Thinking of Southern France evokes images of sandy beaches and blue waters, and it has those in spades. However, for those who desire a bit more history and culture, just a short one hour train ride (or two hours by bus) from your base in Marseille lies Nimes, home to some of the best preserved Roman architecture outside of Italy.
Nimes has more to offer than just Roman ruins, like its surprisingly well regarded art museum and its cathedral dating from 1096, but art museums and old churches abound in France, and your day here will probably consist of largely the Roman sites, and there is no shortage.
You will arrive either by rail or bus south of the old city (it is about 7 minutes’ walk from the train station or 30 from the bus depot), and moving north, the first site you will encounter is the reason you probably came here to begin with: the arena. It is massive, originally built to seat more than 24,000 fans of the mortal arts, and beautifully preserved. Upon purchasing admission (you save money if you purchase a pass for all three historic sites with admission fees), you can trade your drivers license (temporarily) for a tablet that contains an audio guide in English (or a more thorough one in French) that will narrate your visit here. Making all of the stops and listening to the full narration will take a bit over an hour.
The arena is magnificent, and is absolutely worth the time and entry.
The arena was built in the year 100, and remains in use today – mainly for bullfighting, which is something that, while I recognize its cultural and historical significance, I disagree with, so I won’t mention more about it. The seats have been updated, but the ground and steps largely have not. They are made of stone, worn smooth and slick in some areas, containing crevasses in others, and are uneven. Please be careful when walking around. The narration will describe the physical attributes of the place, its historical significance, and incredible details about the gladiatorial arts. For instance, gladiators apparently did not say, “We who are about to die salute you,” and rarely were gladiators killed. Upon defeat, the sponsor of the games was able to grant mercy to a competitor who fought well, and it was in his interest to do so, as gladiators were volunteers worth significant money that would need to be paid to their school in the event that mercy was declined.
Panels on the tour describe the different types of gladiators, their arms, and their most common matchups. Don’t skip these. It is fascinating!
Walking north from the arena, you’ll reach your second site: the Maison Carree, or square house. Originally a temple dedicated to Augustus’ sons, only the front edifice is truly original. Inside, your admission allows you to view a movie on the history of Nimes. You should do so.
The Maison Carree.
Nimes was founded as Nemausus, after Nemos, the Gallic god of the springs that flow through the area. The tribe that lived here allied itself with Caesar and the Romans during the wars to conquer Gaul, and were rewarded with their city becoming a colony and regional power, even gaining the name Augustus Nemausus. It is during this time period (first century BC through second century AD) that Nimes’ monuments were constructed.
By now, it might be lunch time, and many of the monuments here close from noon to 2pm. It’s a great time to head to a cafe. There is no lack of tasty looking options lining the streets of the old city, but I luckily stumbled into Creperie Le Frenchy, where €9.90 bought me a ham, cheese, and egg galette along with a sugar crepe. (Note: I am not compensated for this review. I was just very happy with my choice.)
Insert yummy noises here.
After having a bit to eat, you can kill the remainder of the lunch period at the Jardin de la Fontaine: the garden of the fountain. This is where the springs originally came to the city, and is a pleasant place for a stroll. You will also visit the Temple of Diana located inside the gardens. While there is no evidence to suggest it was ever dedicated to Diana, Goddess of the Hunt – it was likely another temple to the Augustan cult – it is free to explore anyway.
Stumble around the Temple of Diana.
From the gardens, walk up. (You can go by road or through the park area. I chose the latter.) At the top of the steep hill is the Tour Magne, the largest of 80 towers originally constructed in the year 15 BC around Nimes walls, and the only one still standing. The walls were built for status, not defense, as this was during the height of the Pax Romana in the area, and the city was never attacked during the Roman period. The tower is the third admission site you purchased entry for at the arena, along with the Maison Carree.
The impressive Tour Magne.
Only stairs lead to the top. At the end of the large spiral staircase lies… another narrower staircase, and at the end of that one… another even narrower staircase. Suffice it to say, it’s a bit of a shlep up. But oh, what a view of the city!
Totally worth the steps!
Walking back down the hill, allow your route to your transportation back to Marseille (or wherever you are using as a base) to take you past the Castellum Aquae and the Augustus Gate. The former is the end of a major Roman aqueduct and fascinating view into water distribution in ancient times, the latter one of two remaining gates to the city. Both are quick stops.
The Castellum Aquae. The aqueduct ended in the square hole, with 10 pipes leading to various parts of the city (now just round holes).
Sitting in your train or bus back home, reflect on just how amazing France is, that we can have an experience like this just an hour from those beaches and waters!
Note: thank you to the Nimes Tourism Office for graciously sponsoring my entry into the monuments of the city!
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