Nîmes, France: A cultural guide
Janette Griffiths offers an essential cultural guide to Nîmes in France, a steadfastly French city built on Roman foundations.
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The Romans settled in Nîmes, France, when they were building the road between Rome and Spain. Their legacy also includes a 20,000-seat arena and the remains of baths and temples dotted through the Jardins de La Fontaine, where today the Nîmois are playing petanque.
But my first stop is Nîmes’s favourite morning place: Les Halles, the central food market a short walk from the Maison Carrée. It’s the only modern building on an elegant 19th-century thoroughfare and I’d been tempted to give it a miss. Local friends insisted I go and once inside I find a busy, cheery place where the Nîmois gather to buy specialities such as brandade de morue (a purée of salt cod and olive oil) or delicious crunchy green “picholine” olives.
A few blocks away, the Musée du Vieux Nîmes (Place aux Herbes; free entrance) has a room devoted to the city’s most famous export – the rough fabric that went from being the working garb of labourers to adorning the backsides of early adopters such as Marilyn Monroe and James Dean when it became known as denim.
I’m not a fan of bullfights but Nîmes is. Like her Roman founders, she looks towards Spain and is the capital of French bullfighting. Ernest Hemingway, Ava Gardner and her bullfighter lover, Dominguin, were regular visitors to Nîmes, staying at the now genteelly decaying grand Hôtel Imperator. And Nîmes still celebrates la corrida in the Roman Arena during the wildly exuberant Feria, the festival held over the Pentecost weekend.“It’s not just bulls – we had Stevie Wonder in the Arena last year,” says the woman at the ticket office. “Oh and we have re-enacting,” she adds. “Les anglais love to re-enact, don’t they?” Before I can decide if we do, she explains that a series of Roman games are held each April in the Arena and you can rent a toga for a few euros and mix with centurions and senators. She means dressing up, I realise.
Close to the Arena, as everything is in this compact town centre, the Place du Marché features the two emblematic figures from the Nîmes coat of arms: a crocodile and a palm tree symbolising the Roman conquest of Egypt. Summer is fiendishly hot in Nîmes but winter can be cold when the mistral is blowing. It’s a not very well-kept secret that Nîmes’s iconic palm tree is then kept warm with a heater.
You can go all the way from St Pancras, Ebbsfleet and Ashford, Kent to Nîmes by train with Rail Europe (0844 848 4070; www.raileurope.co.uk), changing from Eurostar to the TGV at Lille Europe. Return fares start at £111. Ryanair (0871 246 0000, calls cost 10p per minute; www.ryanair.com) has flights from Liverpool and Luton to Nîmes airport, 12 miles southeast of Nîmes. Tangobus (www.tangobus.fr) operates a shuttle into town, stopping at the train station and some hotels for €5. Buy tickets on board.
THE INSIDE TRACK
The spectacular Pont du Gard (www.pontdugard.fr) is just 12 miles away and should not be missed. Ingenious Roman engineering brought water from the beautiful nearby town of Uzès across this aqueduct to the Castellum in Nîmes.
Noailles (6 Boulevard Alphonse Daudet; www.patisserie-noailles.com), next to the Maison Carrée, is the best patisserie in Nîmes. Try the oreillette a thin, crispy beignet with a delicate orange blossom filling.
If you’re turned off by bullfighting, the Nîmois also favour the course camarguaise, where young men vie to grab small items off the horns of young bulls from the nearby Camargue. Nobody dies and the bulls often have long, lively careers.
THE BEST HOTELS
Hotel Amphitheatre £
Just around the corner from the arena, this small two-star hotel is comfortable, friendly and perfectly located (0033 4 6667 2851; from €60/£53 per night).
Royal Hotel ££
Perfect situation right opposite the Maison Carrée; friendly staff, popular tapas restaurant downstairs but the old stone building keeps the bedrooms peaceful (4 6658 2827; www.royalhotel-Nîmes.com; from €70/£62 per night).
Hotel Les Jardins Secrets £££
Built round a peaceful cloister, the hotel has sumptuous rooms, all different, with a roaring fire in winter, swimming pool in summer, and a spa – too bad about the caged birds (4 6684 8264; www.jardinssecrets.net; from €195/£173 per night).
THE BEST RESTAURANTS
Halles Auberge £
Just a counter bar right in the Halles central market. The place to be bold and try some local specialities such as coeur de canard au balsamique or an excellent vegetable tempura for the faint-hearted (26 Cours Gabriel Peri; 4 6621 9670).
Friendly, earthy, home cooking in the heart of the historic centre (1 Rue Poise; 4 6667 5047).
Wine Bar Le Cheval Blanc ££
Cosy but elegant bistro food served in this lovely vaulted room right across from the arena (1 Place des Arènes; 4 6676 1959).
Le Lisita £££
Michelin-starred Le Lisita, recently got its verve back after a bit of a slump. Good place to try an upmarket version of the aforementioned brandade (2 Boulevard Arènes; 4 6667 2915).
WHAT TO AVOID
Don’t venture to the Place Charles de Gaulle area between the Arena and the railway station. The city is embarked on a massive renovation of the square here. Until then it’s a noisy, dusty construction site.
Give the restaurants on the Place du Marche a miss. With the exception of the Lebanese café, they are fairly ordinary.
Sunday afternoons and Mondays when many shops and restaurants are closed.
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