion, eh? At the Carcassonne train station, I was met by a Frenchman born in South Africa (as he describes himself) named Owen, my new host. He brought me to dinner at a friend's apartment (another couchsurfer) and then back to his place with his cute five year old daughter who wouldn't talk to me. I slept.

The next day, I "did" the castle. Carcassonne is divided into two separate "towns": the castle town up on the hill, inhabited by only 60 residents and 12,000 tourists, and the lower town built sometime around the 13th or 14th century (so much newer). The castle town is enormous and provides the eager sentimentalizing visitor (guilty!) with the best-preserved castle fortifications in... wait a minute, haven't I heard this before? "Whatever!" is what *I* said; it's UNESCO, it's gorgeous, I feel like I'm Christian Slater as Will Scarlett: all is well. In the 19th century, the city was restored and medievalized by the same guy who restored Notre Dame in Paris. This means that, instead of rebuilding the towers the way they actually were, he stuck a bunch of ridiculous Cinderella roofs on top of them. I'll have to watch the movie again to see whether or not they were Photoshopped out. The castle itself (the "castle castle" and not just the castle town) was nothing too special, in my estimation, though it did have a few of those quirky contemporary art exhibits the French seem to stick randomly inside their old monuments. With my entrance ticket, however, I did get a mandatory guided tour of the inner ramparts. Ramparts are cool because the word "ramparts" is awesome. I walked on the ramparts. How often does one get to say that? I also walked around the castle town walls a few times, inside and out, because I like walking around things (this much you know) and very much feeling like I was trapped in a David Macauley book come to life. After the castle, I popped back into town to visit a small John Miro exhibit at the local museum and do my last bit of food shopping in France.

This morning, I will be taking a train to the small Pyrenean border village of St. Jean Pied du Port, which is difficultly pronounced "Seun Zhon Pieh(d) doo Por(t)" but is still not as bad as Arles (don't ask). From there, I will begin the Camino Santiago, a one month pilgrimage walk across the north of Spain to the city of Santiago de Compostella. Along the way, I will visit the most beautiful cities, set in some of the loveliest countryside, of the Iberian peninsula. And that is how I will put a cap on this one year voyage around my smooth world. I'm living my dream, my friends. Are you living yours?

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