Le Midi is the name the French have given to the beautiful, southern region of their country and if your interests lie in the archaeology and/or history of Rome, you will find this whole area positively overflowing with splendid remains of Roman Gaul. From Britain there are trains, planes and buses that will take you directly to Lyon, Marseilles or Montpellier – as well as to other low-cost destinations – so this region is not difficult to access.
Once there, if you’re going to begin your visit close to the Mediterranean and work your way up the ancient sites near or on the River Rhône, the city of Nîmes is a good starting point, since it is only a short distance from many other interesting Roman centres, large and small. Nearby, too, are areas associated with the life and colours of the 19th century Dutch artist Van Gogh and with the great river delta of the Camargue - inhabited by horses, bulls and pink flamingoes – as well as with the beautiful sights and scents of purple Provençal lavender.
Be prepared, though! Nîmes does not fit into any of these latter ‘light tourism’ categories, especially when you’re standing here in the middle of its amphitheatre, known as Les Arènes. It’s reputed to be the best-preserved of all arenas that remain in the former Roman Empire, and you could say that 2000 years ago – and even today - an appropriate name for this vast space would be the killing field.
For many years the arena ( Lat: arena= sand, denoting the floor covering) was thought to have been built during Augustus’s reign, though newer excavations suggest dates as late as 120AD. It held 24,000 spectators in 34 rows of terraces and was equipped with a canvas awning which covered it in hot sunshine and bad weather. Notice the many stair galleries and vomitoria (exit tunnels, Lat: vomere = to eject, discharge), which facilitated the movement of the masses. This elliptical wonder of Roman design and engineering was built in such a way that every single spectator (even the slaves who would have sat at the very top, possibly on wooden benches) had a clear view of the activities offered for their pleasure by the state. Wild animals were imported from Africa and Asia, and wild animal hunts (known as venationes) were carried out within the confines of the arena –in fact, it was for animal spectacles and gladiator combats that Nîmes became, and remains, famous.
If you’re interested in all things gladiatorial, there is lots of visual information displayed on huge billboards in the gallery entrance, where the artist Antonine Fauré has painted life-sized pictures depicting different types of combatants. In addition there is a multimedia show. For those who want insights into the ‘entertainment’ that was provided by the Roman power for its Roman-Gallic audiences, The Great Roman Games re-enactment weekends are held several times a year, see www.arenes-nimes.com/en/events/ .
But it’s not just for past animal spectacles that Nîmes is known. Southern France and Northern Spain have always shared lifestyles and this has included bullfighting, though in France the bull is not always killed – it depends on the local tradition. Nîmes is the bullfighting capital of France, and if you’re here in the tourist season, you’ll see that such events are extremely popular with locals and visitors. Despite France being famous for ‘not killing the bull’, the events herein are of the other, most bloodthirsty type… It’s interesting to recall how the power of the bull has been with us since ancient times; we can think of Europa, Mithras, Cretan bull-jumping amongst many others.
If you’re anti-bullfighting, however, you’ll be glad to know that the anti-taureaux movement in France is robust. There’s usually a campaign table somewhere outside the arena if you want to sign the petition, though you do have to search the crowd for them during the ‘corridas’ season – April to October - when it’s heaving with people all the way around. At other times of the year the arena is used for musical events and entertainments.
Before you leave les Arènes, try and imagine this vast space when it was converted by the conquering Visigoths into a fortress ; after which it became a palace and then, during two later periods, a small town (one with two churches and 220 houses!)
Nîmes, officially in Languedoc, though on the very border of that province and Provence, was originally a Celtic settlement named Nemausus, after the Celtic god Nemo, who guarded the nearby groves and healing spring. Julius Caesar settled veterans of his Nile campaigns in this area, following their 15 years of obligatory service; coins of 28BC depict a crocodile (representing Egypt) chained to a palm tree (the Roman symbol for victory), and the abbreviation NEM.COL, Colony of Nemausus. You can still see this image all over the city today, whether in original artwork or modern tourist tat! Nîmes has always been an important centre, since it stood on the Via Domitia, the Roman road built in 118BC by Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus to link the Spanish provinces with Italy, so the town was known to troops, traders and travellers from those early times. It’s thought that this road was built over an ancient Alpine pass, possibly the one used by Hannibal.
