In 2014 we had set up home in the village of Olanzac in the Languedoc Region of France for an extended stay. The main aim of our pilgrimage to the area was to visit all the Cathar Castles of the region as well as two of the great local cities, Carcassonne and Toulouse. However we couldn’t resist the urge to have a holiday within a holiday and spend five of our valuable days visiting the region of Provence-Alpes-Cote D’Azur, staying at my dream destination city, Avignon. As our home village was reasonably close to Narbonne, Beziers and Montpelier, we were able to check out these famous places during our time in Olanzac. On the day of our drive to Avignon, we were able to cross off our ‘French Bucket List’, the wonderful Roman town of Nimes and the extraordinary sight of the Pont du Gard.
Nimes deserves a lot of slow time getting to know it but we only had a couples of hours to devote to checking out its gorgeous monuments so we had to pinpoint the essential sites to visit. We parked near the centre of town and first on our list was the number 1 attraction of Nimes, the 2000 year old Roman Arena.
Nimes was settled around Neolithic times and began to develop as a city around the Third Century BCE. The only city remnant of that time is the section of the ‘dry-stone’ tower that is incorporated into the Tour Magne, a Roman Tower that sat at the centre of the original settlement. Believed to be the oldest sculpture discovered in the area of Nimes is the Warrior of Grezan (right). It is housed in the Nimes Museum and is one of the few surviving images of the Gallic warriors that fought so hard to resist the Roman takeover of Gaul.
The Romans invaded Gaul in the second century BCE and the Roman Road, Via Domitia, was built through the region. Nimes became a Roman colony before 28 BCE and went on to become one of the most Roman cities outside Italy. This may have been helped by the fact that Julius Caesar’s veterans were offered land around Nimes to cultivate. The Emperor Augustus began a building program that would have encouraged the development of the city. The Roman Empire has left behind around 400 amphitheatres that are still in existence in the world today, in varying degrees of preservation. As we discovered in our stroll around this structure, the amphitheatre in Nime is one of the best preserved Roman arenas in the world. It has survived the last 2000 turbulent years of often destructive history in southern France but managed to survive largely intact…as well being almost continuously in use, not just for entertainment spectacles but as a town administration centre for centuries. Today it is still a place of entertainment, particularly pop concerts. While we were there, the posters of the two annual bullfights were very visible.
As can be seen on the map of Nimes below, we strolled down the Boulevard Victor Hugo to the next major site in Nimes, the Maison Carree (“Square House”) which is a Roman Temple built around 3 BCE. It was dedicated to the grandsons of Augustus Caesar (sons of the famous Roman General, Agrippa) who had died young. When Thomas Jefferson represented the new United States government in France, he made a plaster copy of this temple and used it to design the new Virginia State Capitol.
From the Roman Temple, we headed down Rue G.Boissier to the pathways that ran along the Les Quais_de la Fontaine, the end point of a system of canals built by the Romans that brought water from the mountains to Nimes. It is part of the system of waterways that includes the Pont du Gard. The neighbouring gardens, the Jardins de la Fontaine, were built around the original spring that attracted the Neolithic settlers to this area. These beautiful gardens were first laid out between 1738-55 and were built around the ruins of the original Roman baths of the area. The Jardins de la Fontaine are the oldest civic gardens in France. One of the discoveries brought to light during the excavation work involved in the construction of the gardens was the Roman building called the ‘Temple of Diana’. Rather than a temple, it was an Augusteum, a building devoted to the cult of Augustus and his family.
Our final destination in the Jardins de la Fontaine before we returned to our car and headed off to visit the Pont du Gard was the Magne Tower (Great Tower) which is the only remaining part of the city walls built by Augustus. Incorporated into this tower was the old city dry-stone tower from centuries earlier built on the highest point in the city, Mount Cavalier. As the city developed, it was constructed further down from the hill but the tower was still a defensible military facility overlooking Nimes, particularly during the Hundred Years War,1337 to 1453. The campaign of the famous Black Prince at the time took his army from Bordeaux to Narbonne in 1355 but apparently he didn’t get further along the coast of the Mediterranean to Nimes. However the Magne Tower was brought back into use at the time in case of other English armies coming closer to the city.