Did you see what I did there? Roamin’ Gaul….Roman Gaul… never mind – I am a dad, I do jokes (well, what I think pass as jokes). Anyway, I am staying on the Roman theme but this time memories of a four day visit to Southern France in September 2019. Ah, they were the days, late twenties centigrade, hadn’t rained for three months and pre-Covid. Altough I know tour operators operate trips to all the locations I will talk about, I would recomend a car. It is a reasonable drive from Blighty (734 miles and 13 hours from London), we preferred to fly into Montpellier and hire a car – about one and threequarter hours. I would recomend SatNav of some description, certainly for Nimes where we were based – just about every road is one way and it can be counterintuitive sometimes seeing where you want to get to but driving away from it. A car is also the way to go to see the amazing variety of different scenery, within a few kilometers there can de startling differences of mountainous gorges, sloping vinyards and beautiful rivers. It would be a shame to miss this.
The first place I would suggest is Uzes 25 km from Nimes. Strange because it only has a very tenuous connection to Roman times – the source of the spring that supplied the water to Nimes is closeby. Yes, there is also a Capucin chapel built in 1635 on the site of a 1st century temple dedicated to Augustus but go there for the market on Wednesdays and Saturdays. I am surprised myself – normally if anyone mentions markets to me I run screaming to the hills. But, Uzes is charming, the old town has narrow streets, arches and squares and the market is a sensory delight. OK it can be rammed with people but the variety of seafood, cheeses, breads, herbs, olives, meats, honey and so much more is amazing. If you are self catering or just fancy a picnic this is the place to be. Having said that, I lasted about half an hour in the crowds before seeking the solace of a cafe in the main square – there are worse ways to spend an hour than drinking and people watching. I didn’t take any photos of the market, once you seen one etc. but if you want to get a flavour Google images are here. One last tip – driving into Uzes on market days can be slow (they are very poplular) and, if you see a space you can get a cigarette paper in, park in it! It’s a bonus if you can open the car door enough to get out – crazy.
Back to the Romans – Orange 50 kms from Nimes. Easy parking, eerily quiet and lacking in tourists. No idea why – it has one of the three most preserved Roman theatres. Absolutely nobody in the ticket queue in front of us and reasonable entry price – €9.5pp (€7.5 for students – take your NUS card). There is an extra €5 if you want the virtual experience and audio guides are free. Nothing prepares you for the sheer scale and detail of the theatre. Entering through a side walkway suddenly you are in the Orchestra with the Scaena to the left and the Cavea stretching out to the right. A few facts – built in the first century the stage, is 61 metres long and raised about one metre from the ground and is backed by a 37 metre high Scaena Frons which was originally embellished with colourful marble mosaics, multiple columns and friezes, Statues were placed in the niches with the central niche containing a 3.5 metre statue of the emperor Augustus, although this was most likely originally Apollo. It is well worth climbing to the top of the Cavea, the views are spectacular. There are passageways with various displays showing the perfomances of modern day operas, plays and concerts – classical and rock that have taken place in the theatre. Apologies for the quality of photographs – iPhones have their limits! There is a VR experience which, although not the same quality as the Domus Aurea, is still fun and worth a go.
About ten minutes walk through the town and there is a magnificant Triumphal Arch. The jury is still out on the exact date of construction but consensus favours the first century during Augustus to honour the veterants of the Gallic Wars. It was rebuilt by Tiberius to celebrate Germanicus’ victories over the Germanic tribes in the Rhineland. Two things that were striking are, whilst the Theatre was almost deserted, this really was – not a sole about and secondly, built on the old Via Agrippa, the road leading away and out of town was a straight as the eye could see. It must have been quite a sight, from a good distance away when coming towards the town,
Onto an iconic structure, mid way between Uzes and Nimes, the aquaduct Pont du Gard. Loads of parking, reasonable entrance fees and no queues. From the ticket office it is about ten minutes walk, past some elderly Olive trees, but oh so worth it when you turn a corner you get your first glimpse (again, obviously not rammed with visitors).
Walking closer, more of the aquaduct comes into view, It is a cliche to say words don’t do it justice but it is truely astounding. It has to be remembered that unlike Segovia which is built, as Mary Beard says, like that because the Romans can and it’s a show of engineering, power and wealth, Pont du Gard is in the middle of nowhere, not for show and it’s purely a functional structure. It is also worth pausing to think that this was one of several structures that transported the water, from the srping near Uzes to Nimes, a distance as the crow flies of 20km but, because of the terrain, the distance travelled is a tortuous 50kms. What is more startling is that the water source is only 17 metres above the repatriation basin in Nimes which means that, naturally without modern instruments, the Roman engineers constructed the length of the aquaduct of 50km with a gradient of 25cm per 1km which delivered 8,800,000 gallons of water a day taking 27 hours to reach Nimes from the source.
It is a bit steep but so worth climing to the top. Not only are the views stunning but the path gets close up and personal to the structure.
