Finding Nemo in Nîmes

The core of Roman Nîmes, the Maison Carrée was the centerpiece of a fancy plaza surrounded by a U-shaped commercial, political, and religious forum.
By Rick Steves and Steve Smith

In France's Provence region, travelers flock to Arles and Avignon, but often overlook nearby Nîmes (pronounced "neem"). While Arles and Avignon have more touristic appeal, Nîmes feels richer and surer of itself, keeping its peaceful, pedestrian-polished streets a secret for its well-heeled residents.

Nîmes is a thriving town of classy shops and serious businesses studded with world-class Roman monuments. For the past thousand years, the townspeople have made good use of one of their biggest assets, the ancient Roman temple called Maison Carrée (literally "Square House," named before there was a word for rectangle). The temple rivals Rome's Pantheon as the most complete and beautiful building surviving from the Roman Empire.

The Maison Carrée survived in part because it's been in constant use by Nîmes' residents as a church, city hall, private stable, archives during the Revolution, and people's art gallery after the Revolution (like Paris' Louvre).

Sprinkled throughout the city, small physical remains of Roman Nîmes testify to its former importance. The city's emblem — a crocodile tied to a palm tree — is a reminder that Nîmes was a favorite retirement home for Roman officers who conquered Egypt (the crocodile is Egypt, and the palm tree symbolizes victory). All over town, little bronze croc-palm medallions shine on the sidewalks. In the city hall, four-centuries-old statues of crocodiles actually swing from the top of a monumental staircase.

As befitting a Roman outpost, Nîmes boasts an impressive and well-preserved amphitheatre. Climb to the very top for the rare opportunity to enjoy the view from the nosebleed seats of a Roman arena.

After Rome fell, and stability was replaced by Dark Age chaos, a huge structure like this was put to good use: it was bricked up and made into a fortress. In the 13th century, after this region was incorporated into France, the amphitheatre became a gated community housing about 700 people — with streets, plumbing, even gardens on the upper tier. Only in 1809 did Napoleon decide make this a historic monument, letting the ancient grandeur of Roman France shine.

Centuries before the Romans arrived in Nîmes, Nemo's Spring was here (named, like the town itself, for a Celtic god). When the Romans built a shrine to Caesar Augustus around the spring, rather than bulldoze the Nemo temple, they built alongside it, welcoming Nemo into their own pantheon (in accordance with their belief: the more gods the merrier). At the park now on this site, you can still see Nemo's Spring, though the temple is gone.

In the early 1700s, Nîmes needed a reliable source of water for its textile industry, specifically to power its mills and provide water for the indigo dyes known as de Nîmes (source of the word "denim"). Around 1735, the city began a project to route a canal through the city, and discovered Nemo's temple. The city eventually agreed to fund a grander project that ultimately resulted in a lavish Versailles-type park, complete with an ornate system of canals and boulevards.

This project came just 50 years after the construction of Versailles and, to the French, this place has a special significance. These were the first lush public gardens not meant for a king, but for the public — including the wide-eyed Yankees visiting today.

Steve Smith is the co-author of Rick Steves' Provence & the French Riviera.