My soccer tour of Southern France
Feb 27, 2018
|In many ways, soccer can explain the world. It’s just a game, but indeed it’s a game played in every country by all manner of people. A soccer team can reflect its city’s politics, its history, and its soul. I could go on further, but I would perhaps risk belaboring the point - and besides, you probably already understand what I’m trying to say. I have an obsession with life, and thus, I have an obsession with soccer.
In France, of course, that latter obsession extends to much of the country. In every little town there’s some kind of local team, and in every city center you’re likely to see children kicking around a ball together. Last weekend, I took advantage of the perpetual proximity of soccer to take my ultimate trip - 3 days, 3 cities, 3 matches. I started Friday in Nîmes, continued on to Montpellier on Saturday, and ended with a short visit to Nice Sunday afternoon.
I registered for BlaBlaCar (the carsharing/carpooling app popular in Europe), booked a few AirBnb stays, and took off Friday morning for the nearby city of Nîmes. Like Arles, which I had visited a week earlier, Nîmes is a city with deep Roman roots. It became a Roman colony around 2000 years ago and was initially populated by veterans of Caesar’s Nile campaign, which means there’s actually quite a bit of an Egyptian flavor around in the form of palm trees and small statues of sphinxes and pyramids.
During the day, I focused mainly on visiting the Roman monuments. I started with the Jardins de la Fontaine, a garden of royal proportions that leads up to the Tour Magne, a somewhat crumbling tower that was likely used long ago as a Roman lookout point at the exterior of the city. From the top, you can look down and see all of Nîmes. A city of 150,000, it’s not the largest that I’ll see in France, but it certainly has its own style.
Later, I went to the Roman ruins in the heart of the city. I’ve heard Nîmes (maybe somewhat-sarcastically) referred to as the “Rome of Provence,” and though it perhaps lacks some of the rustic beauty of Italy’s capital city, there’s still a grain of truth in that nickname. The Nîmois amphitheater, for instance, is a veritable miniature Coliseum, kept in very good shape and still up to the task of hosting several “bull games” (slightly different, I’m told, than Spanish bullfights) each year. This was the first trip that I’ve taken all on my own, and one of my favorite parts of that experience was being able to explore however I wanted to. I tiptoed along the rim of the arena then scooped up pinches of sand at the floor; I marveled at the millenniums of history beneath my Nikes as they carried me up and over barriers that once separated the Roman elite from the plebiscite.
From the amphitheater, I moved on to the “Maison Carré,” a pantheon-like temple that once stood at the center of the forum. Finally, with the sun setting, I took off for the soccer match.
Like any good stadium, the Stade des Costières reflects its city. The exterior is slanted into a shape that, I assume, is meant to resemble a pyramid, but instead sort of struck me as similar to a drab office building. The club, Nîmes Olympique, was founded in 1937 and currently plays in the French second division. Its badge features a crocodile snapping down on a soccer ball - another nod to the Roman/Egyptian history of Nîmes.
Inside, the stadium felt like a place of worship. The young and the old, whether alone or with family, they all streamed in together, clad in red and pumping life into the ground like an organ. I sat next to an old man who spoke to me in such a thick accent that I probably couldn’t understand half of what he was saying (hint: smiling and nodding usually works well in those situations). We scored quickly, then added a second, but unfortunately Tours FC pulled a goal back from the ensuing restart and equalized in the final minute of the game. My friend the old man stormed out in silence.
Day 2, Montpellier. It was a little rainy when I showed up early Saturday morning, but that didn’t do much to dampen my spirits. Montpellier is very much a university town, and it has been for around 1000 years. It’s also got a population over over 250,000, making it one of the largest cities in the south of France.
Despite its size, Montpellier isn’t extremely tourist-friendly. It doesn’t have anything similar to the Roman monuments that I saw Nîmes or the views of the Mediterranean I would encounter on the way to Nice. It does, however, have its own character. The streets of the old center-city tend to be slightly elongated, stretched out in a way that struck me as remarkably different from Aix. The buildings twist and curve, capped off oftentimes by domes or spires. In its heart, you’ll find the Place de la Comédie, the open square surrounded by buildings coated in beige and navy, with curved facades in a style that reminded me of Ebbets Field. It was a beautiful place to spend a day.
After starting in the Place de la Comédie, I walked to Montpellier’s Arc de Triomphe, which was built in 1693, making it much older than its more famous Parisian counterpart (started under Napoleon in 1806). That being said, it wasn’t quite an original construction: Montpellier’s Arc was in fact modeled after the Porte Saint-Denis in Paris. Created at the time to honor King Louis XIV and to bring prestige to Montpellier, it now stands as a vestige of the past and an impressive entranceway to the city.
