ARLES IS CHARMING, funky and a bit rundown. Nearby Nîmes, on the other hand, which I visited for a few hours Saturday afternoon, is elegant and polished. That was a surprise when I stepped out of the train station after a half-hour trip from Arles. I literally gasped when I saw the broad boulevard ahead, lined with handsome 19th century limestone buildings with wrought iron balconies, and enlivened by the play of water in a series of pools and fountains. Was I in Provence or Paris? (Actually Nîmes is in Languedoc, but often considered part of Provence.)
The sense of being in an utterly different, very sophisticated environment continued when I reached the traffic-free streets of the old city and saw the sidewalk brasseries with potted palms and red awnings.
But the main attraction of Nîmes is not its classy shops or its Beaux Arts uniformity — it’s the 1st century Roman amphitheater, below, so well-preserved it most definitely cannot be called a ‘ruin.’ It, and Nîmes’ Maison Carrée (Square House), an “imperial cult” temple where emperors were worshipped like gods, may be the most intact ancient Roman buildings anywhere, the Maison Carrée second only in quality to the Pantheon in Rome.
I visited the magnificent arena – so well preserved because it was used as a fortress, with homes built inside, during the Middle Ages. Napoleon began clearing the homes and restoring the momument in 1809. I climbed to nosebleed level for the view. Here in France, audioguides (in a variety of languages) seem to be included with the price of admission, and I listened with horror as the recording detailed the brutality that went on here in the name of entertainment – mostly spectacles involving man (some professional, some involuntary) and beast. “Pure murder,” in the words of the audioguide. While people and animals were dying in the oval of sand below, spectactors (some 24,000 of them) chatted, gossiped, and came and went to food and drink concessions.
The stunningly classical Maison Carrée, above, on a square that also includes Norman Foster’s contemporary art museum, has been sealed up on three sides and turned into a 3-D film theatre for something approximating “The Nîmes Experience.” I skipped it and enjoyed what may be the last fine afternoon for a while.
The sky was beauteous, as skies in this region are said to be because of the mistral, the wind that funnels down the Rhone and keeps the air clear and dust-free. I haven’t felt much wind, but this time of year, there are often rains, which are in the forecast for the next few days. I can’t complain, as my weather luck has been outstanding thus far, but it looks like my travel to Nice today and my time there may be sans sunshine.