Nimes boasts its Roman heritage – Meanderings through France n° 207
By Frédéric de Poligny & Annick Dournes
Nimes is a French southern town created in ancient times by the Roman invaders. At only a few miles away from the Mediterranean Sea and with unique and well-preserved Roman buildings such as the huge arena, the Maison Carrée or the Pont du Gard Bridge, Nimes’ region is rightfully proud of its glorious past. Right in the heart of the city of Nimes the“Musée de la Romanité”, a new museum that opened its doors in 2018, tells us everything about this fantastic era.
It is said that a Gallic tribe, the Volques, settled in this area in the 8th century BC close to a spring. The goddess of the spring has been worshipped for centuries here and we can still see that very same spring in an elegant garden of the city centre, the Jardins de la Fontaine. The Romans arrived in the area in 121 BC and succeeded to make friends with the Volque Tribe. It was a very pacific invasion and the city thrived and was greatly embellished during that time.
Just after World War II Nimes was one of those cities that had sunk into oblivion and fallen into neglect. However thanks to its antique monuments Nimes was about to know a new golden age. In the 1950’s famous artists such as Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau or Salvador Dali came to Nimes’ arena every summer to watch bullfights that were a great source of inspiration for them. This arena is said to be the best-preserved Roman arena of the world. It was and still is the place to see bullfights but many other events take place here, such as classical, rock or pop music concerts, theatre performances or historical reconstructions.
Close to the arena right in the city centre you can also see the very well preserved Temple of Diana, the ancient water tank of the Roman town called Castellum Aquae (there are only two Castelli Aquae remaining today, one is in Pompeii and the second one in Nimes), the Tour Magne that used to be the highest tower of the city ramparts and that still overlooks the city perched on a low hill close by.
The Maison Carrée, the square house, was a temple dedicated to Emperor Augustus’ grandsons. It seems to be a real miracle that this temple remained intact through the centuries after having been used as a living house, a convent, a stable, a farm, a prefecture or an archive room! It has been completely renovated from 2006 till 2010. With its 30 white columns and large outside staircase it now really looks outstanding, proudly standing in the middle of a vast square. A movie depicting the Roman history of Nimes is plaid non-stop (both in French and English) every day of the year.
Today Nimes’ mayor and his teams are perfectly aware of the historical value of their town and have launched an ambitious project of renovation and preservation of the city heritage. All the owners of the city centre buildings have had to restore their facades, the electrical and phone cables network has been hidden underground, almost all the streets are now pedestrian and renowned architects such as Norman Foster, Jean Nouvel, Jean-Michel Wilmotte, Philippe Starck or Kisho Kurokawa have been summoned to embellished and modernise Nimes city centre.
A new museum of modern art and media library called the “Carré d’Art” has been built next to the Maison Carrée and more recently in 2018 the “Musée de la Romanité” (a Roman culture museum) opened its doors close to the arena. This modernist style building was designed by Elizabeth de Portzamparc. The whole facade of the building is covered with 7,000 engraved glass panels hung at different angles allowing them to reflect the sunlight in changing ways throughout the day, almost bringing the museum facade to life. As often with modern architecture there have been and still are contentious debates! A recent request to list Nimes city centre as a UNESCO site has been denied due to the proximity of this new museum with the antic arena. A case to be followed!
No matter the controversy this museum undoubtedly is worth the visit. The museum aims to make us understand the Roman Civilization and how it irrevocably transformed the lives of millions of Europeans until today. 5,000 exceptional artefacts, 65 multimedia devices, 25 centuries to explore, help us to decrypt the influence of the Roman Civilization. Don’t miss to go up to the rooftop terrace to enjoy the spectacular 360° view over Nimes.
A vast garden has been planted next to the museum. All the plants have been carefully chosen to also explain us how the Romans changed the European landscapes, the agriculture and the food people of the time ate. We must thank them for the lavender fields we admire all over Provence, as well as for thyme, garlic and chestnut trees!
There also are temporary exhibitions. The present one invites us to a 3-D exploration of 7 major sites of the Mediterranean region such as Carthage, Pompeii or Palmyra. From one shore of the Mediterranean Sea to another we get a better understanding of the way Romans conceived their cities and thus their way of life. It’s a totally digital and immersive experience!
The “Musée de la Romanité” also has a café with an outdoor terrace facing the arena ideal for a snack or a drink. On the third floor you can also enjoy a gastronomic experience at the “La Table du 2″. The 2-star chef Frank Putelat has created inventive and tasty menus at affordable prices. A delicious break into pure pleasure during your visit!
All info about Nimes at: www.nimes-tourisme.com/en/
Text ©Frederic de Poligny & Annick Dournes
Photos ©Frederic de Poligny