It was Augustus, however, who would give the city, by his days grown to a population of 60,000, its majestic appearance and the status of capital of the province of Narbonensis. Some of the buildings that archaeological finds and records tell us he built, have disappeared, whereas others that we can visit are of a later period.
One of the delights of Nîmes is its pretty little backstreets, which will lead you from one large monument to another. After visiting Les Arènes, do go via the Place du Marché to get to the Maison Carrée. In this enchanting ´place` (square) surrounded by shops and cafés, you can see an impressive life-sized casting of a crocodile, as well as buy a snack of French pastries and lovely coffee. As you pass from there, you might also see shops selling the clothes for which Nîmes is famous (though you´re probably already wearing them!). In 1850, Levi Strauss emigrated from Germany to America and started making strong work trousers for pioneers going to the California Gold Rush. He imported a durable fabric “from Nîmes” (Fr: DE NÎMes) and had it shipped from Genoa (Gênes), Hence: Levi’s Denim Ge(a)ns.
You’ll recognize the Maison Carrée from photos, the original white now black in places. The beautiful classical temple was built in 16BC and in 5 AD was dedicated to Augustus’ adopted sons, Lucius and Gaius, sons of Marcus Agrippa – this was unusual for a temple, which was customarily dedicated to a god. Unfortunately both boys died as teenagers, so Augustus’ plans for the ‘princes of youth’ to become his heirs came to nothing. It stands at one end of the original Forum and is oblong in shape, its name apparently deriving from the archaic French ‘carré long’ meaning ‘the long square’. Over the centuries it has been a temple, a 4th century Christian church (which conversion saved it from destruction when the new Christian government demolished pagan temples), government archives, a council meeting-place and – during the French Revolution – stables. Its steps are deep and the rises surprisingly high, as in the arena. The Romans definitely knew something about climbing! There are 32 columns, of which the front and back pediments have 6 each; the remaining 20 are embedded in the side walls. The Maison now houses a multimedia show on the history of Nîmes, and outside you can enjoy a drink at one of the cafés in the square while you survey the wondrous architecture.
At the other end of the forum stands the modern Carrée d’Art, designed by English architect, Norman Foster. It houses a collection of modern art - 1960 to the present day - and is made of glass, aluminium and concrete which allows for lots of light to enter; it actually fits in quite well with the pure Roman building.
Take rue de l’Horloge from the Maison and you’ll come to another delightful corner of Nîmes, la place aux Herbes; here stands the Musée du vieux Nîmes and opposite, the Cathédrale de Notre-Dame et Saint.Castor (he was a late-antiquity Bishop born near Nîmes). The cathedral is the only mediaeval building left in Nîmes following the Protestant uprising in 1567; the city is still a strong Protestant centre, though the name ‘Huguenot’ has long been dropped. Near here, at the end of rue Nationale, you can see a small section of the Porte d’Auguste, one of the original city gates built by Augustus; it looks a bit unkempt, one can see that the two grand buildings described above, get most of the city’s attention, but then, they are the two big tourist attractions!
If you’ve got time, take a bus or walk to the Tour Magne, which stands in the (so-called) Temple of Diana park, with its fountains and nymphs. This tower is part of the Augustan walls of the city and there is a wonderful view of the countryside from here.
It’s also probably a good idea to visit the Pont du Gard while you’re in Nîmes, as it’s so easy to do in a short day-trip. This imposing 3-level aqueduct bridge carried the city’s water from Uzès, a distance of only 20kms - though detours to avoid hills and deep valleys meant that the final length of the aqueduct was 50kms. Look out for the projecting stones which were left in place on the bridge after being used to support the scaffolding during construction. Some scholars suggest the aqueduct was built c.19BC (Agrippa´s aedileship), others place its construction as late as the 1st century AD. It is agreed, however, that it probably supplied Nîmes with 200,000,000 litres of water a day!
There are trains from Nîmes that will take you to wherever you wish, and you’ll find that the SNCF service is far cheaper than British Rail!