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What the Romans left in Nîmes

A short visit to the southern French city of Nîmes, located in Languedoc just to the west of the Rhône (“lazy, laid-back … a little bit Provençal but with a soul as Languedocien as cassoulet”, according to our guidebook) could not, I felt, pass without visits to the various Roman landmarks that have survived to the present day; the city was founded (under the name of Nemausus) by the Emperor Augustus and there are some very good Roman buildings that the modern-day tourist can visit.

First up was the hilltop Tour Magne, part of the Roman ramparts that surrounded the city; this is reached via an uphill walk through the Jardin de la Fontaine which stands on the site of a spring (the Romans, who loved that sort of thing, built a temple and some baths there). From the outside the tower looks like a ruin, but on the inside there’s a spiral staircase that was built in the nineteenth century to allow visitors to walk up in safety.


Now I have hardly ever encountered a tower I didn’t want to climb and this one was no exception. So I waited my turn in the heat – it being the height of the holiday season, there were plenty of other tourists and as the spiral staircase is rather narrow a ‘one in, one out’ policy was in operation – before ascending for a panoramic view of Nîmes. My ticket, by the way, was a bit of a bargain; for €12, I got a combination one that covered not just the Tour Magne but two other big Roman attractions in Nîmes – the Maison Carée and Les Arènes (had I paid at each of these individually, it would’ve cost €19.50).

Back on ground level and inside the (mostly) pedestrianised old city, I visited the Maison Carée which dates back to around 5 AD and is one of the best-preserved Roman temples in the world. This truly impressive building, fronted by six columns, looks imposing from close up but is surprisingly small on the inside, which nowadays consists of a small cinema which shows a short film every half-hour about Nîmes’s Roman history.

The last and most impressive of Nîmes’s Roman remains was Les Arènes, the amphitheatre around which everything in the city revolves. It’s not just one of the world’s best-preserved Roman amphitheatres, though – it’s still in use, with a capacity of just over 16,000, as a venue for concerts and bullfights (and it’s not the only one, for the slightly less-well-preserved Roman amphitheatre at Arles is also still in use as a venue for similar events). This is why the lower tiers, and some of the higher ones for that matter, are covered with wooden seating – as used by spectators – and accompanying scaffolding. The amphitheatre hasn’t been in continuous use as an entertainment-venue since Roman times, mind you – over the centuries it has seen use as a fortification and it even had a small neighbourhood within its confines (rather like Diocletian’s Palace in Split, I suppose, but on a smaller scale) although that was cleared away in the eighteenth century.

I was highly impressed by the fact that the amphitheatre at Nîmes is still in use (how many Roman buildings are still used for something fairly close to the purpose for which they were originally built?), and I was also impressed by the fact that my combination ticket meant that I could jump the queue. What really impressed me, though, was that unlike (say) the Colosseum in Rome, visitors can explore most of Les Arènes. When it’s open to the public, you can even wander out onto the arena itself (which is lower than street level) as well as climbing the various stone staircases to the top of the highest tier (where there are signs saying that you’re not allowed to walk along the edge, which isn’t fenced off).

I rather like old ruins where you can explore to your heart’s content, and I spent over an hour wandering all over Les Arènes, walking out of the tunnel into the arena and covering the four different tiers of seating (which each have their own systems of exits – vomitoria, the Romans called them – so that the patricians who got to sit at the front didn’t have to rub shoulders with the plebs in the cheap seats higher up), often turning up or down a stone staircase on nothing more than curiosity about which part of the amphitheatre it would lead to.

There’s nothing like a bit of history while on holiday.

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