Last year we spent a week in Provence because our Paris apartment wasn't available when we needed it. We got an adequate apartment in Avignon because it and Arles were the cities that Rick Steves told us to stay in. We chose Avignon because it was larger and less “gritty” according to him. My daughter's boss however said she liked Nimes best and we probably should have listened to her as we'd find out later it was our favorite.
As a repeat from last year our Paris apartment wasn't ready again so we decided to introduce my mother to Europe with a week in Nimes in the Languedoc region. It feels like Provence though as it's right on the border and no more than a 30 minute train ride from the most popular Provencal cities. Since we'd spent a day there we familiar with the layout of the city and found a house fairly near the train station and the center of town.
The house had two bedrooms, a large kitchen, a back yard with patio and bbq and a large front room. The most impressive characteristic though was the beautiful tiled floors that stayed cool all day long in the very hot summers of southern France. Coming from Seattle where the summer temps rarely break 25 degrees Celsius (77 F) we immediately had to acclimate to 34-37 degrees (93-99 F). Having a cold tiled floor helped out a lot as did brilliant metal shutters.
Sometimes while traveling you see something and wonder why we don't have the same thing back home and metal shutters are one of those things. Metal shutters are a lot like having garage doors on your windows. Too much heat or light? Just flip the switch and down comes the shutters which have holes in them to let light in. At the very last minute they flip over and all light is gone. Not only do they keep out the heat but they'll make room pitch black in a hurry. In the morning we'd close the eastern shutters and in the evening the western shutters. At noon all windows were open to let the breeze flow through. They're brilliant to be honest. I'm not sure they offset not having screens on the windows as we would in the states. Screenless windows are a strange European oddity. We asked our French friend why they never have screens on the windows and he replied “Screens? What are screens?”. After explaining that they keep the bugs out he told us they just didn't open the windows. Problem solved. So they get awesome metal shutters and we get screens. I'd like to know why we can't have both.
I haven't mentioned until now that I hurt my back a week leading up to our flight. I was in so much pain that I visited two different chiropractors, a medical doctor and a massage therapist. The chiropractors cracked and popped, the massage therapist made my muscles ache and the doctor prescribed pain medicine and muscle relaxers. Up until the start of our vacation I was speedballing Tylenol and Ibuprofen until I found myself on my hands and knees at work trying to figure out why the room was spinning when I remembered my ulcer. My ulcer from a year previous was caused by excessive ibuprofen intake. I hadn't had any problems and had forgotten about it. My prescribed meds allowed me to forego the ibuprofen which calmed the ulcer down. Just for backup we also bought Tylenol with Codeine at the pharmacy in Vancouver since you can do that over the counter without a prescription in Canada. It didn't take a mathematician to realize at my current rate of drug ingestion I'd run out before our 10 week trip was over if my back didn't improve so I resorted to laying on that cold tile floor. It was hard but it doubled as a pain killer. I have fond memories of those tiles... Ah, the nights we spent together.
Nimes is a town dating back to 28 BC when it became a Roman village. It's actually older than that and existed as a Celtic village but most of that history is lost with only names and parts of a tower remaining. As a reward for the Celtic tribe in residence helping the Romans conquer Gaul they sent a chest of money to the area to build up the Roman city of Nimes. Nimes has several Roman buildings that are in pretty good shape. The Nimes Arena still hosts concerts and bull fights and part of the old Roman forum is in excellent shape and is now the Maison Carree museum. An ancient Celtic worshiping location was built upon by the Romans and is currently a city park. In the park is what they call The Temple of Diana and was in fact not a temple but another Roman building - perhaps a library or some other use.
Nimes is a different type of city than Avignon, Arles and Orange. All three of those are heavily touristed. Rick Steves downplays Nimes quite a bit in his guidebooks. Even though NImes has 150,000 people, has amazing Roman ruins and Avignon is smaller with only a papal palace from the 1400s it is only listed as being “near Avignon” and he doesn't even give Nimes it's own section in his Provence guidebook. This is a bit odd and helped convince us last year to not stay in Nimes. I'm not sure why this anomaly exists but there's a hint in his guidebook when he says the people of Nimes has other industries and are quick to remind you that they don't need tourism. Perhaps they refused to give him kickbacks so he refused to promote the city. I'm sure we'll never know but take it from me, Nimes is the nicer of the four cities and I recommend it.
Accommodations in Nimes are also cheaper than in Avignon as well. We paid $100 a night for a quasi-two bedroom apartment in Avignon and $68 a night for a real two bedroom in Nimes. I say quasi-two bedroom for Avignon because really it was a studio apartment with sliding wood shutters to divide the bed from the living room with an attached room across the public hall. The house in Nimes ihad two full sized bedrooms rooms, a full kitchen and cost much less. I can't say that all apartments go for this but for us it was much cheaper.
One of the big draws of Nimes is the Roman Arena, one of the few left in the world that's complete and still being used. We did not get to go inside the Arena as there was a concert going on but we'd seen the inside of the Arles Arena last year so it wasn't a big deal although we had planned on entering it. We bought the combined Mason Carree, Les Arenes, and Tour Magne pass and were not informed that only two of the three were even accessible. We broke even on the pass but it would have been nice to know we couldn't get into the arena before purchasing it.
