Nimes is an old French city where medieval traces mingle with 18th-century architecture among modern treasures.
My Kind of Place: Nimes is a French city with Roman and modern delights
Ancient and modern, Spanish and southern French, Camargue and even neighbouring Provence – they all blend seamlessly in this laid-back Languedoc city. You can get a taste of this mishmash in Nîmes’s beautifully preserved Roman arena, which dates from AD70. From spring onwards, it echoes to the sound of festivals, concerts, flamenco, bullfighting férias and Camargue bull running.
Wander through the narrow streets of the old town – where medieval traces mingle with 18th-century architecture – and you reach another Roman treasure. Maison Carrée, a temple that was built during the reign of the Roman emperor Augustus. Its graceful Corinthian columns share the wide square with one of Norman Foster’s audacious creations, the steel and glass Carré d’Art art gallery and multimedia centre.
The festive atmosphere is inescapable in the summer, when the férias bring out the bodegas, pop-up bars that squeeze into courtyards and boulevards. Until the end of August, a night market takes over the centre every Thursday, with small stages set up to showcase everything from jazz bands to tango dancers.
A comfortable bed
A stay at Jardins Secrets (www.jardinssecrets.net; 0033 4 6684 8264), a luxurious hideaway in the centre of the city, really lives up to its name. The discreet gate leads to a wonderfully lush garden of bougainvilla and olive trees surrounding a stone swimming pool. Antiques fill the sumptuous rooms, all of which look over calming greenery. The suites have their own leafy cloisters and private terraces. Doubles from €195 (Dh956).
Behind the simple facade of the four-star Hotel Marquis de la Baume (www.bookinnfrance.com; 0033 4 6676 2842) lurks a beautiful 17th-century stone internal staircase and courtyard leading to spacious modern rooms. Doubles from €80 (Dh392).
Only a few steps away from the arena is the friendly, three-star Hôtel de l’Amphithéâtre (www.hoteldelamphitheatre.com; 0033 4 6667 2851), which overlooks the restaurants of Place du Marché. Tastefully furnished rooms come with French country-style furniture in soothing pale tones. Doubles from €89 (Dh436).
Find your feet
Nîmes is surprisingly compact, with all of its major sights within comfortable walking distance. The arena is on the southern side of the road that encircled the old town in medieval times, and only 500 metres separates it from the Maison Carrée. You’ll find the main tourist office just off the Place du Maison Carrée at 6 Rue Auguste (www.ot-nimes.fr; see also www.destinationsuddefrance.com). There’s another information centre in Esplanade Charles-de-Gaulle, the broad, pedestrianised avenue by the arena that leads down to the railway station.
Meet the locals
Join the sports-mad Nîmois to watch big-screen rugby or football at Le 421 (0033 4 6623 8635) in Rue Fresque, near Place du Marché. During the féria, it’s packed with bullfighting aficionados. The Spanish theme is strong at La Bodeguita (www.royalhotel-nimes.com; 0033 4 6658 2827) in Place d’Assas, with tapas and Tuesday-night flamenco.
Book a table
Despite its name, Restaurant Skab (www.restaurant-skab.fr; 0033 4 6621 9430) is one of the best in the city. Innovative dishes, such as red mullet in rockfish bisque with curried aubergine cannelloni (€36 [Dh177]), are served in the courtyard garden or stylish interior.
Tendances Lisita (www.lelisita.com; 0033 4 6667 2915) rises above its neighbours crowding in front of the arena, with superior dishes, such as lobster in a lemongrass bisque for €30 (Dh147), all set on an attractive patio.
You can admire the giant modern sculptures in Place d’Assas while dining at classy L’Imprévu (www.l-imprevu.com; 0033 4 6638 9959). Try the creamy risotto with scallops and gambas for €21 (Dh103).
You’ll find shops and little boutiques along many of the narrow streets of the old town, including Rue des Marchands, Rue de l’Aspic and Rue de la Madeleine. Check out the upmarket homeware shops along Rue de l’Horloge before popping into L’Oustau Nadal (4 Rue des Marchands; 0033 4 6667 8018) for regional treats such as brandade de morue (creamy salted cod), tapenade and picholine olives. Sweet Nîmoise specialities can be found at Croquants Villaret (15 Rue de la Madeleine; 0033 6 0721 0346), or browse high-quality local produce at the main food market, Les Halles (www.leshallesdenimes.com; 0033 4 6621 5249).
What to avoid
While the arena, Maison Carrée and the Tour Magne, from 15BC, are open daily, many museums will be closed on Mondays. A combined ticket for the three Roman attractions is more economical and can be used over three days.
Join the Sunday strollers and picnickers in the Jardins de la Fontaine, the huge, elaborate gardens on the site of Nîmes’s original Roman spring. Formal 18th-century gardens of stately statues and stone balustrades sit among fountains and grottos, as well as the ancient Roman temple of Diane. Follow the stone steps up to Mont Cavalier to find the Roman Tour Magne towering over cypress, pine and palm trees.
Return flights with Etihad (www.etihad.com) from Abu Dhabi to Paris take about seven-and-a-half hours and cost from Dh4,735, including taxes. Direct trains (www.voyages-sncf.com) run from Paris to Nîmes from €37 (Dh182) each way; the journey time is three hours.