The southern French city of Nimes has all the ingredients for a great short break, including the chance to witness la course camarguaise, the local (less gory) version of bullfighting
A great little city in the south of France, Nimes has just the right mix of café culture, sightseeing, restaurants, and good weather.
The Roman arena is a must-see and, at 133 metres long, is hard to miss. We arrived in Nimes at the end of May, and headed for the arena to catch la course camarguaise, a traditional French sport where 12 men (raseteurs) pitch themselves against Camargue bulls (known for their tenacity in the ring) from local ranches. Surrounded by people, we sat upon wooden seating above the sandy ring of the arena, in awe at the multitude of arched doorways and vaulted passageways. The pena, a traditional percussion band, played upbeat tunes to entertain the crowds. The raseteurs dashed around the bull, hoping to lure it close to grab favours (ribbons, pompoms and string) attached to its horns. The bulls, unpredictable in who they charged, chased the raseteurs from one end of the ring to the other. Loud bangs echoed across the arena as the bulls crashed into the red barricades. The raseteurs escaped with almost superhuman leaps that would propel them up into the sitting crowds, and were jubilant in victory when they secured the prized favours. The crowd roared approvingly. Bull fighting is a big activity in Nimes and part of the culture of the city. In this event the bull does not get killed or injured and returns to its ranch.
Check out the beautiful Maison Carrée, built around 16 BC, and later dedicated to honour Emperor Augustus’s adopted sons. One of the most complete Roman temples in the world, it has had many functions (meeting hall, stable, church and city museum). It now houses an IMAX cinema, which details the history of Nimes from Roman times by bringing to life fictionalised accounts of historic citizens - slightly cheesy, but a great laugh for €5, plus you get to wear cool 3D specs. If you’re just after a coffee or a quick bite to eat, head into one of the small cafes that dot the square around the Maison Carrée.
A great way to pass the heat of the day in summer is to stroll along the many tree-shaded boulevards (tracing the city’s ancient wall foundations) that surround Nimes. You can also head to the peaceful tranquillity of the 18th-century Jardins de la Fontaine (Gardens of the Fountain) and, if in a slightly adventurous mood, climb the extremely steep hill there (Mont Cavalier), to reach the Tour Magne (Great Tower), a ruined Roman tower. From here, on a clear day, there are great views of the city and the Roman arena. If you're in the mood for some culture, head to the Carré d'art, a museum of modern art across the square from the Maison Carrée, designed by British architect Norman Foster in 1986.
See how many crocodiles under palm trees you can spot in a day - this is the official symbol of Nimes, and the local council has taken its representation around the city very seriously, displaying it on every road stud, parking barricade, and most local signage. The original settlers of Nimes are reputed to be Roman legionnaires returning from active duty in Egypt under Emperor Augustus, who were rewarded with arable land in Nimes to live out their remaining lives. Thus, the city picked up the link to the Egyptian crocodile and palm tree.
A fantastic day trip from Nimes is to the nearby Pont du Gard, a well-preserved Roman aqueduct built about 19 BC. Take the the bus from the city centre railway station to the Gardon valley, which the aqueduct crosses. It's an easy 40-minute ride, and the bus stops at the top of the entrance road to this UNESCO site, where a five-minute walk brings you to the main tourist complex on the hill above the aqueduct. This is a beautiful place to take a picnic in summer, and you can laze in the river, watching the kayaks raft the currents under the aqueduct. Head out early, however, as this is a popular local spot on summer weekends.
Thanks to Ryanair, it is easy to reach Nimes for a short break or even just a weekend. Bargain return flights are available from Liverpool’s John Lennon airport for about £60-£70, if you book early and are flexible with your dates. You can get into the centre of Nimes via the airport bus for €5 one-way, a great price for a 30-40-minute journey.
Where to stay
Our accommodation for this short break was at the delightfully named Cat Hotel, on boulevard Admiral Courbet. Right in the city centre, five to 10 minutes from the Roman arena and all the other sites, this was a fantastic location for couples and families on a budget, with doubles for around €50 per room per night. It's a traditional family-run place, the owners were very helpful and a great little continental breakfast is included. Practise your French before arriving, however, because English is not spoken much.
Another great place to stay is Acanthe du Temple Hotel, right in the middle of Nimes and with very friendly staff. Doubles range from €60-65. (http://pagesperso-orange.fr/Acanthe-hotel/)
Novotel Atria Nimes Centre has a fantastic location near to the train station and comfortable, spacious rooms with all the mod cons. Doubles start from €110 (http://www.accorhotels.com)
Where to eat
Pizzeria El Campo (8 boulevard Arènes), across the road from the Roman arena, is a fantastic place for eating al fresco, in the shadow of the arena, and serves a wide variety of excellent pizzas and pastas.
Le Bouchon du Marché (23 rue de l'Etoile) was a great restaurant find, which we came across while strolling through the back alleys in between the Roman arena and the Maison Carrée. It serves wonderful, hearty portions of traditional French fish, poultry, and meat dishes, and the service was warm and friendly. We left with full bellies and a warm glow at the end of the evening.