The modern city of Nimes is up to date when it comes to public transport with an expansive bus network and a simple park and ride scheme. In 2015 they have also recognised the needs of motorhome owners with free parking at the Costières Stadium with tram links to the city centre. When I arrive at 9am on a Thursday morning, I’m not entirely surprised to find the motorhome parking area occupied by several cars which seem to be overflow from the park and ride, still there’s space for Trixie and it’s a busy place so she should be safe while I explore Nimes.
The site was first settled by the Volcae tribe who were drawn to a natural spring where they worshipped their god Volcae Arecomici. In 55 BC the Romans had already begun to take over southern Gaul but Julius Cesar was keen to push north and enlisted the help of the Volcae to assist with his war, promising Roman citizenship in return.
I learned all of this in a 23 minute film shown in the Maison Carree. It was a rather over-dramatic presentation but supposedly based on real people and events of that time. The Maison Carree is much more interesting on the outside. A temple built in 19 BC and the centrepiece of the Roman city’s forum, it has been extensively cleaned and restored in the last 20 years and now looks almost new.
Next to it is the stunning glass Carree D’Art, designed by Norman Foster in 1986 and built to house an art gallery and library. On the top floor is a restaurant with fine views of the Maison Carree if you are prepared to pay the high prices for this vantage point.
I seek out the ancient spring in the La Fontaine Gardens and find that the water has been carefully cultivated in an 18th century garden design. In one corner I discover the ruins of the Temple of Diana and, high up on the hill, the Magne Tower, well what’s left of it! After climbing 140 well worn, stone steps I am rewarded with 180 degree views of the city: the gardens below, the very straight Avenue Jean Jaures, the circular Arenas and the Alpilles mountains in the distance.
Winding my way through the narrow lanes of the old town, I pass the covered market and the cathedral of St Castor. By chance I come across the Museum of Old Nimes and the Archaeological Museum, which also houses sections on Natural History. They are both free and have interesting exhibits on denim (a textile that originated in Nimes and was exported to the USA for clothing slaves), gladiator gravestones and Roman mosaics. Outside the Archaeological museum is a large wooden crocodile, an animal which features on the Nimes coat of arms, chained to a palm tree to represent the capture of Egypt by the Romans.
Finally, I end my visit of the city at the Arenas, the huge 1st AD Roman amphitheatre. The entry fee includes an audio-guide which is full of interesting details about Roman life at that time, gladiator fights and bullfights, which still takes place today. I could listen for hours but the freezing breeze forces me back down from the outside stone seating to the warmer multimedia exhibits below. The Gladiator section is showing Hollywood film clips of Spartacus and Gladiator, while the Bullfighting section has colourful costumes and videos of bloody bull fights and the less harmful Course Camarguaise which the region is so well known for.
My most surprising discovery though is the towns that Nimes is twinned with: The cultural centres of Frankfurt, Verona, Prague and Salamanca to name but a few. And in England there is Preston – not sure how that happened!