There are countless beautiful towns and cities in Europe and the South of France has some exquisite options for weekend breaks or for those planning something a bit more substantial.
For us we had finished a five month ski season in the French Alps and this was the start of a journey that would take us through the rise and fall of the Roman empire, majestic castles, art galleries galore and delectable delights.
It was nicknamed the ‘art, eating and drinking tour of Europe’ by Henry and he wouldn’t be far wrong.
First stop after contending with the French train strikes was the ‘Rome of France’, the grandiose city of Nîmes. With a beautifully preserved and intact Roman arena and a 2000 year old temple it really is a city of hidden wonders.
Visit the sights…
The centre of Roman Gaul, the city with an accent (î) has an extensive collection of extremely well preserved Roman architecture. It’s also just opened the Musée de la Romanité which is both a modern architectural delight and boasts a magnificent collection of Roman artefacts.
Inside you can discover what life was like in the Iron Age right up to the rise and fall of the Roman empire. There is also a botanical garden which is filled with plants, herbs and trees brought to Gaul by the Romans and The Crusades.
On top of that it even has a restaurant and cafe run by two Michelin star chef Franck Putelat! For history lovers and families this is good way to spend a day.
The top site to visit is Les Arènes, a two tiered ampitheatre which is in such great condition it is still used for concerts and events today. It once sat 24,000 people when it was built for gladiatorial battles and gory public executions.
You can choose to walk around the arena with an audioguide which we wholly recommend as it gives you that history and context. Take a wander down the Roman vomitories (tasty)… or corridors to us and you and take a gander at a gladiators changing room and see how the building evolved over the years to eventually host bullfighting contests.
On top of the arena is spectacular. See in all its splendour the ingenuity of Roman architecture and brilliant 360 views of the city. When we visited they were just about to have a Gladiator re-enactment which we sadly missed but meant they had sand on the arena floor so it looked like the real deal!
The contemporary art museum is also a library with a rooftop restaurant which is a nice stop for a cheeky aperitif. Designed by British designer Sir Norman Foster it is a wonderful glass building with a permanent exhibition and space for temporary ones – this autumn there will be a Picasso exhibition.
Carré d’Art is directly opposite the Maison Carrée (Square House), a rectangular Roman building constructed in 5 AD with perfectly preserved columns on all sides. Inside is a short dramatised film which tells you the history of Nîmes during Roman rule which is interesting enough but won’t be winning any Oscars.
Over by the arena is the Musée des Beaux-Arts which is more Henry’s bag as it contains fine arts and you will find these museums in all French cities. This one in particular has an impressive Roman mosaic – Marriage of Admetus which you can see by standing on the first floor.
So you have art and history covered and all of the above can be done comfortably in two to three days. In between we took the option of a walk through the Jardins de la Fontaine. It’s a sizeable park which sits on a hill with gardens, little walkways and fountains which are more impressive than a Charlie Dimmock water feature.
On top of that gruelling hill (only when it’s 30c and you’re as unfit as us), is the impressive Tour Magne! Trust us this is a view of the city you will want to use those legs muscles for. As we got inside the tower the chap at the door said ‘oh it’s only 140 steps to the top‘ which I told him in jest that that was not what I wanted to hear… BUT what a view!
On a side-note also check out the Temple de Diane which is a ruin by the entrance of the park.
We stayed in an Air BnB accommodation which was owned by a couple who lived in the flat below. It was a gorgeous studio apartment and really not that expensive, especially compared to hotels in the city.
They were full of advice and told us about the food markets held weekly (Friday) on the street leading up to Jardins de la Fontaine and daily within the city. This is of course provincial France so if one thing is certain it’s that the food and wine is sublime!
Find the daily food market in the shopping centre in the old part of the city, not far from the Carre d’art and take some lunch there with a glass of vino. We made our own food most nights, including a Tuscany style rabbit dish which we will include in our food and drink section next week!
We budgeted by choosing one night in each location to treat ourselves and for this we went to Le Carré d’Art restaurant and sat by candlelight under a palm tree in the tranquil terrace area outside. We chose the menu du jour and drank local wine before heading to a jazz bar which had a stock of Scottish whiskies – it was like they knew I was coming!
A great lunch option is the Vietnamese restaurant Hanoi which is owned by a Vietnamese family who run the small eatery themselves making it a warm and lovely place to chill for the afternoon. The food was authentic fare – we had Pho and a Vietnamese salad which wasn’t very pricey and he gave us a shot of sake at the end so happy days.
After spending five days there we also had time to go to the pub and catch some live music. We found an Irish bar that does plenty of gigs throughout the week near Hanoi. The next night we headed to L’instant T to see a French post punk band. A bar crammed with craft beers from all over and a cosy beer garden, it certainly brought us some home comforts!
Shopping is plentiful too, with a labyrinth of back streets to explore with both your high street stores and independent shops. The city has a history in textiles and is where the name ‘denim’ (de Nîmes) comes from – fun fact of the day!
The wonderful thing about being in the South of France is you have the opportunity if you have the time to see surrounding towns and/or attractions.
Just outside of the city is the Pont Du Gard, a Roman aqueduct right in the middle of the Provençal countryside. It’s a UNESCO listed building that stretches over a river, we recommend a picnic on the banks of the river looking onto a structure that has inspired many artists over the years.
If you wish to travel further you can jump on the coastal train to Arles, the town that inspired Vincent Van Gogh and so many of his paintings. Like most important towns during Roman rule, Arles also has a amphitheatre and Roman sites to explore. It’s worth visiting the Fondation Vincent Van Gogh which hosts a couple of exhibitions a year with a Van Gogh theme. It’s worth going even just to see the architecture of this exquisite building!
✈️ How do I get there?
Ryanair do flights from the UK to Nîmes and the train station is really central (and a beautiful building). Once in the city it is really walkable and you won’t need to get much public transport unless you plan a day trip. If you require transportation you can really easily grab taxis anywhere in the city centre.
Yes, you can rent bikes from the train station and take them out for the day – it’s also a really lovely way to see the city.
🏨 Are there hostels in the city?
There didn’t seem to us to be any hostels in Nîmes which is why we switched to Air BnB. Honestly we found that to be the cheapest and best option in terms of having your own bit of space and meeting the locals!
🍷 Is there plenty to do outside of museums?
We would say this small city had plenty to offer, some really lovely sights, museums and lots of culture to boot. It is a small city but it definitely had a nightlife, plenty of restaurants and bars/live music.
🎟️ Any tips for tourist attractions?
You can get a pass that gives you access to the amphitheatre, Maison Carrée and Tour Magne for a relatively cheap price and it’s worth getting to save you the hassle of buying individual tickets.