By Rick Steves and Steve Smith
Most travelers in southern France make time in their schedules for Arles and Avignon, but ignore 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. Only 30 minutes by train from Arles or Avignon, and three hours from Paris on the TGV, Nîmes is easy to reach.
Nîmes is a thriving town of classy shops and serious businesses studded with world-class Roman monuments and laced with traffic-free lanes. Though today Nîmes is officially in the Languedoc-Roussillon region (for administrative purposes), historically the town has been a key player in the evolution of Provence.
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), which marked the core of Roman Nîmes. The temple rivals Rome's Pantheon as the most complete and splendid building that survives from the Roman Empire.
The Maison Carrée survived in part because it's been in constant use — as a church, city hall, private stable, archives during the Revolution, people's art gallery after the Revolution (like Paris' Louvre), and finally as the monument you can visit today.
As befitting a Roman outpost, Nîmes also boasts an impressive and well-preserved amphitheater. 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, the huge structure arena was put to good use — bricked up and made a fortress. In the 13th century, after this region was incorporated into France, the arena became a gated community housing about 700 people — with streets, plumbing, and even gardens on the top level. Only in 1809 did Napoleon decide to scrape away the dwellings and make this a historic monument, thus letting the ancient grandeur of Roman France shine.
Sprinkled throughout the city, smaller 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, 400-year-old statues of crocodiles actually swing from the top of a monumental staircase.
Centuries before the Romans arrived in Nîmes, the Spring of Nemo was here (named, like the town itself, for a Celtic god). When the Romans built a shrine to Emperor Augustus around the spring, rather than bulldoze the Nemo temple, they built alongside it and welcomed Nemo into their own pantheon (as was their more-gods-the-merrier tradition). Today, the spring remains, though the temple is gone.
In the early 1700s, Nîmes needed a reliable source of water for its textile industry — to power its mills and provide water for the indigo dyes for the fabric serge de Nîmes (denim). In about 1735, the city began a project to route a canal through the city and discovered a Roman temple. The city eventually agreed to fund a grander project that resulted in a lavish Versailles-type park, complete with an ornate network of canals and boulevards.
The project was finished just 50 years after the construction of Versailles, and to the French, this place has a special significance. These were the first grand gardens not meant for a king, but for the public — including the wide-eyed travelers visiting today.
Steve Smith is the co-author of the Rick Steves Provence & the French Riviera guidebook.