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January 24, 2002
Roman ruins (Russell)

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The 2,000-year old aqueduct at Pont du Gard

When Russell's sister and brother-in-law were here recently, one of Matt's biggest desires was to see some Roman ruins.  As far as we know he never got to see any; he didn't while they were with us in Crest.  This is ironic, because when they departed they gave us their tour books, and one of them highlighted some spectacular Roman ruins within a two-hour drive from Crest.

So on January 24th (after an aborted attempt the day before, when we got too late a start and the weather threatened rain), we set out with sandwiches and snacks on the autoroute south of Crest.  Our first stop was Pont du Gard, west of Avignon.  Here sits one of Europe's most perfectly preserved Roman aqueducts, built two thousand years ago in 50 AD to carry 44 million gallons of water a day to nearby Nîmes.  The tour book described a brand-new Grande Expo with a museum and Ludo kid's space to help explain the whole thing.  So we were devastated when we arrived and discovered that everything is closed until March (this despite the tour book -- and the brochure the clerk gave us -- both saying that the Expo is open year-round).

Fortunately the aqueduct itself was open -- and free of charge -- so we ended up spending more than an hour there anyway.  At 45 metres high and 50 km long, its central arch is the widest ever constructed by Roman engineers.  The grounds used to contain several traffic roads, but a few years ago they converted the entire area to a pedestrian-only zone (in the summertime, tourists laze around on the beach and loll in boats underneath the arches).  Cameron enjoyed the aqueduct itself (still held in place only by the weight of its own keystones), while Joss enjoyed running around and hiding in the bushes.

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At the aqueduct: a better sense of its immense size

From Pont du Gard we headed further south to Arles, where we visited the Musée (museum) de l'Arles antique and the old Roman Ampithéâtre.  The museum contained a wonderful collection of Roman artifacts (with absolutely no barriers, it was the closest we are likely to get to a Roman statue), as well as re-created models to help us understand what the city and monuments looked like two thousand years ago.  This was particularly helpful regarding the Ampithéâtre, which today has modern seats installed and is used for bullfights.  When we arrived at the Ampithéâtre, it was just being overrun by a fieldtrip of very loud and energetic middle schoolchildren.  After they finally left, we were able to walk (or in Joss' case, run) around at our leisure.  Even the stray cats came out.

(At the Ampithéâtre, we tried for 15 minutes to pay for our parking using the automated machines, but they haven't been converted to Euros yet.  We ended up leaving a note of apology on the windshield, and luckily there was no ticket on our car when we returned).

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A model of the Ampithéâtre at the Arles museum...
...and the real thing

In the mid-afternoon we drove to our final destination, Les Baux-de-Provence.  This magnificent area has huge and mountainous rock structures that look like they're from another planet.  In the Middle Ages a large castle was constructed atop the sheer cliffs; today the village of Les Baux still has buildings that are constructed out of, on top of, and into the rock structures.  Our admission fee included those familiar telephone-like audioguides, but thankfully the commentaries were shorter this time.  Nevertheless we ended up abandoning them halfway through, and instead used our own imaginations to explore the medieval trebuchet, catapult, battering ram, and the ruins of the castle donjon itself.  While Cameron and Joss climbed and hopped around on the precarious ruins, Gail had a major bout of vertigo trying to ascend one of the towers.  We ended up staying so long that the clerk came out to collect the audioguides so that she could close up and go home, while we stayed behind to watch a gorgeous sunset over the parapets.

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The castle ruins at Les Baux (trebuchet in the foreground)

By 5:30 PM and nightfall, we discovered that in a little town like Les Baux, nothing stays open on a weeknight in the middle of winter.  After much driving around, we finally found a pâtisserie that was still open, and we picked up some tartines de pomme, tartines de citron, and pain au chocolat to satisfy our hunger during the two-hour drive back to Crest.  All in all, everyone pronounced the day a smashing success.

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Invitation to vertigo: Gail approaches one of the castle towers


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