Rebirth of a Roman city

Nimes, a dull, dusty provincial town until 20 years ago, has been revived by a partnership between Sir Norman Foster, architect, and mayor Bousquet, head of a fashion house.

Nigel Williamson
Tuesday 29 July 1997 23:02

On the road to Nimes from the direction of Montpellier there is one of those brown French autoroute signs that denote places of special interest. Above the words "Nimes - cite romaine" there shimmers on the horizon the city itself, a futuristic landscape of towering white skyscrapers.

The image perfectly sums up this jewel in the crown of the French Midi, for Nimes is home to some of the best preserved Roman antiquities in the world and also some of the most exciting modern architecture in southern Europe. Although the marriage has at times been controversial, the town carries off this unlikely union with panache, style and an extravagant joie de vivre. Add to that the traditional regional virtues of sun, pastis and relaxed boulevard cafes, as well as some of the best travel connections with Paris in the whole of southern France, and you begin to wonder just why neighbouring Avignon and Aix-en-Provence are more familiar to British tourists.

Any visit to Nimes should begin in the broad square, where sits the remarkable Maison Carree. The tourist information office is also conveniently located here, but the leaflets can wait while you wonder at this small but perfectly formed Roman temple, built by Agrippa in the first century BC.

From a distance you think it must be a replica. The building is raised above the surrounding square on a huge podium, and it is almost impossible to believe that the Corinthian columns of its entrance, and the inner sanctum, can have been so perfectly maintained over 2,000 years. Today it houses a small museum. Louis XIV wanted to dismantle it and resite it at Versailles, but couldn't find an architect to rival the skills of the Romans and reassemble the building in its original glory.

One who thought he could match the Romans is the British architect Sir Norman Foster. Many were appalled when plans were laid for Foster's first commission in France, the Carre d'Art, a modern palace of glass and steel only a spear's throw from the Romans' exquisite stone temple. Today almost everyone admits that the result is bold, brave and imaginative. Long after you have become familiar with the spectacle, the heart still misses a beat at this juxtaposition of old and new.

When the light falls in a certain direction the Corinthian columns are perfectly reflected in Foster's glass facade, a thrilling counterpoint of ancient and modern. The new building contains an art gallery and a library, and inside even the wide, expansive staircases are of glass, creating a contemporary temple of light and space. A bistro on the top floor offers a spectacular view over sprawling, red-tiled roofs, and you feel you are at the very heart of a great city, proud of its tradition but optimistically anticipating its future.

It was not always so. We have been spending summers in the area en famille for 20 years, and when we started our annual visits Nimes was a dusty, neglected, provincial town. The key to its vibrant transformation is to be found on the other side of the square from the Carre d'Art, where the designer fashion house Cacharel enjoys a prime retail location. In 1983, Nimes elected as mayor Jean Bousquet, the head of Cacharel. Bousquet immediately earmarked a large chunk of the town's budget for cultural projects, and since his election he has energetically pursued a development plan as flamboyantly stylish as his designer clothes. Critics have denounced it as megalomania, supporters have hailed it as the inspiration of a visionary; when the Carre d'Art opened in 1993 we signed up instantly to the later faction.

Bousquet has also overseen the restoration of the formerly run-down old town, the narrow streets of which were once the elegant houses of textile merchants (denim - de Nimes - was first manufactured here and exported) and are now a traffic-free area of chic shops and restaurants. The French architect Philippe Starck has renovated the hotel de ville, and there are more projects on Sir Norman's drawing-board.

The Roman legacy has left Nimes several other fine monuments. Les Arenes is the best preserved of the Roman world's 70 surviving amphitheatres, another structure that has survived because constant use has never allowed it to decay. At one time more than 2,000 people lived within the arena's walls, a town within a town, but today it is home to the corrida, for Nimes is the passionate capital of French bull-fighting. The bulls are bred in the Camargue, a short drive to the south, and the annual festival in May attracts the world's top matadors and more than 20,000 spectators a day to the amphitheatre where Christians and lions were once the standard entertainment. These days it is the beasts which come off worse.

The beautifully laid out 18th-century Jardin de la Fontaine contains the Temple of Diana and the octagonal, 100ft-high Tour Magne, another remarkably well-preserved antiquity, which is said to be the oldest Roman monument in France. Mystery surrounds its original purpose.

When you are sated with Nimes' architecture ancient and modern, a short drive will take you to the Pont du Gard, the dramatic Roman aqueduct spanning the river Gardon which brought water to Nimes from a spring near Uzes, some 30 miles to the north. This summer part of it has been obscured by scaffolding as repairs are conducted to the aqueduct's upper reaches, but it remains a stunning spectacle as it cuts through the rough moorland of the garrigue before emerging to soar loftily 170ft above the river, borne on a series of magnificent, 2,000-year-old pillared arches. It is one of those unforgettable sights that conjure up the words of Shelley's Ozymandias: "Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!" Not even Sir Norman Foster and mayor Bousquet have yet come up with a scheme to rival itn

Nimes notes

Getting there: The closest airport to Nimes with direct services from Britain is Montpellier, served daily by British Airways (0345 222111) from Gatwick. The lowest August fare is pounds 230.50 return.

Eurostar (0345 303030) has a pounds 109 return rail fare from London to Nimes (and Avignon, Montpellier, Nice and Toulon), changing at Lille or Paris.

To qualify for the lowest fare by air or rail, conditions are the same: you must book a week in advance and stay over a Saturday night.

The lowest fare on Eurolines (01582 404511) is pounds 116 return.

More information: French Government Tourist Office, 178 Piccadilly, London W1V 0AL (0171- 499 6911).

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