The second stage of our adventure to us to Nimes, a town in the Languedoc-Roussillon region in southern France.
Our trip to Nimes was in a 1st class seat on a French TGV train travelling at 200 kilometres per hour. The trip was incredibly smooth, and without the confirmation of the GPS we would not have believed we were travelling so fast.
Our arrival at Nimes was similarly smooth. We headed straight for a taxi. “Parlez vous Anglais?”
“Non Madame”, the taxi driver politely replied.
So I showed him the address we wanted, after a very poor attempt at reading it out (including saying sixteen instead of seize for the street number), and he took us straight there.
Our accommodation was a small studio apartment at the back of our landlord’s house; tastefully decorated and immaculate. Antoine had been to the tourist information centre and got us brochures, maps, bus timetables, and a pamphlet on the annual Roman festival that just happened to be on this weekend.
Nimes was originally founded in the 6th century BC by the Volcae Arecomici, a Celtic tribe, who settled around a spring that became Nimes’ water supply. The Romans arrived in 120 BC and Nimes became a Roman colony. During this period it was a prosperous city and the many monuments that make Nimes famous were built, including the amphitheatre, Maison Carrée (the square house); Le Temple de Diane; and Tour Magne, all built in the 1st century AD.
Nimes is also the home of denim. Nimes was famous for textile manufacturing in the 17th century. Cotton was imported and then the dye plant indigo (from Italy). ‘Serge de Nimes’ was developed.
The arena (simply known as Les Arènes) is a Roman amphitheatre and is one of Nimes’ most famous monuments. It seats around 24,000 people and was built around 100 AD as the centre of entertainment for the thriving Roman city. It is still in regular use, including for bullfights, but public executions are no longer held there. It has been plundered for rock over the years, and as Nimes expanded and then contracted, during the Middle Ages, it housed the entire settlement. The buildings have since been removed from the arena and it is back to serving its intended purpose, as an amphitheatre.
Les Grands Jeux Romains
This is a Roman re-enactment festival held annually. Today’s show in the arena started at 4.30pm. We had second row seats (which in Roman times would have indicated high social status) and an almost uninterrupted view of the action. Of course, the commentary was in French, but we were able to interpret everything. We waved our white napkins to encourage Caesar to spare the lives of slaves and gladiators, and cheered along with the rest of the crowd when their lives were spared, or not.
The show proceeded with fights; chariot racing; dancing nymphs and an extraordinarily strong, agile eunuch who performed gymnastic feats; and amazing horseman who manoeuvred themselves on, over and under their galloping horses.
Then the senate came into the arena and Julius Caesar arrived borne by chariot. When he dismounted his carriage, the senators assassinated him each striking a blow with their knives.
The finale was the battle between Mark Antony’s troops which included the local Celts, and the soldiers of the Caesar’s assassins. As history would attest, Mark Antony duly won, and the arena was strewn with dead bodies.
It was a wonderful afternoon’s entertainment which was made even better by being staged inside a 2000-year-old arena.
Pont du Gard
Pont du Gard is part of the aqueduct built to transport water from Uzès to Nimes during Nimes’ heyday as a Roman settlement. The existing bridge is smaller than the original, but is still over 250 metres long at the top and nearly 50 metres tall. It was an astounding feat of engineering and construction nearly 2000 years ago, and took only five years to complete. You can probably safely assume that maintaining that pace came at huge cost to the lives of the workers conscripted for the construction.
We spent about three hours wandering over, under and above the bridge. It is still a magnificent structure crossing the pretty Gardon River valley. As the day wore on the numbers of people grew. They inspected the bridge, sat and ate lunch at the many viewing points, picnicked on the riverside, or sketched the monument. Many were in their bathers, but not many ventured into the water. It looked clear, clean, and cold.
We found a peaceful spot upstream above the bridge to appreciate the view.
Jardins de la Fontaine and La Tour Magne
The Jardins de la Fontaine have been built on the site of a spring that was the original source of water for Nimes (when it was known as Nemausus). The Celtic tribes worshipped the spring.
The gardens spread up the side of Mont Cavalier that overlooks Nimes. At the top of the mountain are the ruins of La Tour Magne. This was the largest of the towers along the seven kilometre wall that formed the perimeter of the Roman city in the 1st century AD. The tower is about 30 metres tall with an internal staircase of 140 steps. From the top the view of Nimes and the surrounding countryside stretches to the Alps.
At the bottom of the gardens is the ruins of the Temple de Diane. Little is known about the Temple of Diane, except that it was most probably associated with the main Roman temple, but nowadays they seem to be a meeting place for Nimes’ youth to do a bit of skylarking.
Les Halles de Nimes
Les Halles de Nimes (the halls of Nimes) are the fresh produce markets. These markets are open every day from dawn until 11am. They are on the ground floor of the local shopping centre and being well lit, with wide aisles, and only a fraction of the people, they lack the hustle and bustle and the atmosphere of Barcelona’s La Boqueria.
But they sell fresh fruit and veges, meats, cheese, antipasto, salads, quiches, everything we needed. At one stall there were olives, garlic cloves, and chillies all marinating in large wok-like vats. There was also a range of pastes of olive, pepper, tomato, aubergine, and anchovies. The lady behind the counter encouraged us to try what we wanted so it was a bit of a no-brainer to stock up there for our antipasto dinner. We also bought cheese, cured meat, champignons and stuffed peppers from other stalls.
Next stop, Nice!