SLOW TRAVEL IN NÎMES – THE HOME OF ROMANS, GASTRONOMY AND CROCODILES
In the Occitane region of southern France, Nîmes is a city known for its cultural heritage, Roman monuments, warm climate and beautiful architecture. Easy to reach by public transport and ideal for the sole traveller, Nimes is the perfect place for a weekend break away from it all.
1. Exploring Nîmes 2. Historical Nîmes 3. Cultural Nîmes 4. Nîmes By Night 5. Outside Nîmes 6. Gastronomic Nîmes 7. Where to stay in Nîmes 8. Where to Eat 9. When to Visit 10. How to Get There 11. Is it worth going to Nîmes?
Nîmes is really easy to get to, with direct flights from the UK, a train station, a comprehensive bus network and main roads approaching from all sides. Last September I was astonished to find flights from London for just £14 each way, and had no hesitation in booking my trip out there.
I arrived in Nîmes airport, which is outside the town in the nearby village of Saint-Gilles, early in the morning and slightly nervous about how I would get to Nîmes from there. However, I found the shuttle bus easily, hopped on, sat right at the front for the best view, and was soon on my way to the city.
A short drive through semi-rural areas, with lots of vineyards, olive trees and distant hills saw the bus arriving outside Nîmes train station, a rather bleak area of concrete and bus stops. Knowing I had to get to the other side of the train station, I decided to just walk straight through it, in the hope I wouldn’t end up on a platform to somewhere else.
I emerged rather uncertainly into a beautiful wide boulevard stretching away into the distance, with the sound of water running through a small channel the whole way up it, trees lining the road and the sun beating down on the golden stone around me.
I don’t think I have ever beamed with delight on arrival in a new city before, but I truly did this time. Walking up the boulevard dragging my wheelie case behind me, I headed for a park I could see at the end, so absorbed in the sights around me that I overshot my hotel and had to head back. Dropping off my bag, I set out to explore the city.
Nîmes is just made for exploring. For my four days there, I had no need of any buses, taxis or anything other than foot power to explore the city, which conveniently has all of its major features within a short walk of each other. A mixture of wide open boulevards and narrow pedestrian side streets, beautiful tall buildings with wrought iron balconies filled with plants, huge old wooden doorways that look like they must open on to beautiful and mysterious things, this is what I consider to be France at its finest. Streets are filled with cafes full of locals sitting in the shade with a pastry and a coffee, and shops line the edges with some beautiful displays that entice you to spend money on things you know you can’t possibly fit in your hand luggage.
The old town is filled with narrow passageways that you follow with anticipation, wondering what you will find around the next corner. Many open up onto large courtyards, filled with cafes, fountains, churches or small, hidden away public gardens. Greenery tumbles down from balconies where washing flaps in the breeze, random old carvings are embedded in walls, the sound of water, or chatter, or church bells permeates your ears. The aspect I liked best about wandering through the old town was that whichever way I took, however lost I tried to get myself, it wasn’t long before I ended up seeing the Arena at the end of the passageways, those ancient arches becoming familiar to me and helping me to anchor myself within the city.
Nîmes is awash with the legacy of the Romans, which is one of the reasons the city is such an interesting place to explore. I took an English speaking walking tour of the city, which is always an excellent way to see what a city has to offer, learn more about the history as well as to find your way around and get your bearings.
The tour focused on the Roman sites within the city and took us to some amazing places. The Arena is the obvious starting point for any such tour. This 2000 year old amphitheatre is at the heart of the city and is still very much in use. There are regular events such as pop concerts, French bullfighting and festivals held here, when the stone walls once again ring out to the sound of a crowd, just as they would have done in Roman times. The amphitheatre can be visited with a guided tour or an audio tour and you can walk through the ancient passageways and learn all about this astonishing building.
The Maison Carrée is another incredible Roman monument. A temple with the best preserved exterior in the world, this gleaming white building is in a modern day forum where the Roman one once was. A few foolhardy teenagers climb the steep terraces at the side and sit nonchalantly watching the visitors take endless photos and exclaim with delight over the façade.
Inside, the temple has sadly been gutted and now is just a space to show a film for tourists about the history of the city. It is the exterior which is so impressive, with its carved pediment, columns and intricate ceiling, and really is essential viewing for anyone in the area. There are several cafes around the square from which to sip a drink in the sun and admire its beauty.
The Jardins de la Fontaine are another area of the city with a Roman heritage. In this beautifully landscaped gardens are the remains of the Roman sanctuary which was built around the source of the spring in Nîmes, and where you can see the source itself, with bubbles fizzing to the surface while two dignified swans glide by.
The Temple of Diana sits nearby, a romantic looking ruin of thick walls and part of a barrel vaulted ceiling that was once actually a library and then a monastery, now tumbling down in a haphazard fashion, with nature doing its best to reclaim the area. The remains of the Roman sanctuary were uncovered when the gardens were created in the 18th century, and you can see the channel they built from the source, funnelling the water around a small island which held the sanctuary and an altar. Today the island has neo-classical statues and balustrades, all of which lend a very cultured air to the already immaculate landscaped gardens.
A walk up the sweeping neo-classical steps and through the Mediterranean landscaped area of the Jardins leads you to the Tour Magne, the Roman tower which was once part of the city walls. Built on top of the original Iron Age tower, you can pay to enter and climb up the new spiral staircase inside to see some incredible views over the city.
Other Roman sites in Nîmes which are definitely worth a visit are the Castellum Aquae and Porta Augusta, which are both Roman ruins that are open air and just by the side of a pavement. To see such remarkable monuments in a city, free for all to view is refreshing, when you know full well that in other countries they would be covered up with a roof and visitors charged to have a look.
Not much is left of the Castellum Aquae (water castle), but it is lucky there is any left at all, as the wall behind it was built for a 17th century citadel that narrowly avoided being built on top of it.
The Castellum is far more exceptional than it looks, being one of only two left in the world, and is where water would arrive in the city from the aqueduct and be divided out into the rest of the city. Now it is home to a small colony of cats and well worth a visit on your city tour.
Porta Augusta is equally as impressive, being the main entrance to the city from the Via Domitia. With two large central gates for horses and carts, and two smaller side gates for pedestrians, it is still easy to imagine how it may have looked as an imposing entrance to those entering Roman Nemausus for the first time.
Nîmes is not just about the Romans, there are plenty of other cultural sites on offer.