The home of denim
Named for the water sprite Nemausus, Nîmes has been hailed the ‘Rome of France’. There are seven hills and a sprinkling of Roman ruins, but the town is not content to sit on its laurels and is investing in the future with dramatic new building projects such as Norman Foster’s arts and archive complex on place de la Maison Carré, right opposite one of the best-preserved Roman temples in existence.
Nimes is no stranger to controversy. A Protestant stronghold, it suffered at the hands of Simon de Montfort’s crusaders, and emerged in tatters from the Wars of Religon. Textiles secured its fortunes in the 18thC with cloth de Nîmes, better known the world over as denim.
Starting from the tourist office at 6 rue Auguste, the Maison Carré will be your first stop. Set in a rectangular basket of pillars, the elegant proportions of this former Roman temple inspired Arthur Young to declare it ‘one perfect whole of symmetry and grace’. Erected during the late 1stC, it may have been dedicated to Emperor Augustus’ heirs Caius and Lucius, and reflects a harmonious Greek influence in its restrained simplicity, Corinthian capitals and frieze.
Boulevard Victor-Hugo leads down to Nimes’ 50AD amphitheatre, Les Arènes, the surprising pivot of a major traffic intersection. It is a colossal edifice ringed by 34 tiers of seats, sufficent for a capacity audience of 20,000 armchair gladiators, and reached by an amazingly complex network of corridors and steps. During the Barbarian invasions, the townspeople sheltered here, and right up until the 19thC it housed a ragbag collection of squatters and itinerants. Concerts and bullfights draw the crowds today with recourse to an inflatable roof should the weather prove inclement.
Behind the amphitheatre, place du Marché is enlivened by a jaunty modern fountain complete with the town’s coat-of-arms, the chained crocodile – a cheeky allusion to Augustus’ defeat of Anthony and Cleopatra in Egypt. Place aux Herbes is another attractive spot by the severely knocked-about cathedral. In the nearby bishop’s palace, the Musée du Vieux-Nîmes offers displays of local historical and cultural interest, costumes and furniture. The Musée Archéologique, 13 boulevard Amiral-Courbet, records the Gallo-Roman period with the help of artworks, utensils and coins. There is also a rather unexciting Musée des Beaux-Arts, rue de la Cité-Foulc (south of Les Arènes), though it does host contemporary exhibitions.
A wander down the tree-lined canal on Quai de la Fontaine will bring you to the Jardin de la Fontaine. Laid out in the 18thC around the Nemausus spring, these lovely formal gardens planted with chestnut trees and statuary lead up wooded Mont Cavalier to the Roman Tour Magne which affords terrific views over the town.
Nîmes’ bullfighting season runs from May through September with another important corrida in February. If you do not fancy the full blood-and-glory affairs, look out for the bloodless (generally, and rarely the bull’s) courses de la concarde. This traditional Provencal version sees agile young daredevils attempting to snatch a rosette off the bull’s head armed with just a metal razeteur.