Nîmes, France: The French Rome
As Carla and I wander from place to place, we find that we sometimes feel an immediate connection with some places, very much like how we sometimes feel an instant connection with some people. And it’s not about whether the place is beautiful or charming, although sometimes that’s part of it. It’s really just a feeling – a recognition of sorts. I experienced this type of connection with Montpellier. I loved being there and it felt special to me. And, after reading so many positive reviews, I expected to feel much the same way about Nîmes, but that’s not what happened. Nîmes and I just didn’t click. Aside from its magnificent Roman ruins, I found the city itself to be a bit lackluster. For me, it lacked that quintessential French charm, and I couldn’t find very many delightful old streets to wander around. I will say, however, that what it lacks in charm and beauty, it more than makes up for with its historical significance.
The city of Nîmes, in southern France, has the finest collection of Roman ruins in France and possibly anywhere outside of Rome. It is more commonly known as “French Rome”, or “Roman France” having joined the Roman Empire in the first century BC during the reign of Emperor Augustus.
The Maison Carrée is a beautifully preserved temple that compares to the Pantheon in Rome as being one of the best-preserved buildings from the Roman Empire.
The Arena of Nîmes was built around 70 CE, shortly after the Colosseum of Rome, and is one of the best-preserved Roman amphitheatres in the world. The arena remains in use to this day, featuring both bullfights and concerts.
Of all the towers in Nîmes, The Tour Magne is the only one still standing today. It stands on Mont Cavalier, Nimes’s highest peak and allows for unobstructed and tactical views of the surrounding plains that linked Italy and Spain.
The Pont du Gard was built to allow the aqueduct of Nîmes (which is almost 50 km long) to cross the Gard River.
The Temple of Diana is a Roman site in Nimes whose ultimate purpose remains a mystery, as does the origin of its name. It is believed that the ‘Temple’ was most likely not a temple at all, but rather a library.
What we found most enjoyable was the Jardine de la Fontaine (Gardens of the Fountain) - a beautiful park filled with canals, walking paths, and stunning Baroque sculptures. Started in the 1740s at the behest of King Louis XV, the garden was built around pre-existing Roman pools that were discovered while creating the garden. It is said to be the first European public garden - one not meant solely for the kings, but rather open and available to everyone.
It’s remarkable to walk the streets of a modern-day city like Nîmes and see buildings that were constructed over 2000 years ago – and not only are they still standing, but many are still in excellent condition. It turns out that Roman engineering was even more brilliant than we knew:
“ A new study has uncovered exactly what ancient Roman engineers did to create architecture with such longevity, and it all comes down to the concrete. Researchers analyzed 2,000-year-old concrete samples, finding that the ancient form of the building material was more durable than what we use today. The Roman concrete contained “lime clasts,” small white chunks of stone that were previously cast off as evidence of poor mixing or low-quality materials. In the recent study, though, the scientists found that the lime, when mixed under extreme heat, gave structures a “self-healing capability” that has allowed marvels like the Colosseum to still stand today.
While Nîmes may not win you over with its beauty or charm, the Roman ruins are sure to capture your imagination. They transport you back to a time when Emperor Augustus took the reins of the Roman Empire from Caesar and began implementing major changes to bring back the glory of what Rome once was. It’s fun to see these ancient ruins and imagine what life in southern France might have been like at that point in time.