Travel: Easy-going, sunny, historic... Nîmes is a sublime place for a weekend break
On a weekend break in the southern French city of Nîmes, Paul Clements discovers a lively place cashing in on 2,000 years of Roman antiquity
THE long-established American guidebook Fodor’s is outspoken about the small city of Nîmes, 20 miles north of the Mediterranean coastline. It describes the place as "a feisty, run-down rat race of a town, with jalopies and Vespas roaring irreverently around the ancient sites".
Given recent developments, I wished to find out whether this description still applies to a French city brimful of history and with one of the most striking Roman amphitheatres.
The capital of the Department of Gard, Nîmes is renowned for its antiquity and beats nearby Arles as the city best able to exploit its former glory.
During the summer of 2018 a new star attraction – a £52 million Musée de la Romanité, or Museum of Roman Civilisation, enhanced its standing. Commentators see it as the French cultural event of last summer, on a par with the opening of the Caves of Lascaux Centre in the Dordogne in 2017 or La Cité du Vin in Bordeaux.
The eye-catching museum is next door to the 2,000-year-old arena regarded as the world’s best-preserved amphitheatre and modelled on the Colosseum in Rome. It houses concerts and the last vestiges of the ‘corrida’ bullfight, still held twice a year and which divides the city into those passionate about it and those firmly against it.
In May this year it will host the 10th annual Roman Games when it will come alive with chariot races and gladiator battles. Since 2009, it has been undergoing repairs which will continue to 2034 as part of a 25-year renovation.
The old and the new buildings complement each other and are said to be in an ‘architectural dialogue’ but the dazzling museum steals the show. It incorporates concrete, aluminium, wood and glass into its rectangular buildings.
Flooded with light, the museum is brought to life through 21st century computer gadgetry. On a tour you will find 3D recreations, virtual reality, son et lumière evocations, immersive projections and holograms.
The museum facts speak for themselves: 5,000 pieces of artwork, 65 multimedia devices and no fewer than 25 centuries of history. You would need to set aside the best part of a day to do justice to it and to navigate your way around the touchscreens and innovative scenography. And that’s before you even think of tackling the specially designed archaeological garden laid out on three levels covering three periods of history.
The best way of appreciating it is to slow down, take the stainless steel helicoidal stairway and absorb the mix of real and virtual. There is coverage of food, games and money, and should you feel the urge, you may indulge in some fun-filled time travel by dressing up in a virtual toga in a section called ‘Try Roman Fashion.’
This is made up of pictograms where arms are raised above your head to create a pictorial resemblance of, among others, merchants, artisans and a toga-clad legionnaire in gladiatorial combat. Children love this activity which can produce humorous new hairstyles. Beside me two young men compare notes on their stylish ‘Roman centurion’ costumes and high-five their ancient friendship, agreeing that everyone looks better in a toga.
If fatigue threatens to overwhelm you, the rooftop terrace is a relaxing place for a drink with a bird’s-eye view of Nîmes before you plunge into the narrow cobblestoned streets where some buildings date from the Middle Ages and where the heart of the old city throbs. Chain stores rub shoulders with boutiques and fabric shops selling cottons and lavender. Historic townhouses sit beside the main bookshop and papeterie whose pedigree stretches back to 1791.
History is around every corner and ancient treasures are hidden to shoppers behind heavy wooden doors. But the Maison Carrée is an open temple, and former forum rich in décor in the middle of a busy square. It is modelled on the Temple of the Apollo in Rome and one of the most noble surviving structures of ancient Roman civilisation.
Other enigmatic monuments include the shattered Roman ruin known as the Temple of Diana, dating from the second century BC, while the Magne Tower, the remains of a watchtower that the emperor Augustus had built on Gallic foundations, guards the town from a hilltop on the walls.
The Fontaine Gardens is an elaborate formal garden and a shady haven of mature trees landscaped in the 18th century on the site of the Roman baths.
When you are ready for a break, the Vintage Café, a popular old town wine bar, is the perfect place to relax and enjoy a glass of the local Cévennes rosé or a café gourmand, an espresso served with dessert. Restaurants specialise in local dishes such as brandade du morue (salt cod, milk and olive oil), herb-roasted lamb cooked in wild mint, almond duck or a simple beef stew.
A Roman coin minted in Nîmes commemorates the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31BC. It was a victory that saw Octavian take control of the Roman Empire and assume the name of Caesar Augustus. The coin used a crocodile tied to a palm to represent Egypt and the animal remains the coat of arms and symbol of the city.
For a short side trip from Nîmes it is worth visiting Pont du Gard, the imposing three-tiered Roman aqueduct and the highest bridge the Romans ever built, which straddles the Gardon River. The centrepiece of the aqueduct system, it was erected 2,000 years ago as part of the 30-mile canal supplying water to Roman Nîmes.
In the golden colour of its old stones it is well preserved and remains a marvel of engineering. The nearby Espaces Culturels details the history of the bridge and includes an interactive area for children.
Nîmes is a sublime place for a weekend break with plenty of diversions. Spend a few days soaking up the clear light and you will enjoy its easy-going pace. The Roman museum has brought about a new impetus for locals and visitors to cherish its history in a place with an extraordinary classical past. And while you may still hear the Vespas whizzing around town, the much quieter high-speed cyclists from Deliveroo and Uber Eats now dominate the roads and main squares.
:: Paul Clements will be talking about his travels in ‘Rambles around Ireland: Humorous stories along Irish back roads’ at the Island Arts Centre, Lisburn on Thursday March 28 at 7.30pm (islandartscentre.com).
:: Flights: Belfast City Airport to London-Stansted with Flybe (flybe.com) and onward with Ryanair (ryanair.com) to Nîmes or fly from Dublin to Montpellier with Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) and train to Nîmes. Prices vary according to time of year.
:: Accommodation: Appart’City Nîmes Arènes, 1 Boulevard de Bruxelles, 3000, doubles from €88 (appartcity.com/en).
:: Dining: Wine Bar, 1 Place des Arènes, 3000 Nimes, winebar-lechevalblanc.com.
Musée de la Romanité, museedelaromanite.fr/en adults €8, children 7-17 €3, under 7 free, family pass €19, closed Tuesday, Nov-March.
:: Pont du Gard, pontdugard.fr/en adults €8.50, children €6, open all year