Nîmes: Built by the Romans

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Nimes Arena; photo courtesy of Office of Tourism

I don’t know if I would have gone for the cheap seats at the Nîmes Arena, a smaller-scale version of Rome’s Colosseum that dates to the end of the first century. The climb up the steep steps seemed downright scary, although the view of the gladiators would have been impressive.

The presence of the majestic Arena in this small city in Provence helps explain why locals have dubbed it “the Rome of France.”

Maison Carrée; photo by Nicole Pensiero

Maison Carrée; photo by Nicole Pensiero

The Arena, along with a temple in the center of Nîmes that’s even older, are part of the physical evidence remaining from ancient Rome’s conquest of what was then called Gaul. The temple –– known as the Maison Carrée, and considered a cousin of Rome’s Pantheon –– now gleams, thanks to a careful, four-year restoration to reverse decades of damage from frost and pollution.

Perhaps most impressive of these ancient remnants is the Pont du Gard aqueduct, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The 31-mile long structure, which was built by the Romans to carry water from a spring at Uzès to Nîmes, is the highest of such Roman bridges and one of the best-preserved.

These ruins have fared better than some of their more famous counterparts in Rome in part because they have had to adapt with the times. The Arena is used today for concerts and shows, while the Maison Carrée over its long history has been re-purposed into everything from a church to a municipal building to an archive during the French Revolution to an art gallery.

Naturally, Nîmes’ city emblem –– a crocodile tied to a palm tree –– also reflects its Roman ties. The quirky image, which can be found on a prominent fountain in the center of town and in small, bronze medallions imbedded in sidewalks, references its role as a popular retirement spot for Roman officers who conquered Egypt in 31 B.C. The crocodile represents Egypt, and the palm tree stands for victory. The modern-day version, which was re-imagined by designer Philippe Starck, now decorates many a T-shirt and tchotchke.

If all this Roman history seems too long ago to grasp, Nîmes boasts a fashion claim that seems more relevant than an ancient toga: The city in the early 19th century was the birthplace of denim –– as in “de Nîmes.”