Saturday, 12 May 2018

Regarding the Pont du Gard..

We have been here before. In the summer of 1994 we set out on a six week trip around France. We travelled in a bright red Nissan Bluebird estate, our accommodation was a big-top sized Cabanon frame tent, a devil to erect in the summer heat, and we had two kids in tow. Matthew was almost eight, Sarah six. We based ourselves in three different places - St. Pee sur Nivelle, a few miles inland from Biarritz, a site near Puivert in Languedoc's 'Cathar Country', and St Remy de Provence. It was on a day trip from this latter place when we first visited the Pont de Gard.

We remember it as busy, but not crowded. It was easy to walk across the monument, the more courageous visitors ignored the graphic warning signs and crossed the the unfenced roof of the third tier, picking their way over uneven ancient stones apparently unfazed by the dizzying 156 feet drop into the dark waters of the Gardon. We contented ourselves with exploring the aquafer, sharing our children's excitement at 'walking through Roman water'.

Built between 40 - 60 AD
When we came in  90s, you could walk through the aquaduct freely, now its accompanied visits only by special ticket.

The Roman tunnels at the end of the bridge are still accessible 
For a while during the intervening quarter century the monument was closed for essential repairs. It spent years covered in scaffolding to emerge elevated from being a much regarded 'grande site' into a fully fledged 'world heritage site', spruced up and sporting all the necessary accoutrements that such monuments require - modernist styled ticket hall, shop selling multi-arched tat, small museum, children's adventure playground, restaurant, miles of traffic calming, coach park, car parks A&B, overflow car park (closed), marked low fenced walkways, dedicated cycle track.. all the usual stuff that turns a monument into a visitor attraction.

Ticket hall, gift shop and meeting rooms

CCTY controlled car park

the main access route is now controlled by a security gate
The result - what was free in 1994 you now have to pay for. We opted not to and were happy to view the aquaduct from the path and the eighteenth century road bridge appended to its lower arches. I ended up fulminating about how history has become commodified, but a small boy, about five years old, put me right about this. He was standing next to me looking very cute in a baseball cap and shades. When suddenly he noticed the huge bridge he pushed his sunglasses down his nose, rocked back on his heels - "Wow!" he gasped. He was right, I was wrong. We need to see past all the crap and appreciate the artefact itself.

The bridge itself though still has the WOW! factor.

Until the last few years all of our travels have been as a family. Though we have been to many places and visited four continents, the only place we have visited without at least one child in tow is New Zealand, and in Gill's case Sweden while working on an EU project. We have revisited many countries but all the rest we experienced first as a family. Of course travelling together, particularly with teenagers, is not without its challenges - for parents and offspring alike. But the tricky moments are far outweighed by magic ones, because you get to see places from both an older and a younger point of view. Like today, when you find yourself returning to a place first experienced in the company of children it is difficult not to sense time slipping by. I suppose it is inevitable that parents miss their kids more than vice versa.

One of the great things about the campsite we are on, because the past week contained two public holidays, the place is full of families who have taken 'bridge days' to make a longer break. In fact the place has a complete mix of campers in everything from truck sized €150,000 Concorde monster mohos to families in dome tents bought for €100 in Decathlon. What is great about camping is that the mode of transport and your gear seems matterless, it does not result in a pecking order or 'status anxiety'. Everyone is just a camper, the place becomes a temporary Republic where Egalité, Fraternité rule and everyone relaxes; people camp because it feels freer than their everyday existence. Therein lies its charm.

Sun dappled path

to our temporary home in the forest.
Of course not everywhere achieves this ideal all the time. We have stayed on bungaloid sites on the Costa Blanca entirely populated by sunburned grey-haired escapees from Northern climes parked in serried rows, zoned by nationality. The atmosphere was stultifying. I have no doubt that on the Greek Islands or Ibiza in July and August there are places where anyone aged over 25 would feel distinctly uncomfortable. Both places are a kind of holiday ghetto designed to meet a niche demand. All Camping La Sousta can offer is a stunning location in a beautiful wood next to a river offering opportunities to swim or canoe. People come here because they like being outdoors and to live closer to nature; it's a desire that cuts across groupings of class, wealth, age, culture and style.

