The Roman sites of Nimes, southern France

Written by on May 28, 2018 in Languedoc-Roussillon

Arena of France Nimes at night

If you arrive in Nimes via train as I did, the Roman connection is obvious before you even leave the station. The vaulted ceiling and arched passage ways are the clue. Wander out to the centre ville with its palm tree lined avenues and in the distance straight ahead, a Roman tower looms. Walk for ten minutes into the centre of town and there, right before your eyes, is one of the best preserved Roman arenas in the world – it is a stunning sight.

The Roman influence is everywhere here, even in the names of the streets like lovely Rue Agrippa by the beautiful Jardin des Fontaines. In these beautiful public gardens is a fresh water spring which was likely the reason the romans chose this area to settle.

The Roman Arena of Nimes

Arena of Nimes France

The Roman arena is the beating heart of this cosmopolitan little city. From the outside it’s impressive enough. But enter through the desk of the arenas and you’ll discover an awesome spectacle: an elliptical shaped ring with 34 seating rows. It was built at the end of the first century and in its heyday this place seated 24,000 people and that might well have been  the entire population and then some.

Today it seats 17,000 which is around 30% of the population. They come here for the entertainment that takes place from festivals, concerts, opera, theatre, bull fights (non violent) and more.

There are lots of gaps in our knowledge of this immense arena. It’s not known if any Roman emperor visited for instance. And experts are sure that there were no lion fights here, the walls in front of the seating are too low apparently. They know that gladiator fights took place and plenty of relics have been found including evidence of a school of gladiators. Whatever went on here, the air of history is unmistakable.

That it has survived so intact is due to the fact that in the middle ages, the arena was turned into space for houses. They were built up against its walls and inside once the floor level had been raised by filling the centre with rubble. Essentially it served 900 years as a shelter for the poor and that (like the Roman theatre at Orange) saved it. Useful buildings with a purpose tended to last longer than those that just looked good in the old days.

Roman Games in Nimes

Each spring Roman Games are held here taking visitors back to the era of Julius Caesar. Channel your inner Roman, rent a toga for a few Euros, fling on your sandals and join in the fun. Ernest Hemingway, Ava Gardner and her bullfighter lover, Dominguin, were regular visitors to Nîmes, staying at the grand Hôtel Imperator, which undergoing renovation, will reopen in 2019. Picasso too loved it here.

There are year-round events – see Nimes tourist office website for details

The Roman Temple Nimes

Creamy stone of the Roman Temple Nimes France

A five minute stroll from the arena will bring you to the magnificent temple called Maison Carrée. Built in the 1st century AD it has over the years survived by adapting. It’s been a church, stables, even apartments. Now it’s an art gallery and its impressive imperial white stone lines against the blue sky of Nimes is simply stunning.

More Roman stuff

Two thousand years ago, Nimes was one of the most important cities of Roman Gaul. Today there’s a lively cosmopolitan centre but the city remains a treasure trove of Roman ruins. Take a stroll here and you’re following in well-trodden footsteps.

The first Roman road in France was the Via Domitia which ran through Nimes. The Romans turned Nimes into a walled city and access was via gates, two of which remain, the Porte d’Auguste and Porte de France which is still in use to this day.

The Romans fortified Nimes, but only one of their towers remains. The ruins are at the highest point of the city, strategically important but also a reminder of their power. From its peak position you have a fabulous panorama over the city.

The Jardin de la Fontaine is home to the ruins of what is thought to have once been a Roman library. Music students some-times practice there and the day I visited, an opera singer’s haunting voice carried over the trees and fountains. There are also the remains of Roman baths. Today the park is the focal point for those wanting to relax in tranquil surroundings in the shade of the lime trees, or enjoy a game of boules.

Don’t miss the Museum of Roman History in Nimes, it opened in June 2018 and is home to a fabulous collection of  Roman artifacts, a gorgeous rooftop garden, great restaurant and much more…

Tip: Buy a combined ticket with entry to the Nimes Arena, Maison Carrée, Tour Magne and the Roman theatre at Orange. It’s valid for a month, saves you money and queuing.

Read: What to see and do in Nimes – attractions, restaurants the locals love and where to enjoy an aperitif plus more…

Practical Information

Nimes is served by TGV (fast trains) and from Paris Gare de Lyon takes less than 3 hours. It’s just 30 minutes by train to Montpellier, 55 minutes to Marseille and 1 hour 20 minutes to Lyon

Nearest airport: Nîmes-Alès-Camargue-Cévenne, 15 kms from the centre, there’s a shuttle service available.

Stay at: Apartcity.com comfy, spotless, in the centre of the city and great value.

Tourist office website for loads of useful information: OT-Nimes.fr

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