To most would-be travelers, the mere mention of “the South of France” conjures up images of Provence with its much photographed back-country hilltop villages, lavender fields and colorful weekly markets. Then there are the sundrenched beaches of the Côte d’Azur (a.k.a. French Riviera) that reach all the way to the Italian border. But this wildly popular, traffic-clogged southeastern corner the country is only half of the South of France story. West of the Rhone Valley, from Nîmes to the Spanish border, the ancient province of Languedoc with its rugged landscapes dotted with prehistoric sites, Romanesque abbeys and medieval villages beckons to an exciting road trip back in time.
Follow the Via Domitia
Some 25 kilometers (15 miles) inland from the western Mediterranean coast, the modern A-9 highway follows the route the ancient Via Domitia, the first Roman road built in Gaul, to link Rome to Hispania. Actually, by the time proconsul Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus came around to pave it and give it his name, the road was already ancient. Old enough that it may have been followed by Hannibal and his famous elephants on their way to the Alps in 218 B.C..
While the legendary Carthaginian conqueror left no concrete signs of his passage, the Roman left us spectacular proofs of theirs. Starting with Nîmes, often hailed as the most Roman city outside of Italy for its spectacular and remarkably well preserved monuments dating back to the Roman Empire. Although the hill that overlooks the city had been the site of the Celtic settlement of Nemausus since the 2nd or 3rd century B.C., it didn’t develop into Nîmes until it became a Roman colony sometimes around 28 B.C., and Augustus made it a regional capital. Before long the city was home to some 50,000 people and the usual Roman construction boom was underway.
Built in the latter part of the 1st century A.D. the Nîmes Amphitheater is a remarkable example of the level of sophistication achieved by Roman engineers in the design and construction of this type of complex monumental buildings. Started shortly after the colossal Rome Coliseum, the Amphitheater is a perfectly symmetrical oval with a footprint of 133 meters (436 feet) by 101 meters (331 feet) and an exterior height of 21 meters (69 feet). The façade consists of two levels of 60 superimposed arches topped by a cornice. In Roman times, it could hold 24,000 spectators spread over 34 rows of terraces divided into four separate areas. Each was accessed via a web of short stairwells and passages designed leading to a main gallery. This alleviated the risk of bottlenecks as the crowds flowed in and out. While massive, this amphitheater is far from the largest of the ones that remain of the Roman world, but it is the best preserved of them all.
For several decades now, following extensive restorations, the venue is once again used for musical events as well as bullfights.
La Maison Carrée
A few minutes’ walk from the Amphitheater, the Maison Carrée (Square House) was built between 20 and 12 B.C. Dedicated to Caius and Lucius Caesar, the heirs of Emperor Augustus, its architecture and decoration were inspired by the temple of Apollo and Mars Ultor in Rome. At the time, it dominated the Forum (the administrative and economic heart of the city). The facade is surrounded by Corinthian columns, six in the front and eleven on each side. Inside, the sanctuary would have housed the divinities – in this case Augustus and heirs.
Over the centuries, the building remained in use, serving successively as consular house, ecclesiastic residence, stable, seat of the departmental statehouse and finally the local archive before it was painstakingly restored in 2006-2008. Today its small interior includes a projection room continuously showing a film tracing the evolution of Nîmes from Celtic settlement to Roman city.
Le Jardin de la Fontaine
One of the first public parks in Europe, the Jardin de la Fontaine was created in the mid-18th century in the classical French style of the time, at the site of an ancient sacred spring honoring Nimes the Celtic goddess Nemausus. The work carried out to dig the vast pond and construct the monumental stairway uncovered vestiges of a Roman temple devoted to Augustus, with a whole ensemble including baths and a theatre.
Set in the far left corner against a densely wooded backdrop, the garden also holds the remains of a gracefully vaulted Roman edifice known as the Temple of Diana, although nothing indicates that it was ever a temple, nor that it was dedicated to Diana. Rather, while its purpose remains unclear, it is supposed it may have been a library.
The upper part of the garden is dominated by the Tour Magne (or Great Tower). Standing at the highest point in the city, it is the only remnant of the ancient Augustan fortifications. It is a steep climb up the hill, but the reward is a superb view over the city and surrounding countryside.
Le Musée de la Romanité
After holding pride of place in the city for two millennia, the Amphitheater must now share the limelight with its new neighbor, the spectacular recentely opened Musée de la Romanité.
Designed by Franco-Brazilian architect Elizabeth de Portzamparc and inaugurated in June 2018, this new Museum of Roman Times bridges the past and the present with its ultra modern design and expansive green spaces. Within its rippling façade made of nearly 7000 shimmering glass tiles intended to evoke the folds of a Roman toga, visitors are immersed into the 25 centuries of history of the city. Of the museum’s rich archeological collection of some 25,000 artefacts, the curators have selected 5,000 pieces to be displayed in their own context for the current “permanent” exhibit, which includes a domus (Roman home), and two exceptionally well preserved room-size mosaics, known as Achilles and Penthus, They were discovered during nearby excavations in 2006-2007, their discovery becoming a major motivating factor in the creation of the museum.
The archeological garden at the rear of the museum is structured in three strata corresponding to the major periods of Nimes: Gallic, Roman and Medieval.
Good to Know
- Getting there – Nîmes is located approximately 725 kilometers (450 miles) south of Paris, and 125 kilometers (78 miles) north of Marseille. By train:there are multiple TGV (high speed train) daily connections between Paris and Nîmes (3 hours travel time), and regular intercity links with Marseille and most main cities in southern France. By car: Nîmes is easily accessible through the French highway system, via Autoroutes A9 or A54.
- Staying –For this first stop of our Languedoc road trip, we stayed at Antichambre 11 Rue Bigot, 30900 Nîmes, a lovely three-bedrooms boutique guesthouse ideally located within easy walking distance for all the sites of interest. The ultra-comfortable, well appointed rooms open onto a private courtyard. Free Wifi and a gargantuan breakfast are included. Caution – do book well ahead as this tiny charmer fills fast. Contact : Tel.+33 (0) 4 66 64 13 43, e-mail.
- Visiting – The Amphitheatre, Maison Carrée and Tour Magne are open daily. However, opening hours vary with the seasons. Details can be found on their website.The Jardin de la Fontaine, Avenue Jean Jaures, Nîmes, is open daily from 7:30 am to 10:00 pm from April through August and 7:30 am to 6:30 pm for the remainder of the year. The Musée de la Romanité 16, boulevard des Arènes, Nîmes, is open Wednesday through Monday, 10:00 am to 7:00 pm from April through August and 10:00 am to 6:00 pm for the remainder of the year. Closed Tuesday, December 25th and January 1st.