The architecture of Nimes is a fascinating mix of ancient and modern. Some of the most widespread Roman remains in Europe now stand alongside twentieth century designs by renowned architects like Norman Foster, Jean Nouvel and Philippe Starck.
There is a vitality about Nimes, and for visitors it is the ideal size to explore on foot. The city is home to 2 of the world’s most perfectly preserved Roman monuments both of which should be on any tourist itinerary - the 2,000 year old Maison Carre temple and Les Arenes amphitheatre which seats over 20,000 and is currently used for the city’s celebrated ferias (bullfights).
Nimes is the main centre for traditional bullfighting outside Spain and is particularly full of colour and enthusiasm during the Feria de Pentecote in May. These are also folk festivals with music, processions with dancers and a general party atmosphere. The February Primavera Feria is also carnival time and Feria des Vendanges celebrates the grape harvest in the third week of September.
A revitalised Nimes exhibits great modern buildings such as the Museum of Contemporary Art designed by British architect Norman Foster, alongside shady squares, lively cafes and houses of sixteenth and seventeenth century cloth manufacturers who made the classic denim (de Nimes) exported to nineteenth century America to clothe southern slaves.
Built around 19 BC, this masterpiece of Roman engineering was constructed as an aqueduct to bring fresh water from the River Eure to Nimes. The 50km route across hills, through a tunnel and over rivers includes Pont du Gard’s amazing 3 tiers of arches rising 48m above the river with a span of 275m.
Some stones still bear the initials of the original stonemasons and over the centuries this UNESCO World Heritage Site has drawn craftsmen and tourists alike to admire its fantastic combination of beauty and utility.
The rocky riverbanks are a favourite picnic spot and swimming beneath the arches is popular. Restored in recent years, the bridge now has its own museum, open all year, including a multi-media presentation of Nimes during Gallo-Roman times, and botanical garden which can be visited daily April to mid-October. The Site du Pont de Gard also holds regular children’s activities, exhibitions and heritage days.
This lively little hilltop town lies close to the source of the River Eure which provided fresh water to Nimes via the famous Roman aqueduct crossing the Pont du Gard.
Uzes’s attractive town centre is a protected historical site housing the eleventh century castle of the Dukes of Uzes, home to the premier dukes of France for over 1,000 years; Renaissance Church of St Etienne; and a variety of towers including the windowed Tour Fenestrelle adjoining the Cathedral of St Theodorit and resembling the leaning tower of Pisa.
Protestant Uzes suffered damage during the sixteenth century Wars of Religion but the narrow streets house many fine homes of seventeenth and eighteenth century textile merchants who grew prosperous trading cloth such as serge, for which Uzes is famous.
Browse antique shops and wander boulevards which mark the site of the old city walls. Enjoy a glass of Pastis (made from aniseed) in a shady square or take a leisurely lunch beside the vaulted arcades of place aux Herbes. The Saturday market here - one of the best in the region - is a great place to buy fresh fruit and vegetables in season, truffles, herbs, olives, textiles and ceramics. There are also guided tours of the castle and a variety of summer concerts at Uzes’s Hotel de Ville.
Medieval Sommieres on the River Vidourle 28km from Nimes was once a centre for leather and linen.
Its restored first century Roman bridge crosses the river below the ruined tenth and eleventh century Forteresse Sommieres, built to dominate the only route across the Vidourle from the sea to the Cevennes. The castle’s remaining Bermond Tower is open to the public in July and August and offers fine views. Markets and fairs have been held in Sommieres since the thirteenth century (the present day produce and flea market is on a Saturday) and writer Lawrence Durrell made his final home here from 1966 to 1990.
Imposing Villevieille Castle, on a hillside 3km above the town, is well worth a visit. Created by Bermond d’Anduze in the eleventh century, this historic monument has been owned by the same family for nearly 800 years. View authentic antique furniture, china collection and room decorated in leather. Open every afternoon from May to September, tel: (00 33) 4 66 80 01 62 for more details.
With a name translating as ‘dead waters’ - referring to the surrounding reed-fringed marshes - it’s perhaps no surprise Aigues-Mortes has a sombre history. A sixth century abbey built on Roman remains, it was fortified as a departure port for Crusaders by Louis IX in the thirteenth century.
Tour the ramparts and climb the Constance Tower, once used as a state prison, for atmospheric views across the Petite Camargue and perhaps see pink flamingos. Today, this impressive medieval walled town is land-locked, 5km from the sea, rising hauntingly from the lonely landscape of marshy salt lagoons.
It remains one of the best preserved examples of medieval military architecture in Europe. Leave a couple of hours for a guided tour of the salt works including a trip on the little salt train or open-air bus plus museum, shop and video presentation. Open daily March - October but check www.salins.com as opening hours can change.
Le Grau-du-Roi is a traditional working fishing port facing the modern resort of La Grande-Motte. Watch trawlers unloading their catch on the quay in the late afternoon before being taken to auction. Le Grau-du-Roi also has a beach with good sand, clean water and the pedestrianised streets have a variety of shops and galleries.
Nearby, the sailing resort of Port-Camargue, built in the 1970s, is reputedly the largest pleasure marina in Europe. This sheltered 60 hectare basin has 2105 public and 2242 private berths, electricity and surveillance, 3 wet docks, a wealth of nautical related shops and activities and 3 shopping centres. Serious sailors and would-be boat owners alike can find plenty to stroll around and enjoy in this lush green environment beside the water.
Children will love the giant Seaquarium on the seafront. See otters, seals and turtles plus Mediterranean and tropical fish. Thrill to the shark tunnel and relive the old fishing traditions of Le Grau-du-Roi in the Maritime Museum. Open continuously 10am to 7pm Jan - April and Oct - Dec; and 10am to 8pm May, June and Sept.