48 Hours In Nimes

Nîmes is much more than the birthplace of blue jeans. Hilary Macaskill enjoys bullfights where the bulls win, and a wealth of history including the best-preserved Roman amphitheatre in the world
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The Independent Travel



To see Nîmes in festive mood with food, drink and dancing on the streets during the ferias of 17-19 September and 9-10 October. Much is based on the local tradition of bullfighting, but in the courses camarguaises (tests of skill between bull and man), the bull is not killed and often ends up as the victor. The main focus of activity is the Arènes, the 1st-century amphitheatre, reckoned to be the best preserved of the Roman world. Now is a good time to see it in all its 60-arched glory, before the winter canopy is installed in late October.


Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies twice a day from Stansted until January, when the route switches to Luton. The airport is 12km away, with a bus link at €4.30 (£3) to the city centre. Or you can go from London Waterloo or Ashford on Eurostar (08705 186 186; www.eurostar.com) to Lille or Paris, then take a TGV. This arrives at the elegant station near the centre of Nîmes. Fares from £109 return.


The roughly triangular heart of Nîmes is bounded by the Roman ruins of Porte Auguste in the north-east, Porte de France and the Arènes in the south and, in the north-west, the magnificent Maison Carrée. This is the startlingly well-preserved Roman temple with its Corinthian columns, which has remained intact because it has been in nearly constant use as residence, church, stable, archive storage facility and now a simple museum of artefacts. Across the square is the equally striking glass and steel Carré d'Art, housing a library and art gallery, that was designed by Norman Foster to echo the lines of the Maison Carrée.

Walking the narrow shady streets within this area, dotted with medieval or Renaissance façades, allows you occasional glimpses of interior courtyards. Look out for the brass-coloured discs designed by Philippe Starck that are set in the pavement. These depict the city arms of a crocodile chained to a palm tree - to celebrate the defeat of Mark Antony and Cleopatra by the Emperor Augustus, who rewarded his legionaries with land in Provence.

The tourist office is at 6 rue Auguste (00 33 4 66 58 38 00; www.ot-nimes.fr). It opens 8.30-7pm during the week; 9-7 Saturday, 10-6 Sunday.


The New Hotel La Baume at 21 rue Nationale (00 33 4 66 76 28 42; www.new-hotel.com) occupies a 17th-century mansion. Double rooms start at €120 (£84). Breakfast, served at wrought-iron tables in the courtyard, costs an extra €10 (£7) per person. Rooms at the more modest Hôtel l'Amphithéâtre, at 4 rue des Arènes (00 33 4 66 67 28 51), start at €37 (£26) up to €61 (£43); breakfast costs an extra €6 (£4.20). The place to be at festival time is the Hotel Imperator Concord on Quai de la Fontaine (00 33 4 66 21 90 30; www.hotel-imperator.com). Around 45 minutes before the bullfights, fans gather in its splendid 1930s hall to see the matadors descend in the Art Deco lift, and then follow them down to the amphitheatre. Rooms start at €111 (£77) including breakfast.


The idlest and most hedonistic way is to take the glass-sided lift at the Carré d'Art up to Le Ciel de Nîmes (00 33 4 66 36 71 70; open 10am-1am; Sundays 10am-6pm). Enjoy a pamplemousse pressé on the terrace while gazing over the tiled roofs of Nîmes and up through the trees to the Tour Magne, one of the original 80 Roman towers surrounding the city. Another good vantage point is the top tier of the Arènes. It opens 9am-7pm daily until the end of October, after which the hours are 10am-5pm. Admission is €4.65 (£3.30). From here you can get an idea of the medieval town layout, reduced from the much larger Roman settlement.


Climb through pine, cypress, boxwood and bay trees on Mont Cavalier to the octagonal Tour Magne and get another view: on a clear day you can see over to the Alpilles. It opens 9am-7pm until October, after which the hours are 10am-5pm; admission is €2.50 (£1.10). Or take a gentle stroll to the Castellum, the great tank that gathered the water brought along the 50km aqueduct from springs near Uzès via the Pont du Gard, with its three tiers of arches.


