September 20, 2013

Two days in Nimes history

A view of the Roman tower ... from inside the Roman arena

Nimes is an old city, where I have spent the past 2 days largely (as regular readers will guess) discovering its history .... which is fascinating, because Nimes has some of the best preserved Roman sites in France, was built on the site of a pre-existing Celtic town, and is graced by Renaissance and later architecture. From the top of the Roman arena, you can see the Roman tower.

I say mostly, because yesterday I accompanied Gerry Patterson to Aigues Morte, where he delivered the Tootlepedals' baggage. We stopped at St. Gilles on the way back, a town much larger than I anticipated, located on the Chemin de Compostelle with an old, partly destroyed church, which still has an extraordinary portico. From time to time I try to learn the iconography of medieval religious imagery, but somehow I never retain it. I do, though, always find images like the second one below reasonably terrifying. Art of that era was used as a teaching tool, I wonder what the monsters devouring human figures teach.

The facade of the church at St. Gilles remains from its 12th century origins

What story is this teaching?

But back to Rome, and contemporary Nimes. First I visited the arena, which seats close to 25,000 people, built at the end of the 1st century, during the reign of Emperor Augustus. More on him later ... It was then used for gladiator fights (a type of sports, like martial arts) and executions. Perhaps 500 hundred years later, it served as a fort, to shelter residents when the city was under attack; then another 600 years later residents built their houses inside the arena, and it actually was the village. Today it is not only a major tourist attraction, but is used for modern spectacles including bullfighting. Stupidly, I do not have a photo from outside.

Bullfights were held here just the week before I arrived.

Typical view of the walkway around the inside of the Arena. Access to the arena itself is up the steps to the right.

From the Arena I went straight to La Maison Carrée, built again in about the 1st century, as a temple to Emperor Augustus' family. It is unusually well preserved ... partly because it has, generally speaking, been in continuous use since it was built. It has variously served as a city governmental building, private residences, a church, administrative offices and museum. The outside is gorgeous. Unhappily the inside has absolutely no flavor of the building's history, serving now as a small auditorium in which a brief film explaining parts of Nimes history is shown. I was grateful that the film was short.

La Maison Carrée

Ceiling of the patio of the Maison Carrée.

Today I headed to Jardins de la Fontaine, recommended to me by a staff person at Montcaret, now more than 2 weeks ago. It is a complicated garden, where the visitor is first aware of the classically proportioned 18th century garden, with its staircases, fountains and sculpture relocated from Montpellier.

The gardens at Nimes

It is on the site of a Roman Augusteum, a sort of sanctuary dedicated to Augustus. It is not known for certain, but the building we know as the Temple of Diane may have been a library; it is known that it has no relation to Diane, goddess of the hunt. It is surely a sweet, romantic little building.

The Temple of Diane, perhaps originally used as a library.

There was also a theater (not now existent) and a complicated engineering of pools, and I think canals, based on a famous spring. The water from the spring forms an enclosed basin, today with swans, passes under a bridge, around all four sides of a large square garden, goes underground, and reemerges as canals and fountains.

Pools in the garden

The water goes under the structure on the left

Above the pools

And the water continues to these canals

At the top of the hill, the Romans built La Tour Magne. Again, its original purpose is lost to history. Many modern scientists believe that it was built as a show of Roman force. The tower is 36 meters (120 feet) tall, and was built by the Romans in about -15. From the top I could see Mont Ventoux. Perhaps someday I will ride up that legendary mountain.

The Roman Tower

View of Mount Ventoux from the Tower

The first known people residing here were proto-historic Celts, in about -400. They had built a dry stone tower that the Romans built their tower right over. Only traces of the older one remain. Those same Celts worshiped (amongst their gods) Nemoz, the god of the very spring which the Romans made the central part of their augusteum. A complicated garden, with its palimpsest of history.
After lunch I searched out the gate into the Roman city from Arles, known as the gate of Augustus. The wall encircling the city was something like 7 kilometers long, with multiple gates, of which this is the most famous. The wall was used more to define city limits than as protection.

A section of the remaining Roman wall, at the gate of Augustus.

That wasn't the end of my day learning Nimes history, but this is now the end of my day writing about it, so I bid you goodnight.



  1. Bonjour, je ne suis pas dépaysé, mais c'est avec beaucoup de plaisir que je parcours ces cartes postales.

    1. Bonsoir Jean-Jacques,

      Tu peux imaginer que je pensais à toi et Chantal, deux gentils Nimoises, quand j'étais à la belle ville Nimes! Merci pour le commentaire!

  2. So beautiful...thanks for the history lesson.

    1. And for me, I am glad you are out there...though I often would have preferred your wheels were rolling near mine!

  3. I agree with Double J. I take great pleasure in reading your posts. Les Jardain de La Fontain est tres beaucoup. Merci, Again, what can I say but Thanks for sharing. See you soon. Safe trip.

    1. Merci Marguerite! You would I think like Nimes and its garden! Et comme toujours, the thanks go to you for reading and taking the time to comment, I appreciate it! À mercredi.

  4. It was a pleasant surprise to meet you on the road. Your photographs have done Nimes proud

    1. Pleasant for me too. Thank you for the words on my photos, especially nice to hear from you who takes such magnificent mages!


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