It may come as a surprise, to some, to learn that the south of France contains some of Europe’s most historically and culturally rich cities that date back to the very early beginnings of the Roman Empire.
Far from the champagne swigging, high society decadence of Cannes, St Tropez and Monaco, and the leisurely coastlines of Nice, is a region packed with lesser-known cities of centuries-old stories waiting to be sought out. While it’s all too easy to assume France is just the sum of its well-established stereotypes, (especially after a trip to the country’s hardened Capital, Paris), there’s actually a lot more to it than meets the guilty preconceived eye, especially in its southern reaches.
When the Romans built the Via Domitia – the first Roman road built in Gaul linking Italy to Spain through what is now southern France – they created over 70,000 miles of a history and culture trail, which now meets here, unified, in the very middle. At that time, Nîmes was the 5th most important town in the Roman Empire; today its grand monuments remain and the three Mediterranean cultures intertwine.
You can still travel along parts of this route, and find Nîmes proudly displaying its ancient heritage. History is not off limits, but a backdrop to a flourishing contemporary and artistic lifestyle. Here monuments and old mansions have been preserved and play host to everything from art galleries and boutique stores to daily rendezvous and apartment spaces.
NIMES – “The French Rome”
“When you dig in Nîmes, you always find something,” I was told as I made my way into the city centre. Yet when I arrived at my hotel, I saw that not everything here has actually been covered over. “It’s Baby Rome!” I said, immediately spotting the Amphitheatre that stands as one of the city’s most treasured and prominent monuments.
Nîmes is more affectionately known as “French Rome” or “Roman France” having been built during the reign of Emperor Augustus (and just after the passing of Ceasar) up until the 2nd century AD. During this period, key monuments such as this were built alongside the Maison Caree (Square House) and the Pont de Gard 50km long aqueduct. It was, after all, a very important town in the Roman Gaul.
Checking into my homely suite in the aptly named Hôtel Amphithéâte, I was all to eager to check out its ancient namesake neighbour that was once the largest of it’s kind in Roman Gaul. All the while I was trying to remember that I was in…France.
It’s two levels of 60 arcades arches might seem small in comparison to the famous Colosseum’s four, but ask anyone in Nîmes and they will proudly tell you that theirs is the best preserved of the Roman world.
While you find yourself lost in Rome, here you are likely to have much of it to yourself. Empty, you can imagine it in its prime – starting by exploring the lower levels where the rich would be positioned, and climbing to the top where the poor spectators would take a seat for the show. A guide will soon put the truth this light, for this was no place of death. I soon learnt that Gladiators fighting to the death is actually a myth – not like how the films make out. It would cost too much money for them to be killed, both for the organiser to get the animals in for the kill and for the gladiator school who would demand compensation in money for the loss of one of its men. Only 14 Gladiators were killed here within four centuries!
Today the Amphitheatre serves as one of the main arenas for the annual Spanish style Féria that’s been held here since 1952, which includes the debatable bullfighting tradition. The revered bullfighters continue the tradition of staying in the Hôtel Imperator that attracted the likes of Ernest Hemingway. The city sees over two million people pour into town for concerts, impromptu bars (‘bodegas’) and a series of lively events, booked months in advance. It’s certainly on my list for my return visit.
Modernity Not Without an Historical Backdrop
Life exists in the old streets. Tapas and a glass of the blush pink local rose wine is an adequate enough order to fit right in, whether afternoon or evening.
One of the only modern buildings hums with local shoppers – stop by Les Halles (Provencal market) to sample some local specialties including Brandade de Nimes – salted cod, soaked in milk and beaten with olive oil to make a smooth paste – and watch people stock up on Peiti pâté nîmois – pastry containing veal and pork stuffing, eaten hot.
Then step-back-in-time with a visit Maison Villaret à Nîmes and sample the generations old sweet treat, Croquant Villaret – long, hard golden biscuits, made with almonds and honey.
All fuel for the exploration, where you will stroll the old streets in their neutral shades of sand and pink, a cafe au lait trail of alleyways which lead to the proud markers of the city.
The Maison Caree (Square House) is the only fully preserved temple of the ancient world, and you’ll find many people relaxing on the platforms in between its columns or enjoying the creative space of its interior, which has been home to a cinema and gallery space.
It is likely it wouldn’t survive without the modern Carre d’art building (built by Lord Norman Foster) that sits opposite. It’s contemporary and deliberately mirrored style is not hard to miss. The water drainage system beneath the stylish glass façade of this contemporary gallery, library and rooftop restaurant saves it from the damage of flooding. Old and new sit side by side in unison, old inspiring the new and new preserving the old.
A stroll through the Jardins de la Fontaine (Gardens of the Fountain) took me back to the bourgeois period of the city from the 16th century onwards. Following the grand build of the Roman Era, there was a decline during Middle Ages, to the point where people even took refuge inside the Amphitheatre, where homes were even erected. In slow recovery, it wasn’t until the 16th century when Protestants, suffering during the Wars of Religion, took to trade following exclusion from society. Their cloth production made the town very rich and it was in Nîmes that the now worldwide popular Denim was invented. The term ‘Denim Jeans’ comes from Nimes and the neighbouring Italian city Genoa (the soldiers here dyed their denim uniforms indigo).
A peek into the city mansions of the 16th – 18th centuries and admiring their preserved stonework are the living symbols of this prosperous time, which later including silk and wine making.
The gardens were a part of that – with the people wanting to see something more modern – embedding, but not destroying, the Roman history underneath the well-manicured lawns. The Temple of Diana still stands here, crumbling in mystery – no one knows what its exact use was.
I ended my time here climbing the 32 metre high Tour Magne to be rewarded with the incredible view of the city below – looking down on what was once a strategic powerhouse of the Roman Empire, but which is now a backdrop to a flourishing contemporary, artistic and stylish French city.
I felt this more so as I walked to the newly constructed Esplanade and Avenue Feuchères, which connects the Amphitheatre to the train station, where I boarded the modern-age high-speed train to my next ancient destination… Avignon.
Editorial Disclaimer: This trip was in conjunction with Atout France and the #RendezvousenFrance campaign to showcase individual stories and experiences from France, outside of the key hotspots we know. All opinions and chosen historical insights remain my own.