For a pleasant al fresco meal in a creeper-covered alley, try Chez Jacotte at 15 rue Fresque (00 33 4 66 21 64 59). Les Halles is the market; it opens at 7am every morning of the year and sells local olives, tapenades, cheeses, brandade (pâté made of salt cod), sausages and fruit. Alternatively, head for the splendid bakery at La Maison Villaret at 13 rue de la Madeleine, close to Place d'Horloge and buy savoury tarts or the local speciality biscuits, croquants.


Though denim ("de Nîmes") is no longer made in or around Nîmes, Provençal prints, based on imported Indian designs, are. Les Indiennes de Nîmes at 2 Boulevard des Arènes has a wide range that are used for clothes and home furnishings (00 33 4 66 21 69 57) and is open on Sundays during feria.


Chronologically, you should start at the Archaeological Museum, at 3 Boulevard Amiral Courbet (00 33 4 66 76 74 80). Sited in a former Jesuit college, its cloisters jammed with Roman statuary, it opens 10am-6pm daily except Monday; admission is free. Then visit the Museum of Old Nîmes, in the old Bishop's Palace in Place aux Herbes (00 33 4 66 76 73 70). It explains the history of denim, which originated here in the once-flourishing textile industry. It opens 10am-6pm daily except Monday; admission is free. But Nîmes' newest museum - opened in 2002 - is the Musée des Cultures Taurines at 6 rue Alexandre Ducros (00 33 4 66 36 83 77). It is the only bullfighting museum in France, and traces the history of bull-focused festivals from bull-running to bullfighting throughout the world. It is open daily 10am-6pm except Monday; and is open until 10pm on days of bullfighting events; admission €4.65 (£3.30).


On the days of Spanish bullfights or courses camarguaises, aficionados gather at the Bar de Trois Maures in Place des Arènes. Otherwise, the pavement tables of Café Carrée in the corner of Place de la Maison Carrée are the place to see life - including break-dancing practice on the steps of the Carré d'Art. The local, well-regarded, tipple is Costières de Nîmes - or Perrier, the springs for which are a few miles away at Vergèze.


Le Bouchon et l'Assiette is away from the centre at 5 rue de Sauve (00 33 4 66 62 02 93), but is worth the extra effort for a meal in an elegant room with prettily displayed food: the cheapest menu, at €25 (£17) is a gourmet's delight. On the other side of town at 1 rue Poise is Nicolas, a large mirrored, down-to-earth restaurant (00 33 4 66 67 50 47) with tasty food and menus from €12 (£8.50).


The most interesting church visually is St Paul's, a neo-Byzantine structure on Boulevard Victor Hugo, with paintings by Hippolyte Flandrin, a pupil of Ingres. But for a good service go at 10am to the Cathédrale in Place aux Herbes. Its plain Gothic style dates from the 19th century, though it has, at the back, an elaborate Baroque chapel saved from an earlier incarnation.


A tourist train taking in the sights departs once an hour from the Esplanade behind the Arènes; in September and October it runs from 10.30am-11.30am and 2.30-5.30pm. The 35-minute trip costs €5 (£3.50).


Five minutes' walk from Maison Carrée is, historically, one of the most important area of Nîmes - the Jardins de la Fontaine. Here is the "cradle of Nîmes": a 17m-deep pool over a spring. When it rains hard locals often gather there to see the water surging up. The Romans built the Augusteum here, a shrine to the spring, and the Temple of Diana. In the 18th century this became one of the first public parks in France, landscaped with gracious flights of steps and balustrades adorned by Carrera marble vases and nymphs.


For nourishing fast food try the quiches, salads and home-made puddings (each around €5 or €6; £3-4) at Salé Sucré, the cafeteria of the Semaphore Cinema at 25 rue Porte de France (00 33 4 66 67 83 11; www.lesemaphore.fr.st) - and take in a film, too. Opposite the Cathedral is O-delices, at 2 Place aux Herbes (00 33 4 66 36 11 16), whose specialities are savoury and sweet tarts, crammed with fruit.


Throughout the year there are courses camarguaises, where "the bulls are the professionals": their names are the headline attractions on the posters. The idea is for the runners, called raseteurs, to hook off the portions of yellow string wound round the bull's horns - and then to run and leap over the barricades to escape the bull. The final of the Trophée des As is on 10 October. At other times (not Sundays) go to La Talequille, 54 Rue Porte de France (00 33 6 18 40 14 14) where for 25 years Julio Belles has been making exquisitely worked costumes, from caped coats for the horsemen of the Camargue to jackets for matadors.