As I sit under the awning tapping away on screen kids, big and small, pursue each other on bikes around the woodland paths. A nearby bare patch is a favourite place to perform spectacular skids raising plumes of dust which hangs like smoke in the early evening sunlight. Couples wander by. Some older, dressed-up a bit, probably heading for the bistro near the bridge. A younger pair head for the washing-up sinks, he carries the dishes in a red bucket, swinging it slightly as they go; she makes an effort to keep up, encumbered somewhat by the dead weight of a toddler collapsed fast asleep across her front. I watch them go, disappearing into the trees, red bucket swinging, a single sun-browned child's arm dangling down the woman's back, it swings slightly too as she trips along. It is a beautiful moment to behold.

A Toyota camper drives by, stopping in a nearby pitch by the river among a ring of Holm oaks. The short van carries a very long Canadian canoe upside down on the roof, over-hanging the vehicle by a couple of feet front and back. The driver gets out, stretches, he is wearing baggy knee length khaki shorts and nothing else, his left shoulder and arm are spectacularly tattooed. His companion alights, she too is barefoot, her voluminous purple paisley skirt wafting the breeze. Together they stare up at the canoe, confer momentarily, then the girl flops down on a nearby tree stump as he reaches into the cab to retrieve a half empty bottle of red wine. Removing the cork with a twist, he takes a swig, hands over the bottle, and she does likewise. He leans down and kisses her gently, she tousles his long blonde hair, and they sit together, both perched on the tree stump in a patch of yellow sunlight. 

One problem with using the notes app on my phone to write the blog means is it becomes all too easy to click on BBC News or react to the stream of messages from the Guardian concerning Boris, The Donald, The Maybot, or other sundry stories of disaster and suffering from across the globe. In the end it is demoralising, you get a skewed, utterly pessimistic view of humanity. Here however, watching individuals in a natural place it gives you hope, people just doing human stuff. We have been doing human stuff hereabouts for a very long time. The Pont du Gard, constructed in the middle of the first century AD., is one of our more recent projects. A nearby cave has an old notice attached to it, now barely decipherable. It mention the site was inhabited during 'l'age du renne'. It was not a term I had come across so I googled it. The only results were in French:
(1861) : Nom donné par le paléontologue français Édouard Lartet en fonction du nom du mammifère dominant à cette époque.Période de la préhistoire correspondant à la dernière phase du Paléolithique supérieur' européen. Elle eut lieu entre 17000 et 12000 ans avant. J.-C.
I got the gist of the bit about the time period, but could not understand the phrase'du nom du mammifère dominant'. Back to Google translate 'renne' - of course, reindeer! The age of reindeer, so called because of the types of bones found in the caves along side human remains from the 'Paléolithique supérieur'.

A nearby ancestral home
there is evidence of continuous human habitation here for millenia - I wonder when the first people canoed this river?
What this means is the area where we are camping, this wooded low gorge, has been inhabited contiuously since the end of the last ice age, for almost 20,000 years or 500 generations. Humans here have survived startling climatic change, invasion, mass migration, the rise and fall of empires, worshipped goddesses of the earth and gods in the heavens, witnessed technological revolutions from the smelting iron to surfing the net, yet through it all people somehow prevailed. Surely that is a hopeful thing? We might be witnessing the decline of the culture we live in, but I don't think we will render the planet uninhabitable nor destroy humanity altogether by evolving into some strange techno-dependent cyborg - not while a good few of us seek simple pleasures like sharing a bottle of wine while sitting under a tree, as the birds grow quiet, the light fades and stars appears quietly, one by one between the swaying dark boughs.

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