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The inside guide to Nîmes, the French city packed with Roman history

History is writ large across the southern French city — alongside its Roman relics and ruins are glimpses of a proud textile heritage and a thriving cafe culture.

Autumn colours in the city’s Jardin de la Fontain, built around the ancient water source that first drew the Romans to the town.

Photograph by Getty Images
Published 14 Jan 2022, 06:08 GMT, Updated 18 Jan 2022, 14:05 GMT

Claiming some of Europe's best-preserved Roman monuments, it’s easy to see why the lively city of Nîmes is also known as ‘the French Rome’. And with an enchanting old town and excellent restaurants and shopping, it easily holds up to other, better-known destinations in the South of France — or indeed Italy — as a short-break destination. With its palm trees and golden-stone buildings, there’s a distinctly Mediterranean vibe to Nîmes — located just a couple of hours north west of Marseilles. It’s compact too, making it a breeze to explore on foot. There are cultural events all year round, as well — the annual highlight being Les Grands Jeux Romains, when hundreds of gladiator-costumed actors re-enact the bloody battles and fiercely contested races their ancestors experienced.

The epicentre of the city’s Roman past is the 69ft-high, 24,000-seat Roman Amphitheatre of Nîmes. It's impossible to miss at the heart of the city, and, as the best-preserved arena outside Italy, it’s worth exploring the nooks and crannies behind the main arena where animals, slaves and soldiers would’ve been kept waiting before their battles. Climb to the top tier to see if you can count the peaks of the seven hills that surround the city — another uncanny echo of Rome. It's said this undulating landscape traps the warm weather, meaning Nîmes enjoys one of the balmiest climates in France. 

Just next to the arena is the Musée de la Romanité, which opened in 2018, its rippling, white mosaic facade designed to represent the folds in a Roman toga. Inside, you can admire the millennia-old artefacts, including exquisite mosaic floors, as well as 21st-century, interactive digital exhibits that bring elements of Roman times to life. Nearby is the Musée des Cultures Taurines, home to a collection of bull-fighting artefacts, from matador items to an entire exhibit dedicated to legendary matador José Tomas and the historic corrida of 12 September 2012, in which he fought a record-breaking six bulls in the arena. The arena also hosts the biannual Feria de Nîmes, a Spanish-style bullfighting event held in the city officially since 1952.

If you’re more into music than matadors, then you’ll want to check out the month-long Nîmes Métropole Jazz Festival, which takes place each autumn; the Nîmes Flamenco Festival, meanwhile, sees the spine-tingling sound of castanets and heels fill the Théâtre of Nîmes every January. 

From the Arena, it's a short stroll to Nîmes' old town, a warren of cobbled lanes that weave between enticing food stores, chic boutiques and sun-drenched squares, such as the Place du Marché, with its Bronze Crocodile and Palm Tree fountain — a sculptural representation of the city’s two emblems. Take a table outside Pâtisserie Courtois for a coffee and macaron while watching the daily goings-on in the city. Don't forget to try calissons: diamond-shaped almond confections that are a speciality of the region — you’ll find some of the best at Pâtisserie Francin, just a few steps from the Musée de la Romanité. Alternatively, tuck into the city's own speciality, croquants, an orange-flower and almond biscuit best savoured from city institution Maison Villaret, on Rue de la Madeleine. 

Calissons, a traditional sweet from the South of France — you’ll find some of the best at Pâtisserie Francin, just a few steps from the Musée de la Romanité.

Photograph by Getty Images

Squirrelled away in the backstreets, many of the city’s most elegant buildings have striking courtyards hidden behind their gates. These hôtels particuliers (‘hotel’ means ‘mansion’ in this case, rather than lodgings) were built by wealthy textile merchants throughout the centuries. Visit Hôtel de Bernis, with its an extraordinary 15th-century gothic facade and 17th-century arched courtyard that was inspired by the city’s amphitheatre. On Rue de l'Aspic, meanwhile, is the 17th-century Hôtel de Fontfroide — well worth a nosey for its pink courtyard and ornate balustrades.

And the cloth that made those merchants so rich? Denim, or, originally, de Nîmes. Buy your own pair of jeans at the Ateliers de Nîmes, which upholds the Nîmes' tradition of creating denim, despite remarkably few other labels doing so.

The 18th century also saw Nîmes create one of Europe's first public gardens, the elegant Jardins de la Fontaine. The park was built around the ancient water source that first drew the Romans to the town, and its centrepiece is the first-century Temple of Diana, built close to the source itself. The rest of the gardens' design is just as ornate as its main attraction sounds: think waterfalls, ponds, sweeping staircases and exotic plants.

There’s plenty more ancient history to discover: towering above the gardens is the Tour Magne, the only remaining part of Nîmes’ ancient Augustan fortifications. Climb to the top of the 59ft structure and survey the city’s red roofs from on high. From there, it’s a leisurely wander back to town via the Castellum Divisorium, a Roman water reservoir, and then on to the Maison Carrée, an impeccably preserved second-century Roman temple whose striking form and soaring columns inspired the famous Madeleine Church in Paris.

But when it comes to Roman history, the pièce de la résistance is the Pont du Gard. This astonishing, three-tier aqueduct is half an hour from Nîmes (take the 121 bus) and arches magnificently across the Gard river. It’s well worth the journey for the structure alone, but don’t miss the excellent museum, too, full of exhibits that explain how the aqueduct was part of an extraordinary, 2,000-year-old engineering project.

Statue of legendary matador Nimeño II outside the Amphiteatre of Nîmes, the best-preserved arena outside Italy.

Photograph by AWL Images

Local's guide: Damien Sanchez’s top three restaurants

Nîmes born and bred, chef and restaurateur Damien Sanchez is the owner of Michelin-starred Skab, a fine dining restaurant just a few steps from the amphitheatre. 

Le Patio Littré
One of the places I enjoy going to is the gourmet restaurant Le Patio Littré, near the Maison Carré. The chef Julien Barrera Labonne uses seasonal, local ingredients for his menu of fresh dishes with lots of flavour.

La Villa Roma
La Villa Roma is an Italian restaurant that serves excellent pizza, as well as a good selection of pasta and antipasti. It's right next to the Roman arena, which makes for a good view if you're sitting on the terrace. 

In a quiet backstreet near the arena is Menna, a relatively new restaurant serving inventive and good-quality Mediterranean dishes made with local produce. It has a pleasant terrace at the front, too. 

Published in the January/February 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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