I’d never thought of going to Nîmes, a small town in the Languedoc in the South of France, close to the border with Provence. But when I decided, on the spur of the moment, to go to the South of France to watch Wigan play the Catalans Dragons (at Rugby League) in Montpellier, I discovered that I could fly there from Liverpool. Rather than stay in Montpellier itself, as I thought Nîmes looked like an interesting town, I decided to base myself there so I could visit the sights, getting the TGV to and from Montpellier on the Saturday to watch the match. I arrived Friday lunch time and flew back Monday midday, but I managed to pack a lot into a short stay.
I booked into a small 2 star hotel – the Hôtel des Tuileries – which was just on the edge of the town centre from where all the main sites of interest could be reached easily on foot.
It was very French in style, but the owners were English. I had a very comfortable room which had a small balcony.
I like a brew, and there wasn’t a kettle, but there was a small fridge which was ideal for keeping drinks nice and cold. When I got back in the evening, tired after a long day on my feet, it was very pleasant to sit on the balcony with a nice cold drink. The owners were extremely friendly and helpful, providing on advice and bus times when I wanted to go out to the Pont du Gard. I arrived early on the Friday, just before midday, but my room was ready so I was able to check in.
The small airport is about 10 miles or so south of the town, but there’s a coach (Navette) that’s timed to meet incoming planes. It was a little expensive at 5 Euros each way, but cheaper than taking a taxi.
People have lived on the site since Neolithic times, but the town’s origins date back to the sixth Century BC when the Celts settled there near to a spring which provided a precious source of water. It was conquered by the Romans who buit a town that they called Colonia Nemausus, meaning the “colony of Nemausus”, the local Celtic god.
It was quite an important settlement, (it was made the capital of Narbonne province by Augustus Caesar) with fortified town walls, a palace complex, temple and an amphitheatre. They even built a 50 kilometre aqueduct bringing water to the town to supplement that provided by the spring. There are a number of Roman buildings very good condition and still used to stage events including concerts and bullfights,
a remarkably well preserved, very beautiful, small Roman temple (la Maison Carrée)
and a number of significant ruins, including la Tour Magne,
the “Temple” of Diana (that wasn’t really a temple”)
and two gate ways (la Porte Auguste and la Porte de France).
The town stagnated in the Middle Ages but prospered in the 17th Century due to the development of the cloth trade. It’s famous, of course for cloth de Nîmes (i.e. denim). A large proportion of the people of Nîmes and much of the South West of France became Protestants and the area was heavily affected by the Wars of Religion in the second half of the 16th Century. The cloth trade was developed by protestants who turned to the industry when they were excluded from public life.
Today, Nîmes is a very pleasant, lively town with a well preserved old town. Although it is proud of it’s Roman remains and older buildings, it is not fossilised. They even have some modern architecture, including the Carré d’Art, which was designed by Norman Foster and houses a library, a media library, a documentation centre and a modern art museum.
There were several museums and galleries and I was only able to visit a few during my short stay. Two of the museums had exhibitions focusing on Picasso, his relationship with Francoise Gillot and with bullfighting, which included a significant number of his works (he was a very prolific artist). I visited one of them, at the “Bull museum” (le musée des cultures taurines), – Sous le soleil de Françoise : Picasso, Nîmes et les toros – and it was excellent. Unfortunately I ran out of time before I could visit the other one, Françoise Gilot, peintre et muse, at the Museum of old Nîmes ( le musée de Vieux Nîmes).
There were plenty of places to eat in cafes and restaurants to suit most budgets and I had some very good meals while I was there.
I particularly enjoyed strolling around the narrow streets of the old town where there were a number of interesting old buildings.
Some of the grander houses near to the Cathederal and in and around the old town were built for the Protestant cloth barons to show off their wealth.
There were a number of interesting churches too, built in the “neo”, historicist styles popular in the 19th Century, just off the main Boulevards that encircle the old town. Most were neo-Gothic
but I was particularly taken by this more unusual neo-Romanesque church as it’s a style we don’t see here in the UK.
It’s not completely authentic – the walls have buttresses, for example, but it has a very Romanesque look to it with it’s round arches., relatively small windows and squat, octagonal tower.
I really enjoyed my short stay and could easily have stayed for a few more days. It was particularly nice to be able to walk around in short sleeves in the sunshine, especially as the weather at home was cool and very wet. A return visit is definitely on the cards in the future, even if it does mean flying by Ryan Air.