I have to confess now that one of the most memorable moments of our road trip to Provence last summer is actually not from there.
The curiosity brought us less than one-hour car ride away from Arles to the city of Nimes in the Languedoc-Roussillon region. And the day proved to be very well worth the trip and that slight deviation from the original itinerary.
Now that I have to describe Nimes in a few words, to render the idea of what visiting this city might be like, a cooking metaphor comes to my mind for it is the perfect formula to embrace the multi coloured and the multi cultured identity of the city. If Nimes were a recipe it would sound something like this: put some Gaul origin into a frying pan, toss in some great quality ancient Roman stuff, sprinkle with some Barbaric and Saracen invasions, add the centuries of the Medieval French court and church, season generously with some Spanish culture and traditions, cook until full of historical background and artistic charm, serve to table with a lot of style and international spirit.
And as any professional cook would do, I suggest you to have a better look at all the ingredients of this mouth-watering meal.
Nimes takes its name from the Latin Nemausus – the genie of the sacred fountain. One of the wealthiest towns of Gaul and the capital of a Gaulish tribe, it surrendered to Rome in 121 B.C.
The Emperor Augustus gave the city a new life as one of the Empire’s most prosperous colonies. This is one of the reasons for the city to have so many Roman remains so well-preserved to render Nimes a very tempting touristic destination.
The Amphitheatre of Nimes was built at the end of the 1st century A.D. to host typical performances of the epoch – the scenes of hunting and fights between animals, gladiators and slaves. As well as in the Colosseum and other similar locations throughout the Roman Empire, the arena presented a rigorous subdivision of spaces for spectators to separate common people from noblemen. In the course of the Middle Ages the amphitheatre became a shelter and a refuge for the population of the city intent to hide away from the enemies’ attacks. Nowadays, the arena hosts modern performances: concerts, sports events and, above all, corridas.
The other iconic Roman remain is the magnificent Maison Carrèe, the best preserved antique temple in the world. Its form was inspired by the temple dedicated to Mars Ultor in Rome and the Emperor Augustus dedicated it to his adopted sons Gaius and Lucius Caesar. Built in 12 B.C., the temple made its way through centuries changing uses but never its spectacular aspect. It used to be a city hall, a private house and even a stable to become, in the end, one of Nimes’ most outstanding symbols.
One of the most ancient and enigmatic of Roman remains of Nimes, though, is the Temple of Diana situated in the beautiful park known as the Jardins de la fontaine, the area that was used by the Romans as the sanctuary dedicated to Augustus and later became the first public garden in Europe. The function and the origin of the temple’s name are unknown but many sustain it was used as a place of cult or even as a library. It also served as a monastery until 1570 when it got destroyed by the fire acquiring in such a tragic way its modern and quite neglected aspect.
But the place I literally fell in love with is the Tour Magne built on the highest point of Nimes, the Mount Cavalier, dominating the whole city. Between 121 B.C. and 117 A.D. the famous ancient road Via Domitia was constructed to connect Turin, the Rhone valley and Spain, passing, among other cities, through Nimes. The Tour Magne was the perfect point to control the road in the ancient times. It also made part of the city’s defence walls and long after the fall of the Roman Empire proved to be an important military stronghold during the Hundred Years’ War.
But the city of Nimes, as I told you before, has many aspects and manifests many faces, one of which is determined by the strong influence exercised by the neighbouring Spain. The architecture of the city centre, the typically light Mediterranean colours, the cuisine make you travel the distance separating Nimes from the Iberian Peninsula in no time. This feature grants the city more points on the scale of charm.
- – one of the things that I discovered doing my usual pre-departure research was that the word denim has evident local origins – ‘de Nimes’, meaning ‘of Nimes’. It refers to the fabrics originally produced and exported by the Medieval Nimes’ local industries;
- – the source of one of the most famous French mineral waters – the Perrier, called also the Champaign of waters by my husband – is situated only several kilometers outside Nimes;
- – one of the most antique wines, both white and red, of the world is the Les Costières de Nimes that was cultivated in the area already by the Romans;
- the coat-of-arms of Nimes is an Egyptian crocodile tied to a palm tree. The image was inspired by the events of 31 B.C. when Octavian defeated the fleet of Anthony and Cleopatra at Anzio assuring himself the control over the Empire becoming, thus, the Emperor Augustus, the first ever Emperor of Rome. The coin was beat at the mint of Nimes to celebrate and commemorate the event.
