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To some, Nimes is considered the gateway to Provence, to others it’s a final destination. In just three hours, from the Gare de Lyon in Paris, you can be surrounded by 2,000 years of history, a lush mélange of Catalan, Roman and French influences.
Originally, Nimes was the center for retired Roman legions that fought under Julius Caesar. It was called Nemausus, after their river god and was located on the Via Domitia, the road that connected Italy to Spain. In the first century A.D. the Pont du Gard was built, an aqueduct bringing over 9 million gallons of water a day from the source of the Eure River across the Gard Valley, to the baths, fountains and prosperous citizenry of Nimes. Just twenty minutes north of the city, the Pont du Gard (added to Unesco’s World Heritage Sites in 1985) is an engineering marvel not to be missed, dropping one inch for every 350 feet of the 31 miles it traverses. Jean Jacques Rousseau, who saw the Pont du Gard in 1737 said, “I was lost like an insect in all that immensity, and yet small as I felt, my soul was uplifted. I wished I could have been born a Roman.”
Another feature that is a source of pride for Nimes is, Les Arènes, the best preserved amphitheatre in the world where gladiators and wild animals thrilled the crowds. Though built in 70 A.D. it is still active today, hosting festivals, rock concerts and Spanish bullfights featuring famed matadors. One of the largest fêtes in Europe, the Pentacost Féria, held in February, celebrates the Nimois’s love of the bullfight and a good party. Over 20,000 people pack the streets for the running of the bulls, then fill the arena to capacity.
The old center of the city is filled with hidden courtyards and classic passageways. Hotels, shops, cafés and restaurants are plentiful and one can easily get lost, as I did. On the Place du Marché I was completely turned around and amused by my lack of direction, but elated to find a delicious cup of coffee across from a fountain notable for its bronze crocodile. The crocodile, (a symbol of Egypt), and the palm tree, (Egypt’s symbol of victory), were given to the Nimois to celebrate their participation in the Roman army’s victory over Marc Anthony at Actium, and these two symbols are proudly displayed throughout the city.
Inspired by the Temple of Apollo in Rome, the Maison Carrée, was built during the reign of Augustus between 2-3 A.D. Its beautiful proportions, elegantly fluted Corinthian columns and carved frieze, influenced Thomas Jefferson to model the Virginia State Capital after it and Guillaume-Martin Coutour to design the Église de la Madeleine in Paris. Professionally cleaned recently, it displays an exhibition illustrating the history of the architecture of the time and is open year round.
A short westward walk from the Maison Carrée, on the rim of the centre ville are Les Jardins de la Fontaine, (Gardens of the Source) a network of pools and stone terraces, a cool place to relax on a hot summer day. Since Nimes is considered one of the hottest cities in all of France, you’ll want to mark these gardens on your map. Constructed in the mid 18th century on the site of Nimes’ fortified ramparts, they are the first public gardens created in the history of France and include the ruins of an ancient sanctuary devoted to the goddess Diana.
Nimes is a city whose width and breath of history is quite diverse. Unbeknownst to most visitors, Nimes is the birthplace of denim, the ubiquitous blue fabric worn today by just about everybody, and reputed to be invented by Levi Strauss. Nimes was the most important textile center in France in the 17th century. Here a rugged, cotton twill textile, called serge de Nimes, was developed and dyed blue with indigo. This fabric was sold to manufacturers in Genoa. The contemporary use of the word “jeans” comes from the French word for Genoa, Gênes. De-nimes, or denim fabric has been popular in America since the late 18th century, when Levi Strauss patented his famous product and coined the words, “blue jeans.”