Off the beaten track in France: Nîmes and the spectacular Pont du Gard
The train tickets we had purchased in Lyon told us that we were headed to Montpellier. And we would have got to Montpellier – if we hadn’t been distracted by the sparkling weather when our train stopped in Nîmes.
Although we had visited the nearby Pont du Gard, we’d never actually been into Nîmes. We had always been keen to visit the well-known town in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France, as it is home to a number of extremely well preserved historical sites, all of which date back to Roman times.
So, tempted by the siren call of the beautiful sunshine – which Nîmes apparently enjoys 300 days a year – we made the split second decision to jump off our train. And we’re so glad we did.
The first local we encountered as we left the train station was a donkey, who was also enjoying the warmth of the day. I can’t say I was expecting to run into a donkey – we weren’t that far off the beaten track!
As luck would have it, there was a market on in Nîmes on the day we made our snap decision to visit – complete with sheep and rabbits, as well as donkeys. The market was completely unexpected, but in typical French fashion, utterly charming.
But I’m not sure that it’s the four-legged locals or even the sunshine that draws the savvy traveller to Nîmes – I think it has more to do with the small town being home to three of the most amazing historical sites in France, which are absolutely worth visiting during your next trip to the south of France.
The historic amphitheatre of Nîmes
There is no way you can miss the impressive Roman Arena, which dominates its space. Widely acclaimed as the best preserved amphitheatre of Roman times, visiting the Nîmes Arena certainly rivals visiting the Colosseum in Rome.
But despite this claim to fame, and like so many French historic sites, the Nîmes amphitheatre has a very relaxed vibe. We encountered no queues, and visitors can climb right to the top of the structure to take in the gorgeous views of the surrounding area.
Originally a stage for gladiatorial pursuits when the town of Nîmes was known as Nemausus, the Arena is still in use today, hosting such diverse events as concerts and bullfighting. This is quite something, when you consider it has been in use since the end of the first century AD.
If you happen to visit Nîmes around lunch time, a number of popular restaurants sit just outside the Arena allowing travellers to enjoy a bite to eat in a very unique location – the shade cast by the ancient Arena.
The Maison Carrée
A short and easy walk from the amphitheatre you will find the Maison Carrée – an impressive temple, built to honour the adopted son and grandson of the Emperor Augustus, Caius and Lucius Cesar.
Fully restored during the last decade, the monument virtually glows in the Nîmes sunlight. Over its long history, the Maison Carrée has spent time as stables, a private house and a museum.
At the time we visited, the Maison was being used as theatre. Regular screenings of the Roman history of Nîmes were being screened throughout the day, and the film was both entertaining and informative.
And, if you get a chance, sitting on the outer wall on a sunny afternoon is certainly recommended!
Jardins de la Fontaine and the Tour Magne
To round off your Nîmes experience, take another easy walk along the tree-lined streets until you come to the impressive Jardins de la Fontaine.
Built in the 18th century at the base of the hill that is home to the Tour Magne, the gardens are a beautifully laid out public space containing canals, water features and statues.
Families were picnicking on the day we visited, with children enjoying toy boats and pony rides.
The gardens also contain more Roman antiquities – most notably a temple to Diana and the ancient Tour Magne.
The Tour Magne once formed part of the original fortifications of Nemausus – but today, it is the only piece still standing. The climb to the top of the Grand Tower rewards visitors with spectacular views.
A glass of chilled rosé in the bar situated right beside the temple to Diana was the perfect way to end our day in Nîmes, before we headed back to the station to return to Lyon.
A little further afield – the Pont du Gard
No traveller, particularly one keen to see the wonders of the Roman age, should visit the Nîmes area without visiting the Pont du Gard.
Part of a 50km aqueduct, built in the middle of the first century AD to carry water to Nîmes, the breathtaking three-level Pont du Gard is a monument to the engineering skills of the early Romans.
It is difficult to comprehend the history as you cross the ancient Pont to explore the walking tracks on the other side, but a visit to the on-site museum might help.
All the essential details
Nîmes is very easily accessible by train from Lyon, Marseille and Avignon. Once you arrive, you can get to all the main highlights on foot.
The Nîmes Tourist Office is close to the railway station. You can also also find out more about the Roman sites in Nîmes, as well as buy tickets to the Arena, the Maison Carrée and the Tour Magne from Culturespaces.
The Pont du Gard is 22km from Nîmes and accessible by car or bus. It is open to visitors all year round.
Have you ever visited Nîmes, and were you as impressed as we were? Or have you ever set out for one destination and ended up exploring another? If so, we’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
1, 2, 4 & 5 © Scott Gould.
3. Wiki Commons, via Wikipedia.