While we were in Nimes there were no less than three concerts in the arena. Not only is the arena in great shape but it's still being used today which is incredible considering it's nearly 2000 years old. At night we'd sit outside the arena and listen to music for free.
The Maison Carree is the only remaining building of the old Roman forum and it too is in great shape. Inside we took respite from the heat and watched a video about the history of Nimes. Outside there was a craft market in the area of the forum. Only in France could you have a French cafe, near an artisan market and a Roman forum in the background.
Perhaps my fondest memory from last year was the Jardin de la Fontaine – the first public park after the French Revolution. This is a very large and very beautiful park with waterways, fountains and lots of stairs. It's also home to the Tour Magne, the remainders of the old Celtic tower and part of the original Roman wall surrounding the city, and the Temple of Diana. I just enjoy laying in the park reading my kindle. If I lived here I'd want to live across the street and the park would be my office.
The weather of Nimes and the south of France in general was a bit of a shock to us. We flew from Seattle which was about 75 degrees when we left and arrived in Nimes which was near 100. We never feel those types of temperatures at home so it took us a good week to get used to the heat. The metal shutters and cold floor tiles in our house helped a lot. We also spent quite a bit of time sitting with our feet in fountains or in the shade eating ice cream.
Nimes is divided up as the area south of the elevated train tracks and the station and the area north of it. The northern part is the old Roman city which at one point used to be inside protective walls with guard towers. A couple of the towers still exist but mostly you can tell when you're in the old town because of the winding ancient streets. If you walk out the front side of the station you'll find yourself instantly on a grand boulevard with a shallow stepped water channel along one side. When it's hot people take their shoes off and walk the length of it. Along the sides are also benches and some tables. This places is made for lounging. If you continue along this boulevard you'll end up at the main square with it's massive multi-level fountain. It looks impressive but in the heat of the summer there's not much protection from the sun so we found ourselves hurrying through it into the narrow medieval streets. Whoever laid them out knew what they were doing as they're almost always in shade with a cool breeze blowing from north to south. In this old town are many clothing shops, bakeries, restaurants and patisseries. There are several public squares full of tables with sun umbrellas where you can order smoothies and other drinks.
It took us a while to figure out where to eat and when to eat. France has a different way of viewing hours overall but even in that context Nimes is baffling. Restaurant's either don't advertise hours at all, they advertise only the days of the week that they're open or just the hours without the days. I don't know if I saw a single sign with the hours and days. We wanted to eat at Au Flan Coco but the sign said it was open at mid-day (noon) and again in the evening. Yes, that's all the sign said – evening. After waiting for an hour at the arena and checking into Au Flan Coco every so often I found out evening equates to 7pm. Who knows when they close as I didn't figure that out.
Au Flan Coco has indoor seating but there's also a courtyard in the middle of the building where we sat. Our server spoke excellent English so I told her that we like our duck breast pink all the way through. Not quite bleu but definitely pink. She ensured us that's how they cooked theirs. We've had a lot of problems in France having staff look at us and think “they're American, they'll send it back if it's not cooked well done” and so they cook it until it's tough. I don't know the solution outside of sending the overcooked food back just to confuse them. I wish they'd just cook it for me the way they do for everyone else. Maybe I need to work on my accent so it's perfect just to order magret de canard.
Had my duck been cooked properly it would have been phenomenal and perhaps the best meal of the trip but since that was not the case it was just OK – nice crust but the center was overdone.
There's something about the south of France that I REALLY like and I must tell you about it. All towns of any size in Provence have a central market – the Les Halles. This is not news really but what's important is the Les Halles are world class. Even though I wasn't hugely impressed by Avignon I really loved the Avignon Les Halles. Other cities further north like Lyon have a Les Halles but they're more upmarket and gourmet. I'm fine with that but there's something wonderful about a Provencal market. The Les Halles are where normal people buy their food. The Nimes Les Halles has nearly 100 individual shops including shops for produce, sausages, cheese, butchered meats, sliced meats, breads, tapenades and so on. I went to the Les Halles nearly every day to pick up our meats, cheeses, fruits, veggies and terrines.
Most of the food items in the Les Halles are French but there can be little Indian booths or spice tables as well. Although if you're going for that sort of thing there are other stores outside the Les Halles that would serve you better. Most of the shop owners only spoke French so we had to rely on my horrible French but we got by fine. On occasion I wanted to ask for certain items like sage but couldn't get the translation right.
On the back side of Les Halles is a modern shopping mall with all of the stores you'd expect and a free public toilet (take note!). If you continue on out the modern side you'll end up on a street with fast food pizza joints and a post office if you're in the need.
The highlights of Nimes according to me – Jardin de la Fountaine, Maison Carree, the Arena, Les Halles and the old pedestrian city center with marble streets and small public squares. I could live here but perhaps not full time as I'd miss the hustle and bustle of a large city.