Nîmes: Travel Information and Pictures

 

As the pictures show, Nîmes, in Languedoc-Roussillon, France, is one of the most interesting cities to visit, with an enormous amount to offer, especially if you are interested in Antiquity. For Nîmes was, and still is, on the trade route between Rome and Madrid, and this city of 140,000 people was established by the Romans just twenty five miles from the Mediterranean Sea. Historic attractions include the largely intact Roman arena, still able to be used for public events, the Roman Temple of Diana., and the magnificent Pont du Gard, a combined Roman bridge and aqueduct, which used to bring water to the city.

Getting There
Nîmes has its own airport, though it is mainly only used by one well known Irish low-cost airline, flying direct from cities in the UK. By plane from other departure points you are more likely to fly in to Montpellier to the south-west, or Marseille Provence Airport, 80kms (50 miles) to the south east (direct flights from a number of UK cities). From the former airport you change trains once in the 1 hour journey, and from the latter it is also about an hour by direct rail link, or in a hire car you take the A54/E80 Autoroute.
By train, Nîmes is connected to Paris (3 hours), Lille (6 hours) and Strasbourg (5-6 hours) by the high-speed TGV rail line. From Lyon by train takes about 2 hours 30 mins, and you have to change once. If you want to drive from Paris, it will take you around 6 hours 30 mins to cover the 716kms (445 miles) via the A5 or A6 Autoroutes. The cheapest way to get to Nîmes is by bus (11 hrs from Paris; up to 24 hrs from London; 15hrs 30mins from Madrid; 6-10 hours from Barcelona).

What to see and do
The Tourist Office of Nîmes claims that their amphitheatre is the best preserved of the whole of the Roman Empire, and certainly its 2-storey arena and tiered circles of stone benches look remarkably complete (see pictures below). The arena is open to visitors every day, except when there are shows on. The hours are slightly longer in Summer, but if you take it that it is open between 09.30 and 17.00 at least, you won’t go far wrong. However from late June to September there are frequent concerts (nearly every day in July during the Festival of Nîmes) which cause the amphitheatre to close in the afternoon. If you prefer to attend an event in the arena, there are Roman Games re-enacted at the end of April/beginning of May, and bull fights during the Whitsun festival. (A word of warning: to get the most out of a visit to the amphitheatre, you need to be able to climb up and down steps.)
To continue to explore Roman remains, head for the Maison Carrée to see the original well-preserved façade of a Roman temple which has been in constant use since the 11th century, and which has been adapted and altered over that time (scroll down for pictures).

Then for something culturally very different, but right opposite the temple, visit the Carré d’Art, a glass and steel building designed by architect Norman Foster to house a modern art exhibition, museum and library, which opened in 1993. (The Carré d’Art is open 09.00 – 18.00, closed Mondays.)
The principal church in Nîmes is the Cathedral Notre Dame et St Castor, but although it was originally built around 1096, what you see today is mostly a more recent construction from the 19th Century, much of the cathedral having been destroyed several times in its history. The style of architecture is a mixture of Gothic and Romanesque, and visitors might find it less ornate than some French cathedrals. (If you have never heard of St Castor, it’s because he was a local saint from nearby Apt.) Older than the present cathedral is the Tour de Horloge (clock tower), which was built in the 15th Century. These days the tower is floodlit at night and makes a useful landmark. There are still four more museums to visit in Nîmes in addition to the Carré d’Art. They are: The Museum of Old Nîmes, The Archaeological Museum, The Musee des Beaux Arts and the Museum of Bull Fighting Culture. Then there is also a Planetarium; but probably what many people do is just wander the beautiful and historic streets and see what turns up.

The Nîmes Tourist Office on Rue Auguste (open 09.00 to 19.00) can give you information and arrange guided visits to all of the main attractions.

I have saved till last the wonderful Pont du Gard, (see pictures) partly because it is out of the city, and partly because it is my favourite of all the Roman sites of this region. This beautiful aqueduct carrying water across the River Gardon was constructed by Roman engineers in the 1st Century AD to satisfy the demand for water in the bath houses, public fountains and private villas of Nîmes. At the same time, they made it a bridge for traffic across the river, and once the Roman Empire collapsed and the aqueduct was no longer maintained, its secondary function as a bridge saved it from demolition or collapse. The result is the iconic 3-tier pink limestone structure which you can find on tourist literature, posters and wine labels in this part of France. When I first went there in the 1970s, it was just a slightly decaying but beautiful structure that you could climb all over and explore in peace; now, as a UNESCO World Heritage Site it has a Visitor Centre and museum, and access is much more controlled – which is probably a good thing from the point of view of the preservation of the structure and the safety of visitors. Children may enjoy the interactive activities in the ‘Ludo’ area. The Centre (and therefore the bridge) is open from 09.00 all year, and depending on the season closes as early as 17.00 and as late as 23.30 (July and August). You can easily spend a day there and can book tickets in advance which give access to everything, including a guided tour.

Where to stay
Airbnb has a number of studio-type properties to rent in the hosts’ homes, including ‘Studio 21m2 plein centre’ which is well recommended and is right in the historic centre of Nîmes; and ‘Beautiful 35m2, Downtown’, which is two minutes on foot from the Arena. Both of these are for two guests sharing one double room. Then there is a new Youth Hostel, ‘La Cigale’, but it is 2km (1.2 miles) north west of the city at 257 Chemin de L’auberge de Jeunesse – a bus stops 500m from the hostel at the Stade. Facilities include free WiFi, a kitchen and meals, and there is a laundry. Nîmes has several well-reviewed budget hotels right in the centre, such as the popular 2-star Hotel Des Tuileries, which offers free WiFi and a buffet breakfast, just a short walk from the railway station and close to the Arena; and the Acanthe du Temple Hotel (also 2-star), in a 17th century building where each room has a private bathroom. This hotel is a short walk from the arena and right in the city centre with restaurants close by.
If a 4-star hotel is more your style, and you like ultra-modern décor, then the Novotel Atria Nîmes Centre should suit you: right in the centre close to all the main sites, and handy for the station, this 119 room hotel has a bar and French cuisine restaurant, and is popular with business travellers. Finally, in the 3-star category and still right in the centre, there is the Royal Hotel, with its own restaurant situated on a square. This is just a short walk from the Roman Temple (3 mins). You can take tapas on the terrace of the bar and they serve fresh organic food at breakfast. Warning: rooms are accessed by stairs – there is no lift.

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