A First Look at Nîmes

Nimes is a town filled with Roman history. It was one of the richest and most heavily defended cities of the Roman Empire. This was the town I was most excited to see in Southern France. I discovered hotel and Airbnb prices were about the same so I chose to stay in a hotel. I stayed at Appart’City Confort Nimes Arenes.

It was very comfortable and I was able to walk everywhere.  The concierge was very knowledgeable and really gave me an understanding of the city.

The first thing in Nîmes I wanted to do was to see the arena, but before that, breakfast. I found a place in a square next to a statue of a crocodile chained to a column which turned out to be a palm tree. I thought it was strange at the time. Little did I know that it was the symbol of the town. It symbolizes Caesar’s conquest over Egypt. This symbol was everywhere. On the poles that separated the side walks from the streets, on the ground in-between tiles and on every light pole in town. 

I headed to the arena. I bought a ticket for the arena, La Mason Carrée and the Tour Magne, the tower overlooking the town. You can also get these tickets at the tourist office. At the arena I got the listening tour. The tour slowly walked me up to the top of the arena with plenty of time to walk around each level and really take in the view and experience. Each level opened up a better view than the level before.

The Nîmes arena is one of the best preserved Roman monuments. The arena is in such great shape due to it being used constantly for the last 2000 years. After the fall of Rome the Visigoths built a wall around it and put a fortified palace inside. It was also used as an emergency shelter if the town was under attack.  Later on, a small neighborhood including two churches was developed inside. The city began restoring the arena in the later 1700s. To this day, they are still working on it!

In its Roman days the arena was used for gladiator shows as well as showing off new animals and public executions. On one of the levels they put panels with information about all things gladiator. I learned about the gladiator schools that people would attend and the different types of gladiators.History has portrayed gladiator fights as barbaric but it seems that even though they were bloody they were more a fight and spectacle. Each type of gladiator had special weapons and protection and was paired with a different specific type of fighter. Once the fight was at an end the gladiator who was winning would look up at the person in charge, emperor or judge to determine if they should deliver the killing blow or spare the other person’s life. This in itself was a part of the show and the judge would see if the crowd thought they fought bravely and deserved a pardon. Even if the crowd thought the fighter should die they often would be spared. Most gladiators lived. If the judge ruled to kill the gladiator he would have to pay a large sum of money to the school the gladiator came from for the loss of a top fighter. 

A day at the arena would usually consist of showing off new animals that most people had never seen before and they would fight humans. Then the middle of the day would be executions, most of the time defenseless humans and hungry lions. Since everyone sat in class hierarchy the more well off would have servants hold their seats during this part while they could go get lunch from stands outside. Most of them didn’t want to watch this kind of fighting. The real attraction of the day were the gladiator fights after lunch.

These days the arena is used mainly for French bull fights. The bull always lives in these fights. Usually there is something like a ribbon placed between the bull’s horns and the job of the humans is to be the first to retrieve it. It’s also used for concerts and shows.

There’s a room on the ground floor of the arena which had parts of gladiator costumes to see up close and touch.

After lunch I headed to the Maison Carrée. This was the central point of the Roman forum in town. There are sign posts all over town near the different monuments with information about them. I read that La Maison Carrée was a temple dedicated to Emperor Augustus’ grandsons and adopted sons. In the 1700s archaeologists were able to recreate the roman letters that had fallen off the monument. Only the augur and priests were allowed inside. Now the Maison Carrée shows a movie about how Nimes became a rich and prosperous Roman City. 

The basics are that Rome offered protection if the Celtic people of Gaul sent people to fight in the Roman army. A man from Nimes went through the ranks of the Roman army and was able to bring riches back to Nimes. The Romans took interest in the city and eventually built the aqueduct, Pont de Gare, to bring water to the city. The city had fountains and running water even in Roman days.

From La Mason Carrée I walked to the distribution tank that would take the water that came in from the aqueduct and send it through one of the ten pipes into different parts of the city.

My next stop was Musée du Vieux Nîmes. This museum was filled with textiles, old posters, furniture and a few paintings of the town. Nîmes was known for a specific fabric. A thick sturdy fabric that was dyed blue by a local flower. The fabric was known as “Serge de Nîmes” shorted to de Nîmes or denim. 

The museum had plenty of it to show and even had it working together on a loom. They had examples of really detailed work that had been done on socks and gloves as well as fabric swatches from the loom.

On the way to dinner that night I walked past a memorial for WWI and WWII. Also on the route was the Palais of Justice from 1836-1848, and a carousel. After dinner I walked around to see the Arena all lit up and the statue that represents the bull fighters. Nîmes may seem like a small city but there was still more to do over the next few days.

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I am a Special FX Make Up Artist who loves to travel through history.

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