Filled with an array of ancient Roman architecture and bursting with vibrant Mediterranean life, Nimes, the historic capital of France’s Gard region, is a great place to soak up some sun
Home of the best-preserved Roman amphitheatre in Europe, and a place where time-worn monuments are uniquely and beautifully juxtaposed with modern architecture, Nîmes is surprisingly full of energy, and pleasingly unfrequented by hoards of tourists. Come here if you are looking for history, culture, delicious Mediterranean and Provençal food, superb wine, and a splash of balmy sunshine.
The city is as exciting as it is intriguing, modern as it is ancient. Once at the crossroads of the Roman empire, Nîmes is the most Spanish of the French southern cities. From the heavily marbled Jardin de la Fontaine to the mighty steps and commanding pillars of the Roman temple and Norman Foster’s modish Carré d’Art, every corner you turn reveals another architectural gem. Nîmes’ buzzing streets are lined with first-rate restaurants and cafés, where you can sample local produce such as olives, grilled lamb chops and red wine.
What to do
With such a huge choice of monuments it’s hard to know which way to turn first. To get a perspective of the city, head to the elegant Jardin de la Fontaine and climb the hill to visit the Tour Magne. From its top point you will get a view over the entire city, taking in the crumbling gates and watchtowers commissioned by the Roman Emperor Augustus.
Next stop must be the city’s most stunning site. From its violent beginnings, the huge Roman amphitheatre is still in use for concerts and bullfights. A handset-led tour is essential to get a grip on the city’s complex layers of history.
La Maison Carrée in the city centre is another beautifully preserved testimony to the dominance of Rome; the 3D video show is a great insight, and the temple itself is magnificent. Immediately opposite, Norman Foster’s gleaming art museum is a modern reflection of the old temple. Tour the fascinating halls, then head up to the ‘roof of Nîmes’ café for a bird’s-eye view of the city.
Once you’ve had your cultural fill, wander the streets taking the Rue du Murier d’Espagne to the market (closes at 1pm), and the Rue des Halles to the cathedral off Place aux Herbes. Lastly, if you have time, head out to the Pont du Gard (00 33 820 903 330; www.pontdugard.fr), just a 30-minute drive away. A Unesco World Heritage Site, these impressive Roman aqueducts stretch from one side of the Gardon river valley to the other.
Where to stay
Hotel Imperator on Quai de la Fontaine is where Ernest Hemingway used to stay, with grand rooms and a beautiful courtyard. On Place d’Assas, the Royal Hotel has a pleasant Spanish feel and a lively tapas bar. New Hotel La Baume is a 17th-century restored hotel, in beautiful sandstone, constructed around a central courtyard.
Where to eat and drink
If it’s haute cuisine you’re after, choose Le Magister (00 33 466 761 100; www.le-magister.com). Stylish, friendly and tasty, it is the perfect venue for provençale cuisine. Ask to see its fascinating wine cellar. Using only the freshest produce straight from the daily market, Aux Plaisirs des Halles (00 33 466 360102; www.auxplaisirsdeshalles.com) serves local wines and typical dishes such as aïoli and brandade (salted fish with garlic and olive oli) in a beautiful open-air patio.
If you’re keen on Spanish tapas, head for La Casa Don Miguel (00 33 466 760 709) with low brick ceilings and long wooden tables – noisy, convivial and fun. Chez Moi (00 33 466 216 459) is another great, classic French restaurant. Dishes are simple and the interior has a home-like feel.
The best restaurant in town, Le 9 (00 33 466 218 077), is hidden down a back alley near rue de l’Etoile and so popular with the locals that booking is essential. It serves simple French and Spanish cuisine, there’s often live music and the atmosphere envelops you in Mediterranean warmth.
Time running out?
Head to the market, pick up some cheese, bread, fresh fruit, a bottle of Costières de Nîmes wine, and an acacia honey cake from local producer Madame Sequera at Ruchers du Pont du Gard. Then have a coffee at Place de la Maison Carrée overlooking the temple and the museum of modern art.
Buy a Culture Espace card (www.arenes-nimes.com) at the first Roman site you enter for €10. This great-value card covers visits to the amphitheatre, the temple and the Tour Magne.
Currency is the euro. Nîmes is one hour ahead of GMT and a one-hour 50-minute flight from London.
Eurostar (0870 518 6186; www.eurostar.com) has frequent departures to Paris, where there are regular TGV train connections to Nîmes. Shortest journey time five-hours 15-minutes.
Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies to Nîmes from Luton.
Tourist Office of Nîmes: 6 Rue Auguste (00 33 466 583 800; www.ot-nimes.fr). Visit the website for seasonal opening hours.
This guide first appeared in Food and Travel magazine.