– If you come to Nimes by car, the best option is to park it in one of the city’s underground parkings. We chose the one by the amphitheatre called Parking the Arena. If I am not mistaken, we spent almost 6 hours in Nimes paying a parking bill of approximately 12 euro;
– It is very easy to walk through the city on foot starting from the Amphitheatre, proceeding through the picturesque streets of the centre adorned by numerous restaurants, antiques and artisan shops to reach the Maison Carrèe. Afterwards, it is convenient to have a walk and some rest at the Garden of Fountains and have a look at the Temple of Diana. Having some rest in the shadow of the park’s trees will allow you to get ready for quite a long climb on your way to the Tour Magne. It is quite an exercise especially on a hot summer day, but trust me, the result is absolutely worth the fatigue;
– If you plan to visit the famous Roman remains, try to check this website to plan your visit carefully. It might also be helpful to figure out in advance whether it might be convenient for you to purchase a combined ticket to access several sites or, in case you plan to visit only one of them, a single ticket will be enough. Any of the ticket options is available in loco in accordance to the opening times of the sites. Try to consult this web page for more information on the issue;
NB: when in Maison Carrèe we were explained that it was not possible to visit the temple but only to watch a 3D film dedicated to it. Quite a disappointment for us but at least now you know it and don’t risk to hope for more.
– Nimes is famous for its traditional cuisine that includes typical olive patè spread on some crunchy bread and bull meat of the region. Nevertheless, we decided to experiment and chose to have lunch at a Lebanese restaurant called l’Arbousier. It was a success! At the moment we thought we couldn’t have had a better meal: nutritive, light, refreshing and simply delicious. So, if you want to introduce a little change to the classical French cuisine undoubtedly accompanying you on your trip, this one is certainly a great option;
– In the proximity of Nimes, let’s say at a 40-minute driving distance, the famous Pont du Gard is situated. It is traditionally mentioned as a ‘must see’ of the area and we obviously went for it. But, in the end, changed our mind drastically. I will explain you why: 1) When you park your car at the dedicated free parking lot of the site you have some 20 minutes to decide whether you are going to visit it or not. If you do not exit the parking within this slot of time, you will only be able to do so presenting the Pont du Gard entrance ticket. No other option is officially available. So, we came and parked, then it took us some 30 minutes to walk to the information office, discover different options for a visit and decide we did not really want to proceed to see the Pont. And it was then that we discovered we had to, otherwise we couldn’t exit the parking! Such a nonsense! We wanted to pay for the parking but it wasn’t possible at all. We just had to purchase our entrance tickets even if we decided to skip the visit. So, we had to argue with an attendant and promise her to come back in the evening to receive a pass allowing us to exit the parking lot. 2) One more nonsense: we ran out of water. When we decided to buy some in a shop we discovered that the shop in question was already inside the site and we had to have an entrance ticket to access it, too. So, no entrance – no water, in a few words. Very upsetting!
The reasons we decided not to proceed till Pont du Gard were the following three: 1) It was a very hot summer day and we really didn’t have any hats or other suitable closing for a walk under the midday sun. So, if you plan your visit in summer, make sure you have some sunscreen, hats and water supply on you. 2) The visit of Pont du Gard seemed more like a trekking excursion. We were not prepared for that, either. So, I do recommend you to wear some comfortable shoes and clothes for the occasion. 3) As far as we planned no other activities possible at the site but just to have a look and take some pictures of the Pont, the entrance fee seemed a bit too high to us. It is true it also included the visit of the museum but we had no time for that and asked whether it was possible to pay only for seeing the Pont. The answer was actually yes, but only after 7 p.m. when the museum would be already closed. And that was too late for us because we had to get back to Arles. So, get as much information on Pont di Gard as you can before even going there, so that you can have a better experience. I also do hope that by the time you go there the things will have got much easier.
– as an option for those who, like us, might decide to skip the Pont du Gard visit, I can suggest a pleasant afternoon in Uzès. But this one is a very different story.
Nimes, a city with many faces and quite a breath-taking story, was welcoming, surprising and satisfying. It was an excellent travel experience to remember and to share. If you have a chance, have a look at Nimes, I am pretty sure you will not be disappointed.
Photos credit: Machs Gut (c)