Nîmes: an insider’s guide
The Romans did a lot for this lively city, so it’s only right that their efforts have been commemorated in a new museum. Here’s our guide to this culture-rich destination that has something for every member of the family.
Julius Caesar gets all the attention. The Roman emperor grabs the headlines with the Shakespeare play, the Mary Beard documentaries and the “Et tu, Brute?” But his great-nephew and heir was the original ‘honourable man’ and it is his legacy that is large across Nîmes. It is a devotion that is being highlighted this year with the opening of a major museum and the result of the city’s bid for Unesco World Heritage status.
Things to do in Nîmes
Arènes de Nîmes: The stunning, twin-level cornerstone of the city with 2,000 years of history enveloped in its circular core. The Arènes de Nîmes has seen gladiators do battle in Roman times, served as a sanctuary for families during the Middle Ages and, more recently, hosted corridas de toros, the controversial tradition of bullfighting that finds a natural home amid its stone pillars. The bullfighting festivals, now held in May and September, were first popularised by Emperor Napoléon III, in the 1850s. During the era of the gladiators, now re-created each April at the Grands Jeux Romains re-enactments, the amphitheatre would hold 20,000 spectators, divided into four sections according to social status.
Musée de la Romanité: The city’s new star attraction, at least judging by the huge queues over the opening weekend in early June, is the €62 million Musée de la Romanité (Museum of Roman Civilisation). The modernist museum, located just opposite the amphitheatre, brings together the city’s 5,000-piece collection of Roman antiquities, with its four sections tracing the development of the settlement from the Iron Age, through the halcyon days of the Roman Empire to the Middle Ages, and concludes by considering the legacy of the Roman era. Some of the most striking exhibits are the frescoes and mosaics uncovered during archaeological excavations.
The Old Town: The former inner sanctum of the Roman old town was home to wealthy merchant families. Guided tours offer entry to some of these 16th- and 17th-century mansions normally closed to the public. Each retains its own secret. The Hôtel Meynier de Salinelles features Roman sculptures in the cold-stone courtyard which are thought to be from the 4th century AD. The Hôtel de Fontfroide houses a Gothic arch over a stone staircase dotted with zesty splashes of lemon trees. Shoppers on Rue de l’Aspic have little idea about the ancient treasures beyond these heavy-wood doors.
Hotels in Nîmes
Set in a grand Haussmann building, Appart’City Nîmes Arènes is a new apartment-style hotel offering a superb central location with everything in walking distance, plus kitchenette-style facilities. Doubles from €120, breakfast €14.90.
Maison Rousseau is a slightly eccentric guesthouse, built around a courtyard, with a dash of design charm and a sunny garden. Doubles from €105 including breakfast.
Restaurants in Nîmes
The pick of the options on Place d’Assas, L’Imprévu is a modern restaurant with a patio and terrace offering a good-value menu du jour (two courses €19). Shut Tue and Wed.
A friendly restaurant and wine bar on a lively street in the old town, Le Vintage is a good place to discover the joys of the café gourmand, an espresso served with a selection of small desserts. Mains around €16. Shut Sun.
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