Opposite the ticket office there is a comprehensive museum that is definitely worth a vist. Lots of artefacts, information and a mock up of how the construction would have been carried out which was fun.
And so to Nimes or Nemausus as the Romans would have known it.
Before going onto the larger, more well know sights, I wanted to go full circle on the water supply with the preserved remains of the Castellum, the entry and distribution point for the water into Nimes after its 27 hour, 50km journey. The basin measures 5.9 metres in diameter with the entrance from the viaduct, which would have been controlled by a sluice, and still has en holes that would have housed lead piping taking water to all parts of Nimes. Fairly hard to find up a backstreet it feels a little sad that this is often overlooked and yet, without it, Nimes would not have grown.
A five minute walk takes you to the 17th century Jardin de la Fontaine. A very short walk to the left of the entrance gates is the, so called, Temple of Diana. Built in the first century, I say ‘so called’ because there is no archaelogical or literary evidence this was dedicated to Diana or indeed it was a temple. Shaped more like a basilica it may have been a library but it is speculation. It is located near the gushing spring of “La Fontaine”, around which was an Augusteum, a sanctuary devoted to the cult of the emperor and his family, centred on a nymphaeum. Whatever its purpose, it does not detract from its charm.
Still in the gardens we now turn out attention uphill to the Tour Magne, a pre-Roman octagonal structure that was developed and enlarged in Augustan times. There are several ways to get to the tower, either by gently sloping paths which meander through the trees and take quite some time or, for the more energetic, there are steeper ‘shortcuts’ – believe me at 30 degrees in the afternoon the shortcuts are not for the feint hearted. Once up there though, what a view. I want to say it was a watchtower, purely because there are uninterrupted views for miles but, truth be told, it is unclear. For a small fee you can climb the 132 steps to the top although, be warned, the spiral staircase in the middle is ‘open’ to the ground with just a handrail so may not suit everyone – I have to say it did look high! At the top is a viewing platform and the views are spectacular.
A short, ten minute walk from the Jardin de la Fontain takes us to the well known, but no less impressive Maison Carrée. A beautifully restored and preserved temple, built in 4-7CE and dedicated (or re-dedicated) to Augustus’ adopted heirs and grandsons Gaius and Lucius Caesar who both died young. With its deep Portico, a third of its length, it is twice as long as it is wide and it dominated the Roman Forum. It is a typical design as described by Vitruvius. The shrine was housed in the surprisingly small interior which is now a seating area where a film is shown on the history of Nimes which is fun to watch. Again, we visited this for the first time mid-afternoon and walked past many times to get into the town and it was never more crowded that the photos.
A leisurely five minute walk from the Maison Carrée through the narrow streets to the next sight, the Amphitheatre. I must confess, catching the first glimpse, framed by the houses in the narrow street was thrilling and was just a taste of what would unfurl.
Built shortly after the Rome’s Flavian Amphitheatre (Coliseum) in 70CE it it superbly preseved. Having a capacity of 24,000 in Roman times it has a 21 metre facade over two floors with 60 arches. Overall it is 133 metres by 101 metres. Once inside it seems there is access to all areas with very little roped off so an excellent opportunity to explore all the niches and crevices. There is an informative display of the different gladiators, how to recognise them, what their weaponary was, their fighting techniques and periods of popularity on the first floor arcade.
It is still used today for events such as rock concerts, re-enactments and filming. Eagle eyed viewers will see the arena is lined with a red barrier as preparations were being made for the Feria de Nîmes, a Spanish style bullfight which takes place twice a year. Without wishing to comment on my feelings about bullfighting, I have to concentrate on being objective in thinking this is part of the identity of locals and a nod to part Iberian heritage (after all Nimes has been in existance since 2000 BCE). The real point I wanted to make is that, the crowds throng in and out of the performances and yet, the arches on the first floor have no barriers to stop people falling out. Can you imagine Health and Safety allowing this? There is a photo with Mrs to illistrate and, another photo to show how close you can get to the Amphitheatre and have a glass of wine.
There is an excellent museum just opposite the Amphitheatre – loads of artefacts, mosaics, mock ups…. loads.
Finally, and another largely ingnored sight – the Porte d’Auguste. Part of the long Roman wall it was one of the main gates into the town. It has two large arches for vehicles and two smaller arches for pedestrians. Their is an inscription which dates it to 7BCE: IMP CAESAR [D] IVI F AVGV [S] TVS [C] O [S] X [I] TRIBV [PO] TEST VIII [P] ORTAS MVROS COL DA […] The emperor Augustus, son of the divine Caesar, consul for the 11th time, exercising the tribunitian power for the 8th time, gave the gates and walls to the colony.
So, they were our four days in Nimes. Alas we did not get to Arles with its Amphitheatre and Theatre or to Avignon (just so I could sing ‘sur le pont d’Avignon’) – still, next time. Any other suggestions of places to go and things to see gratefully received.