Roman History and More in Nimes, France

Centrally located in the south of France, adjacent to Provence, Nimes is a small city with plenty of treasures to explore and still off the beaten track for American visitors. The ancient roots of Nimes are traced back to the Romans, who settled in the city in 28 B.C. It became a major center for the Roman Empire with a population of 55,000. Many of the significant structures from the Roman period are still standing, including an arena and a temple, which the city has maintained and restored. 

Most of the Roman remains are located in the old quarter in the central part of the city, which is compact and easily accessible by walking. Nimes also has easy-to-follow signs and maps of the attractions. 

The centerpiece attraction from the Roman era is the Nimes Arena, built in A.D. 70, close to the time of the Coliseum, with almost identical architecture. Impeccably restored, the arena is one of the best-preserved structures in the world today and is still used for public events. Measuring 110 yards wide and 145 feet long, it features 60 arcades, and once held a crowd of 24,000 people. 

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Since the arena can hold such large audiences, it’s used for large scale spectacles such as pop and rock concerts and staged gladiator fights and competitions. Bullfights are regularly presented at the arena during the spring and summer. 

Also worth seeing at the arena are two exhibitions: “The Gladiator’s Quarters,” where weapons, costumes and other artifacts used in gladiator fights are on display, along with three short films that illustrate gladiator training and combat procedures; and “The Bullfight Gallery,” which features a collection of matador costumes, documents, programs, posters and other related items. 

The other important Roman structure is Maison Carrée, an impressive five-story high temple from the first century. The rectangular temple is surrounded on all four sides by classic Roman columns and is a great example of Vitruvian architecture. Maison Carrée was restored between 2008 and 2011. The soot-covered limestone was cleaned, and it now shows off the natural beauty of the stone. Inside the temple, an informative, 25-minute video explains the history, construction, and architecture in detail. 

Across the street is the complementary Carré d’Art, a modern art museum and library designed by British architect Sir Norman Foster and launched in 1993. 

The Roman Museum is a newly opened center and museum for Roman artifacts. Ideally located steps away from the arena, the technologically advanced museum displays over 5,000 items, including statues, ancient columns, pottery and ceramics, sculptures and mosaics. The collection spans 25 centuries, covering the pre-Roman, Roman and medieval periods with 65 interactive, multi-media stations. Take the elevator to the rooftop terrace on the top floor for a terrific, 360-degree view, with a map of the important monuments in the skyline of Nimes. Behind the museum is a three-level, landscaped garden displaying pre-Roman, Roman and post-Roman periods of plants, flowers and fauna. 

Fast forward from the Roman period to the 18th century and discover Jardins De La Fontaine. The 37-acre park and garden, one of the first to open to the public in 1745, is a delight, with neo-classical elements, including monumental statues, long stone staircases, marble vases, stone cherubs and long rows of balustrades. Below parts of the park, there are streams of water which were the original springs from the Roman times. A lush Mediterranean garden is lined with cypress, pine and oak trees along with grottos, a rock garden and a fountain surrounded with aquatic plants. Two other relevant Roman period structures are Tour Magne, a 52-foot stone tower, which is the only surviving remnant of the Roman fortifications; and the Temple of Diana, from the first century. 

Maison Carrée, an impressive nine-story high Roman temple from the first century 

A worthwhile destination 30 minutes from Nimes is Pont du Garde, which was a first-century aqueduct bridge built over the Gardon River to send water to Nimes, 31 miles away. A protected UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most popular tourist attractions in France, Pont du Garde was an architectural masterpiece of the time, with 52 uniform archways rising over three levels at 161 feet high. It was able to transport 10,000 gallons of water to supply the homes, fountains and baths of Nimes. 

The highlight of our trip was our stay at the L’Imperator, the only five-star property in Nimes. An Art Deco gem built in the 1930s, L’Imperator was a hideaway for celebrity guests such as Ava Gardner, Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso. The hotel was recently bought by the Maison Albar Group, a fourth-generation family-owned company, which specializes in five-star properties throughout France, Portugal and China. 

The hotel had a head-to-toe makeover two years ago and the results are fabulous. Every element of the hotel is well thought out and beautifully designed. Although the décor is contemporary, the design incorporates some of the Art Deco touches from the past. The original, cage-like elevator has been restored and is the centerpiece of the lobby, which has sculpted, velvet couches and circular panels of colored glass suspended from the ceiling. 

Our Deluxe Room was spacious, with a queen-sized bed, a desk with a comfortable club chair, and an Art Deco-inspired area rug in muted tones of blue, gold and pink. The marble-appointed bathroom has a separate shower room with a rain showerhead, in addition to a bathtub, and the bath and body products are from Codage, a luxury French skincare and spa brand. Other amenities are a tea kettle and a Nespresso machine, terry robe and slippers, and flat-screen TV. Besides the deluxe, executive, junior and full suite room categories, there are one- to four-bedroom private apartments, for families and groups, located in two separate buildings, which also include full kitchens and private terraces. 

After we checked in, we had a drink in the sprawling outdoor garden and terrace, encompassed by a lush garden. The Codage spa offers massages, customized facials according to skin type, and skin peelings, a sauna and steam bath, and an indoor heated lap pool. There’s also a freshwater outdoor swimming pool. 

Master Parisian chef Pierre Gagnaire, who has accumulated an incredible 16 Michelin stars under his culinary empire, is the executive chef of the two hotel restaurants. 

At L’Imperator, the original, cage-like elevator has been restored and is the centerpiece of the lobby. 

The haute cuisine restaurant, Duende, is open four nights a week for dinner and two days a week for lunch, with two tasting menus with six courses for €160 ($195) and nine courses for €205 ($250). 

The more casual restaurant in the lobby area and outdoor terrace, L’Impe is a brasserie overseen by chef Nicolas Fontaine, under the direction of Pierre Gagnaire. Fontaine is a native of Nimes and prepares dishes made with local ingredients from Provence and the Camargue regions nearby. 

We loved the relaxed oasis of L’Imperator so much that we almost didn’t want to leave. For inquiries, email reservations at [email protected]

Nimes is three hours by train from the Gare de Lyon station in Paris, but make sure to select the Nimes station, not the Pont du Garde station, when purchasing your ticket. Nimes has some of the highest temperatures in France in the summer, soaring to the mid-90s Fahrenheit, so we suggest visiting in March, April, September, October and November.

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