Anthony and Cleopatra may never have set foot in Nîmes, but the city’s abundance of crocodiles bears testament to their legacy. Veterans of Augustus’s victory in Egypt settled in Roman Nemausus – and while they didn’t bring actual crocodiles, the colony began minting coins depicting a crocodile chained to a palm tree. In 1535, Roman history afficionado King Francois I granted Nîmes a new coat of arms based on the coin, cementing the icon’s association with the city. Designer Philippe Stark gave the design a modern update in 1985, and today the logo shows up on everything from large fountains to manhole covers. But the best manifestation surely must be the four life-sized stuffed crocodiles hanging from the ceiling of the Hôtel de Ville. Locals today refer to civil marriage ceremonies in the City Hall as “going under the crocodiles.”
Roman history reverberates throughout Nîmes, today dubbed the “French Rome.” Even after the fall of the Empire, the Nîmois never abandoned their aqueduct, arena, or main temple. As a result, these ancient structures are not only exceptionally well-preserved, they’ve also acquired additional layers of history.
After conquering the region’s Celtic tribes, Rome annexed southern France in the second century BCE. The colony of Nemausus remained something of a backwater until the reign of Augustus. After seizing control of Egypt in 31 BCE, the new emperor rewarded his troops with land grants in the area. Once the city began expanding, it needed more water. Romans had already built aqueducts in many of their colonies, but the terrain between springs at the Fontane d’Eure and Nîmes pushed engineers to new levels of ingenuity. The 30-mile (50 km) aqueduct included a section across a gorge now known to the world as the Pont du Gard.
Meanwhile, the city of Nîmes expanded enough to support a full-sized arena for entertainment. Most of the structures remaining from the Roman era, such as the Pont du Gard aqueduct and the Maison Carrée temple, have traditionally been credited to Marcus Agrippa, Augustus’s longtime friend and son-in-law, who visited the area in 19 BCE. Recent excavations, however, date the Pont du Gard no earlier than the reign of Claudius, from 41-54. This means that much of Nîmes was actually built during the tumultuous years after Augustus’s death.
Roman arenas provided a showcase for the bloodier forms of entertainment. Local dignitaries sponsored gladiator contests to gain the goodwill of the masses, even if they preferred to sit in separate areas; Les Arènes held up to 24,000 spectators, with seating following a strict social hierarchy.
At the end of the Roman Empire, locals used the arena to shelter from the hordes of invading Germanic tribes. They fortified it by adding a moat and filling in the arches; two of them have been left as they were in medieval times. In the 12th and 13th centuries, the structure housed a chateau for the counts of Toulouse. Eventually locals moved back in, setting up streets and shops. Over 700 people still lived there in 1768, when the city began buying up properties within the arena walls.
When the last residents finally left in 1812, several decades of restoration work began. Bloody spectacles returned with bullfights in 1839, a tradition which continues today. Les Arènes also hosts concerts and serves as the epicenter of Les Grands Jeux Romains, a series of historic re-enactments and general festivities in early May.
Many Roman provinces worshipped the emperor as well as other deities, and the Maison Carrée was dedicated to Augustus and his descendants. It was probably commissioned by Agrippa, in 19 BCE, and re-dedicated to his sons about 25 years later. The temple was part of the Forum and the center of life in the city. Excavations revealing the foundations of other buildings inspired the bronze circles in the ground, which mark the position of porticoes.
Few Roman structures still possess such intricate ornamentation; everything on the exterior is original except for the portico/porch ceiling.
Unlike most structures in Rome, the Maison Carrée did not fall into disuse upon the collapse of the empire. Most of the time, it was used as a church, but it also functioned as a private residence, hostel, stable, granary, arms depot, government headquarters, and finally an art museum. Not surprisingly, the original interior didn’t survive. For €6, visitors can enter to watch a 23-minute film on the history of Nîmes.
Architect Norman Foster opened the space around the temple when designing the ultramodern Carré d’Art opposite. The latter houses the local library and city archives as well as free art exhibitions, and the restaurant on top offers shade and great views of the Maison Carrée.
Note: carre means “square” in French, and there are several explanations for how this rectangular structure got its name. One theory claims there was no word for rectangle at the time; more plausibly, it could be a reference to the right angles of the walls.