That Saturday, though, the Arc de Triomphe was my gateway to the morning market, where I sniffed around and tried to find some local specialties. Once I’d had enough, I moved on to the Musée Fabre, which has an excellent collection of art by French classicists, and then to the Jardin des Plantes, a tranquil outdoor garden that the bitterness of winter couldn’t stop me from falling in love with.
Come the night, I deposited my backpack at my host Karim’s apartment and made the short walk to the nearest tramway stop. Montpellier HSC is a first division team, and the Stade de la Mosson is certainly a first division stadium. Unlike the blandish blancs I’d seen in Nîmes, the Mosson shone with brilliant orange, yellow, and above all navy, calling into mind in a way the colors I had seen that day inside the city. One side of the stadium was curved, giving the impression that it might lead into a velodrome, but then it ran into a massive grandstand reminiscent of those at the Indy 500, extending towards the stars. It was the sort of maladroit combination of complex and simple, modern and classic, that I think really made Montpellier stand out for me in general.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t find someone quite like the old man from Nîmes to make conversation with. I briefly chatted to someone next to me during the first half, but no matter, I was happy to concentrate on following the game. Our adversary du jour, EA Guingamp, scored an early penalty, so we spent much of the match trying to fight back. When we scored in the second half, the stadium roared, coming alive with a shared emotion, a mixture of relief at having equalized and pride for the team and the city. During the last 20 minutes, the crowd pushed the players on, particularly the supporters section below me, which sang unceasingly throughout the night. In the end, though, it finished 1-1, a second day well spent.
On Sunday morning I took off in the direction of Nice, making a stop in Aix to drop my backpack off before heading down the coastline for the afternoon matinee. Unlike my trips to Montpellier and Nîmes, I didn’t have the opportunity to spend the day in Nice; instead, I just had time for the game. After a tiring weekend, it was probably for the best.
More than any other stadium I saw over the weekend, the Allianz Riviera stood out from its surroundings. Tucked into a valley on the outskirts of Nice, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled upon a downed UFO. Opened ahead of the 2014 European Championship, the stadium consists of a wavy, translucent oval that can light up at night. It’s modern in every sense of the word, the inertia behind a city of nearly 350,000, easily the largest I visited during my weekend.
Nice is a city right on the edge of Italy and France, and the melange of cultures is evident inside the Allianz Arena. Supporters often use the local Niçoise language in their chants, and so it wasn’t uncommon to hear “Issa Nissa!” (“This is Nice!”) or “Nissa la Bella!” (“Beautiful Nice!”).
The club itself, OGC Nice, plays in the French first division and has deep roots in local culture. Its crest feature an eagle, the symbol of the city since it was part of the Holy Roman Empire, and an inscription in Niçoise that indicates the club has been around “Despi 1904” - “Since 1904.”
Inside the stadium, I saw those local traditions reinforced. The team walked out to a hymn sung by the fans in Niçoise and an eagle swooped down onto the field before kickoff. The view was wonderful. I could see all the action, and I’d bet there isn’t a bad seat in the house.
The game kicked off, and the supporters’ section to my left began singing in a frenzy. Within five minutes, we’d taken the lead, the Brazilian captain Dante profiting off a loose ball following a corner kick. Eventually, our opponent, Nantes, would do enough to win a penalty and equalize on the stroke of halftime. During the game, I got to see some of truly prolific global soccer personalities that I’ve only followed from afar: Mario Balotelli - the enigmatic Italian who during Euro 2012 famously discarded his shirt and flexed his muscles after scoring against Germany - loped around his center forward position, waiting to spring into action at the opportune moment; far across the way on the touchline I could just about make out the figure of Claudio Ranieri, the current manager of Nantes, who two years earlier guided Leicester City to the English Premier League title in an upset that would have been too improbable to pass as fiction.
Nice tried in vain to retake the lead as the match wore on, but I guess victory just wasn’t meant to be for me this weekend, and the final scored ended up being 1-1.
3 days, 3 cities, 3 matches. That was the goal, and I still can’t quite believe I did it. In summary, my soccer tour of Southern France reinforced my deeply held belief that soccer inspires life, and life inspires soccer. It was wonderful to see, a dream come true through a whirlwind of travel and sightseeing, and a lot for me to take in, which is, I suppose, why I’m writing this blog.
Looking ahead, I’ve got my winter break coming up next week. My parents are visiting and I’ll be spending the weekend in Cambridge, where I once lived for a brief period. I’ll try to come back with some stories to tell.