As the French city bids for Unesco heritage status, the stylish Musée de la Romanité shows off the extensive treasures of Roman Nîmes
At one of Europe’s biggest re-enactment spectaculars, this year’s show is Spartacus-themed. So, take a seat in the mighty arena alongside 12,000 spectators (togas optional)
Nimes is famous for its Roman sights including the Amphitheatre and the Maison Carree. There are others too in the Jardin de la Fontaine including The Temple of Diana and the symbol of Nimes, the Tour Magne.
The Amphitheatre, called Les Arenes, is the most visited sight in the city. Although there are larger Roman arenas in the world, the one in Nimes is the best preserved of them all and dates from roughly 70 AD. It is still heavily used for concerts and in Roman times could hold 24,000 spectators on 34 rows of seating, all with unrestricted views. Even when a large sound stage has been built, the structure is still dwarfed by the banks of stone seats surrounding the oval sandy area where gladiatorial contests took place 2,000 years ago. Strictly speaking this area is the Arena and the surrounding seating is the amphitheatre, but both terms are now in common use for the whole vast edifice.
When the Arena was built the Romans were very safety conscious and there is evidence the whole audience could be evacuated within 5 minutes. There are certainly many stairs up and down to the various levels. If you are feeling fit, however, you can just climb up and down the various levels of seating. For some reason, a few travellers bring their dogs with them. These canines are mainly small breeds that have tremendous difficulty climbing the stones and so have to be carried around.
The south-eastern part of France has an abundance of historical interest. From the Roman theatres of Arles and Orange to the Cathar castles in the foothills of The Pyrenees there is much to see and remember.
There are mysteries too.
Why would the Roman Catholic Church create a crusade against the Cathar ‘heretics’ when these people were following such a devout life? How did the Romans build the Pont du Gard so quickly as part of a 40-mile water channel to provide water to Nimes? What did Bérenger Saunière discover in Rennes-le-Chateau that made him so wealthy?
Added to the history and the mystery are a host of natural wonders, beautiful scenery, and familiar names appearing in unfamiliar places.
When you visit Nimes make sure to look at some sights other than The Arena. If you are lucky enough to have the Michelin – Languedoc Roussillon Tarn Gorges – Guide, follow the two walk suggestions in there, especially the one that takes you to the wonderful Jardins de la Fontaine. Watch as men play petanque, children race around the colonnaded terraces, and families feed swans. There’s also another Roman temple here and also the last remaining remnant of the original Roman fortifications.
Don’t miss the Maison Carree or the Modern Art Museum opposite. The TER train takes 35 minutes from Avignon to Nimes. The train station is lovely and the staff are helpful when something goes wrong, such as when a train hits someone on the tracks and the line is blocked as happened today.