Jardins de la Fontaine
Stroll through the formal 18th-century gardens to access the atmospheric ruins of the so-called Temple of Diana. There’s some confusion about the site’s original purpose. Some say this was a nymphaeum (a sanctuary for nymphs located at a spring) dedicated to the cult of Augustus and his family. Others say the building’s basilica form doesn’t correspond to a temple, and argue that it was a library. No one seems to know where Diana came in. Regardless of its provenance, the structure eventually became a monastery before being abandoned at an unknown date. In 1745 the ruins were excavated and the park created around them. Incidentally, this was France’s first formal public garden.
Rather than being cordoned off, the structures form part of the park. Large pines evoke Rome as well as providing dappled shade. The café in the park along the canal offers a scenic respite.
Other Roman Sites in Nîmes
The Tour Magne (Great Tower) has views from the highest point of the city.
The Castellum Aquae channeled water from the aqueduct to various parts of the city.
The ancient city gate Porte Auguste has original stone arcades plus a statue of the emperor.
The Musée de la Romanite recounts the history of Nîmes from the Iron Age to the present era, and explores how the city’s Roman heritage continues to shape its character. The building façade was designed to emulate the folds of a toga. The restaurant on top, La Table du 2, overlooks the arena and gets good reviews.
The central atrium of the Musée des Beaux Arts has a large Roman mosaic floor.
Pont du Gard
The Pont du Gard remains one of the planet’s most dramatic encounters between human construction and nature. The ancient aqueduct rises from the river to form a line connecting the hills on either side, while its tiered arches frame views of the surrounding landscape. This marvel of Roman engineering has enthralled visitors for roughly 2,000 years, from monarchs such as Louis XIV to Stendhal, who wrote,“As I turn to face the Gard bridge, my soul is thrown into a deep and prolonged sense of astonishment. The Coliseum in Rome never saw me plunge so deeply into such a state of reverie.”
The highest Roman structure and best-preserved aqueduct bridge in the world, the Pont du Gard rewards contemplation. It’s one thing to read that the builders used a nearly infinitesimal slope – 1 to 18,241 – to regulate the water flow; it’s something else to look across the entire gorge and wonder how they measured a drop of less than a toe-length. Or to consider 6-ton (about 5,443 kg, or the weight of several cars) blocks cut precisely enough to hold up through major floods without mortar.
Up close, some of the stones still bear inscriptions with placement instructions and even a few cartoons.
When the Roman Empire collapsed, maintenance on the aqueduct ceased. By the fourth century, mineral deposits and clogging debris stopped the flow of water. It wasn’t long before the structure began to be used as a bridge, with the tolls keeping local nobles prosperous for centuries.
Meanwhile, the Pont du Gard became something of a pilgrimage site. The medieval stonemason’s guild required apprentices to study the structure; carving their initials into the stones became an informal tradition.
The Pont du Gard is one of the most visited monuments in France and a symbol of national pride.
The area teems with hikers, bikers, canoers, and kayakers. Along with paths across and under the structure, the site also features a 2.2 mile (3.5 km) walking trail with panoramic views. The Gardon river shore may be rocky, but there are plenty of little spots along the banks to sit or swim and enjoy the view.
The Office of Tourism sells a “CityPass” which is worthwhile if you plan to visit multiple monuments, including the Pont du Gard. The Practical Information page is extremely handy, especially for transportation to and from Nîmes.
Getting to the Pont du Gard
Although it’s possible to hike or bike to the Pont du Gard, buying a ticket at the main entrance on the road gives access to the comprehensive underground museum. There’s also a shop, cafe, and toilets. The Pont du Gard is included in the Nîmes CityPass (see above).
by car or bus
The Pont du Gard website has driving directions and information about parking, as well as bus timetables. Note that the Avignon-Alès line is faster than the Nîmes-Pont St Esprit. Tickets cost €1.50 each way, and can be purchased on the bus. The stop is “Rond Point Pont du Gard.”
Hikers and bikers can choose from several national trails ranging in difficulty and duration. The regional tourist office sells maps, or you can find trails on independent sites such as alltrails.com or komoot.com.
by kayak or canoe
Multiple companies offer kayak and canoe rental along the Gardon. However, river travel means passing under the aqueduct without stopping, since there isn’t any place to moor boats.
We stayed in the nearby town of Uzès; see our post for more information.