Nîmes, the French Rome – Meanderings through France
Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
During the 2nd century BC in order to link their Spanish provinces to Italy the Romans had to build a road, the Via Domitia, through Gallia Narbonensis across what is now southern France. On their way they conquered new territories sometimes fighting local tribes sometimes making new allies among them. The Volques a Gallic tribe who lived in a village called Nemausus after the name of the God protecting their spring, decided to help the Romans to defeat opposing tribes. After their common victory the Romans decided to settle down in the area and built a real Roman city.
Like Rome Nimes was built on hills and had a forum, temples, a big amphitheatre, a castellum divisorium the Roman version of a water tower and the Augustus Gate that allowed entry into Nimes using the Via Domitia. This road used by Roman armies and civil servants as well as all kinds of traders buying and selling all kinds of goods was the source of the Volques’ wealth and soon Nimes was a prosperous and beautiful city.
After the fall of the Roman Empire Nimes slowly fell into a millennium long sleep and came back to better times with the expansion of trading. Wines, olive oil and, most of all, silk and cotton made Nimes prosperous again. If we can all wear blue jeans today we owe it to the weavers of Nimes who created the Denim a cotton cloth “de Nimes“, meaning “from Nimes”. During the 19th century they sold loads of it in America to make tents for settlers, and a German tailor called Levy Strauss had the brilliant idea to make sturdy trousers out of it for the cowboys. This success story was the pride of the city and is still recounted in the “Musée du Vieux Nimes” set in the beautiful 17th century Episcopal Palace.
Today you can still see the traces of this glorious past. Walking through the streets you will observe many impressive mansion houses from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries showing us how wealthy all these traders were. Even if they are not open to the public most of them have a notice on their wall both in English and in French to tell you more about their previous owners and their history. A pleasant walk in the lively streets net of the city centre where small shops selling all kinds of local products will wake up your shopping fever!
The Roman remnants are remarkably well preserved and you can easily walk from one to the other while discovering this lively town that now harmoniously combine antic, classical and modern architecture. The “Maison Carrée” was the former temple dedicated to the Roman Emperor set in the middle of the forum. Through time it has successively been a private house, stables, a church and is now a museum where an interesting movie about the Romans, the Volques and the foundation of Nimes can be seen. Opposite the Maison Carrée on the same square the British architect Norman Foster built in 1992 a new museum the “Carré d’Art” dedicated to modern art. Its glass façade reflects the colonnade and the Corinthian capitals of the Maison Carrée creating an invisible link through space and time between the two buildings. From the “Ciel de Nimes” a restaurant and tearoom set on the roof top of the Carré d’Art you will have a wonderful view over the square, the Maison Carrée and the town while enjoying a quick lunch or a drink.
Peaceful and relaxing gardens have been created around the spring of god Nemausus whose waters were used for the Roman thermae. Joggers, families and tourists come to this oasis of greenery to escape the heat of a hot summer day in the shade of pine trees, cypresses, oaks or laurels… Half hidden behind the trees you will discover the romantic Temple of Diana or the famous Tour Magne a former watchtower that used to be part of the fortifications built by the Romans. The “Féérie des Eaux” is a big aquatic and light show organized for the fourth consecutive year in these “Jardins de la Fontaine”, the Fountain Gardens, from August 12 to 15. Over 30,000 spectators are expected to attend this new but already very popular show that lights up these 4 nights.
The amphitheatre of Nimes is the best-preserved Roman amphitheatre to be seen nowadays in Europe. 23,000 spectators were able to see gladiatorial combat or the reconstitutions of wild animals hunt. Today all kinds of shows are to be seen in Nimes and the amphitheatre. Each year in May a big re-enactment of the circus games draws thousands of spectators waiting to watch a “Roman Emperor” on his chariot followed by his armies, horses and elephants march through the streets to get to the arena.
Every summer for one month during the “Festival de Nimes” the amphitheatre beats to the rhythm of live music. This year Pharrel Williams, Lenny Kravitz, Sting, Ben Harper, Toto, Christopher Cross, Christine and the Queen, Santana, Benjamin Clementine, Ayo, Perez and many other singers and bands will perform in this unique setting until July 26.
Nimes is at the gateway of the Camargue and its famous black bulls. Twice a year in May and in September tens of thousands people attend the Ferias. You don’t have to like bullfights to like the Ferias that rather are a great opportunity to party all day long. For 6 days in May and 4 days in September you will get little sleep in Nimes. Bulls’ races through the streets, live music bands, dance troupes create an amazing festive atmosphere. Since the very first Feria in 1952 the Hotel Imperator is one of the places to be in Nimes. Famous bullfighters and artists such as Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Luis Miguel Dominguin or Rafael Ortega stayed in this 4-star hotel. This usually quiet hotel and its beautiful garden are turned into a Provencal village and it’s time to enjoy music played by gypsy guitar players, dancers, salsa, tapas, equestrian shows… After the Ferias this Art Deco style hotel is a great starting point to set out to discover Nimes. It’s at short walking distance from the city centre or the Fountain Gardens. Having a drink in the shade of the big trees of its garden or having dinner in the veranda will make you forget the rigours of a busy day discovering Nimes.
You won’t go to the Croizard restaurant by accident. Unless you’ve been told about this secret place you could well pass in front of it without noticing it and that would be a shame! Ring the bell of this house and you will be introduce to an elegant dinning room and its shaded garden. Vincent Croizard and his wife, the wine expert of the house, will give you time to quietly enjoy a tasty meal made with fresh seasonal produce. Unexpected combinations, right dosage of spices and perfect wine and food paring will make you want to share this discrete address with your friends. As secretive as it might seem many people living in Nimes found their way to this unusual restaurant and booking is highly recommended.
Easily reached by train from Saint Pancras International with the new direct Eurostar line that will take you to Avignon 30 miles from Nimes or by plane from London Luton Airport, Nimes is a perfect destination for a sunny city break in Provence or an ideal starting point to visit Provencal villages and towns such as Arles, Aix-en –Provence, Alès, Uzes, Avignon.
For more information:
Eurostar info: www.eurostar.com
Tourist Office: www.nimes-tourisme.com
Hotel Imperator: www.hotel-imperator.com
Restaurant Croizard www.restaurantcroizard.com
Musée du Vieux Nimes: Place aux Herbes. It is open every day and entrance is free.
Text © Annick Dournes
Photos © Frederic de Poligny