Nîmes: Rome in France

I spent today in Nîmes, which is about an hour west of Marseille by train.  When I was looking for cities to visit I didn’t find any that were hugely interesting in the far south of France apart from Nîmes which sounded OK and the next city that I’m visiting.

Most of Nîmes’ tourist attractions are based on the fact that it was an important city in Roman times, and they still have well preserved remains of buildings to prove it, so I spent my day visiting these and trying to forget that I’d come from warm sunny Marseille inland to a colder cloudy city.

By far the biggest Roman site in Nîmes is the amphitheater called the Arènes, built in the 1st century A.D. and which they claim is the best preserved in the world.  It’s been used for different purposes throughout history, including initially as a place of entertainment for the Romans who would go there to watch things like gladiatorial duels and animals fighting, as a fort after the fall of the Roman empire, as a city neighbourhood in the 18th century, and most recently it’s used as a bull ring and entertainment venue.

Although the story of what took place in the amphitheatre must be pretty similar to what I’d heard when I visited the Colloseum in Rome, a lot of the facts seemed new to me.  Maybe I just wasn’t listening when I was in Rome.  For example when the Arènes was first opened the gladiators were actually trained fighters who were rarely died if they lost, as the school which trained and managed them would be out of pocket if they were dead.  Later on in Roman times when there was a shortage of money, slaves did fight as gladiators but that wasn’t always the case.  Also there were different types of fighter with different skills, and a fighter would normally compete against a different type of fighter who had a complimentary fighting style, so it wasn’t all sword fighting.

nimes arena

Try to imagine the arena filled with people...

The Arènes was very close to my hotel so it was the first place I visited in the morning, but after I left I went to the tourist information centre where I spoke to a huge guy who was surprisingly softly spoken.  Later on when I went to buy lunch, the woman at the bakery has a completely different accent which put a lot of stress on the end of the word.  To be honest I’m usually too busy trying to understand what someone’s saying to notice their accent or how they speak, but the differences between these two people was huge so I wasn’t sure what to expect when talking to other people around the city.

I’d been told that people in Marseille had a distinctive accent as they speak very slowly, but I didn’t notice that either to be honest.  I do seem to be keeping up with the conversations that I’ve been having with people, but they haven’t been all that complicated.  In the end the other people I spoke to in Nîmes didn’t have a noticeable accent as far as I could tell, so I’m not sure where the Tourist Information worker and the woman in the bakery came from.

After lunch I went to the Maison Carrée which is another Roman remain, which stands in the middle of a square by itself, surrounded by cafés and a modern art museum called the Carré d’Art across the road which was designed by Norman Foster.  The building is the only fully preserved ancient temple in the world, which in this case was used by a priests to talk to the gods.  The people who were waiting for the news the priest would delivery had to wait outside on the square.

nimes maison carree

The columns of the Maison Carrée with the Carré d'Art in the background that mimics the columns

These days you can visit the Maison Carrée, but not see what it looks like inside as only a part of it has been converted into a small 3D cinema, and that’s the only part that you can visit.  The cinema shows a 20 minute film about the Heroes of Nîmes throughout the ages from the gladiator in the first century A.D. to a bullfighter in the present day called Nimeño II, all of whom have made a mark on the history of Nîmes.

nimes nimeno 2

Statue of Nimeño II outside the Arènes

The last Roman remain left to see in the city was the Tour Magne, which dates from the year 15 B.C.  It’s the highest point in the city I think as it’s built on top of a big hill, and it’s now a tourist viewpoint.  Unlike Marseille where you could get a great view of the city from the Notre Dame de la Garde basilica and you can watch the boats coming and going in the harbour, in Nîmes there isn’t a whole lot to see from a high viewpoint.  There are some nice old fashioned roofs and a few stand out buildings, that are recognizable like the Arène and the Carré d’Art, but I don’t think there’s anything else that was impressive to see from there.

nimes tour magne

The Tour Magne which overlooks Nîmes

One odd thing that just struck me today is that dates here are avant or après J.C. while in English we say B.C. or A.D.  If we said “before J.C.” which is the direct translation people would laugh at us for saying J.C., I think.  I’ve heard people say it before (Chris Rock in Dogma comes to mind) but it’s not normal, and this was the first time I thought about how it translated from one language to the other.

When I’d finished climbing up the tower then going back down again I was a little stuck for things to do.  Too late to visit a museum and way to early to pick up my bags, so I followed the walking tour in one of the leaflets I’d picked up in the tourist information office.  I walked around the city looking at historical houses and noticed that it’s a small and very proper city.  There aren’t people selling fruit and vegetables spilling out into the street (probably because the roads in the old city are too narrow), nor people loitering around, but there are lots of little squares with nice looking cafés and outdoor seating areas which was good to see.

Even after the walking tour I still had time to spare, so I went to the café of the Carré d’Art which claimed to be a Salon du Thé.  I’m becoming more knowledgeable in such things, and can confirm that it is a Salon du Thé because it serves teas with silly names.  After the Fakir Tea I had in Lyon, I had a Casablanca Tea (green tea, mint, bergamot) in Nîmes.  I’m not sure why they can’t just call it a Green Tea with Mint and Bergamot, sure it’s a little longer but it’s also much clearer and less… daft!

Now I’m lording it up in first class in the train (it was only 3 Euros more), although there are still no power sockets which is infuriating!  Better make the most of it as I’ll be slumming it in in cattle class for the last 3 legs of my tour.

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