Nîmes, France: Can I Have a Raincheck, Si’l Vous Plaît?

I wanted to like Nîmes. I really did. The day before, my traveling buddy Melissa and I had made a daytrip from Avignon in southern France to the neighboring city of Arles, famous for its Roman monuments and twice-weekly market. Rain showers in the morning gave way to late-winter sunshine in the afternoon that illuminated the Roman arena and theater that once again host shows and performances, as they did 2,000 years ago.

Enter Nîmes, another mid-sized southern French city bestrewn with Roman ruins. Pronounced “neem” [nim], this city was high on my bucket list for its Maison Carrée, an exquisitely-preserved Roman temple, and its Arènes, or Roman amphitheater. But frustrating our daytrip plans were the relentless winter rains; we felt as if we had simply caught Nîmes on a bad day, when all it wanted was to hide in bed with a good book and a cup of tea.

Nevertheless, after our high-speed train pulled into a grand, two-story train station that dates back to the 1840s (!), we opened our umbrellas and set out along a wide, tree-lined boulevard toward the first stop of the day: the amphitheater.

Les Arènes de Nîmes: the Roman amphitheater

Nîmes, France
Outside the amphitheater

Like its counterpart in nearby Arles, the Roman amphitheater of Nîmes was originally constructed about two millennia ago to serve as a stadium of sorts for gladiator fights and other gruesome Roman spectacles. When the Empire fell apart, leaving Roman Nemausus vulnerable to Visigothic, Moorish, and later Frankish attacks, the amphitheater turned into a castle, which turned into a neighborhood, which turned into the bullfighting ring we see today, used during the annual Féria de Nîmes festival.

Nîmes, France
The restored bullring

One of the best preserved amphitheaters in the former Roman world, Nîmes’ arena (from the outside, at least) still looks very much the same as it would have in Roman times, with two levels of arched windows running around the entire perimeter. Inside, most of the original seating is gone, replaced with modern metal grandstands. The organization that runs visits here has an excellent audioguide that really brought the crumbling, blackened stones back to life…even if it annoyed me having to juggle an umbrella, a camera around my neck, and a handheld audioguide player.

Nîmes, France

La Maison Carrée: the Roman temple

Nîmes, France
The temple

A couple summers ago I watched the video lectures from Ohio State University’s History of Architecture I via iTunes U to brush up on the styles of western architecture and the vocabulary that goes along with it. I was really just concerned with being able to distinguish my Romanesque from my Renaissance, but throughout the course of the summer I was introduced to countless masterpieces like the Pazzi Chapel in Florence and the church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane in Rome, both of which I was able to see in person that Christmas. One of these significant buildings that the professor spent a lot of time on was the Maison Carrée of Nîmes, literally the “square house” since this Roman temple’s walled-off sanctuary takes that shape.

Nîmes, France
Check out the fluting on those columns!

It’s truly mind-blowing how well-preserved this building is, from the delicate Corinthian column capitals to the intact roof. Although the temple wasn’t as impressive in overcast skies as pictures had made it out to be, it still was eerie climbing up ancient steps, placing my hand into the carved ridges of column fluting, and passing through a larger-than-life doorway into the sanctuary. Oddly enough, the interior had been converted into a small movie theater where they showed a short film reenacting the founding of the Roman colony in Nîmes.

Nîmes, France
I believe the coffered ceiling is a re-creation

Getting rained out in the old town

Nîmes, France
Street art of a bullfighter

Melissa and I left Nîmes feeling stymied: the steady showers and cold weather kept us dashing from covered patio to covered patio, the short winter daylight meant major touristy sights closed at 5pm, and since it was a Sunday almost all shops and restaurants were shuttered. Even the cathedral was closed!

Nîmes, France
Rainbow over the main square

Thankfully for lunch we found one of the handful of restaurants open that day and cozied up at a table next to the kindest middle-aged French couple who chatted with us (in English!) briefly as we were about to head out. Although it was still pouring rain outside on what would any other day be a small plaza brimming with patio seating, Melissa and I took comfort in the quiet, heated interior and our reasonably-priced formule set menu, which was unrushed, made from scratch, and delicious.

On our way back to the train station, we just so happened to walk by a pastry shop in the old town that had been open since 1775—Maison Villaret. So of course we had to peek in to pick up some macarons. Nîmes at least left a sweet taste in our mouths on the way back to Avignon.

Have you ever left a city wanting more, wishing you could go back for a do-over? Tell me down below in the comments section!

Nîmes, February 15th, 2015

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