Wanderlust: What to Eat and Where to See Roman Monuments in Nîmes

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Watching starlings streak through the arches of the bone-white stone amphitheater in Nîmes, you might forget you’re in the South of France and not Rome. The Colosseum look-alike dates to the end of the first century A.D., when Emperor Augustus named this Celtic settlement on the road linking Italy to Spain a Roman colony. Today, Nîmes is more commonly described as sitting between Avignon and Montpellier, and while the Roman soldiers have been replaced with French Foreign Legionnaires, this city of 155,000 is more a charming travel destination than a seat of power.

Visitors come to Nîmes for its unusually well-preserved monuments — and for newer feats of architecture. Thanks to a push begun in 1984 by then mayor Jean Bousquet, it now has Sir Norman Foster’s 1993 Carré d’Art, a modern art museum with slender pillars that mimic those of the Maison Carrée, the Roman temple across the street, but whose facade is all glass and aluminum; Jean Nouvel’s 1987 Nemausus public housing project, a pair of shiplike buildings with cantilevered balconies; and the just-opened Musée de la Romanité, a new home for the city’s collection of ancient and medieval art and artifacts, with a facade of nearly 7,000 silk-screened glass tiles that appears to ripple in the light — as if the museum is wearing a toga, its architect, Elizabeth de Portzamparc, has said.

Increasingly, this marriage of old and new extends to other scenes as well. Young chefs can take advantage of one of the finest covered markets in France — filled with locally made olive oil (the best comes from Oliveraie Jeanjean in nearby Saint Gilles) and wines — and entrepreneurs like the denim designer Guillaume Sagot are reinvigorating local artisanal traditions. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Nîmes was a major textile producer — in fact, the word “denim” derives from “de Nîmes.” “People are receptive to innovation here,” says Sagot. “In Nîmes, you can afford to take a chance.”

A silk canopy bed at Jardins Secrets.CreditSabine Mirlesse An old cloister wall at Jardins Secrets.CreditSabine Mirlesse

After Annabelle Valentin inherited this 18th-century coach house from her grandmother in 2009, she and her husband transformed the Tuscanized property into an inn. They acquired three neighboring houses, too, and decorated many of the 14 rooms with canopy beds and flea market finds, including an array of period porcelain from China. Out back is a large private garden abloom with jasmine, roses and olive trees and home to a small swimming pool. After lounging, guests can visit the hotel bar, which features a stuffed peacock and botanical wallpaper by Zuber et Cie. jardinssecrets.net

Three years ago, Avignonnais Jonathan Laugier converted this century-old Haussmann-style mansion into a bed-and-breakfast, decorating each of the four bedrooms according to the prevailing taste of a different year important to the house’s history. He serves a daily breakfast of fresh pastries with homemade jams and is always ready with recommendations for other meals — for a dinner alfresco, he suggests Barns, hidden away in a courtyard behind the Carré d’Art. villameridia.com

An arrangement in the Jardins Secrets kitchen.CreditSabine Mirlesse Blooming oleander by the outdoor pool at Villa Meridia.CreditSabine Mirlesse

Highlights of this cozy top-floor rental apartment include the overstuffed tomato-red cotton-covered seating in the lounge and the private terrace, with views of the Cathédrale Notre Dame et Saint Castor de Nîmes, consecrated by Pope Urban II in 1096, and the Place aux Herbes, the central square in the city’s medieval Écusson district, where ancient stone houses line the narrow, pedestrian-only streets. The apartment also has a full kitchen, making it a great option for cooks — Les Halles market, open seven days a week, is just a two-minute walk away. aucoeurdenimes.com


Damien Sanchez worked at La Réserve in Beaulieu-sur-Mer before returning home to Nîmes in 2014 to take over Skab, which won a Michelin star in 2017. The staff is young and friendly, and the food — baked oysters in a cauliflower purée, squab confit with vegetable cannelloni — is just irreverent enough. Call ahead for a reservation, and if the weather’s nice, ask for one of the tree-shaded tables on the patio. restaurant-skab.fr

Le Napoléon, which opened in 1813 and has been attracting an artistic crowd ever since, might be one of the most beautiful cafes in all of France. Its opulent Napoleon III-style décor, which dates to the 19th century and was restored in 2016, features gold-leafed moldings, heavy crimson velvet curtains and an azure ceiling fresco rimmed with flowers. Patrons sit along the banquette as servers in bow ties ferry trays of pastis from the marble-topped bar. le-napoleon-restaurant-nimes.com

This casual counter restaurant is a new addition to the 134-year-old Les Halles, whose 80 stalls sell everything from meat and fish to baguettes and cut flowers. After shopping, stop here for full-bodied wines by the glass and small plates of Provençal-leaning bistro food, such as grilled razor clams and a standout brandade de morue Nîmoise (a garlicky salt cod casserole). Halles Centrales, Rue Guizot

Just down the street from the Maison Carrée, this popular osteria — with ’40s-era Italian photographs hanging on the red brick walls — alludes to Nîmes’s colonial past, even if its owners aren’t from Rome but from Naples and Puglia. The pizzas and handmade pastas change with the seasons, but the orecchiette with squid is a perennial favorite, as is the salad with red chicory, green olives, country ham and stracciatella. These Italian staples are served with French wine — most often a crisp, award-winning rosé from the Chatêau Bellefontaine vineyard outside of town. 011 (33) 4-11-83-34-67


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Le Corbusier-designed items, including a model of a cubby-lined wall he did for the Villa Shodhan, at Fondation Domus.CreditSabine Mirlesse

Partners in life and business, Alain Recolin and Alain Dussaud have been nurturing their love of avant-garde design for 40 years. Their showroom, set in a former electrical fixtures factory, carries contemporary furniture, lighting and accessories by Knoll, Flos, Cassina and more. The pair’s latest project, Fondation Domus, is a by-appointment gallery space in the 18th-century mansion next door. Since 2014, a permanent installation has displayed some 60 years’ worth of design pieces from the Italian maker Zanotta, as well as midcentury lights by Charlotte Perriand and Le Corbusier. 011-33-4-66-76-13-56

Trained by a tailor, Guillaume Sagot hand-cuts many of the washed-denim jeans he sells under his Ateliers de Nîmes label, which he launched in 2014 out of a light-filled workshop in the city center. His creations, made with indigo serge cloth from Venice and sold at his new centre-ville boutique, have already earned him a cult following. ateliersdenimes.com


The rooftop courtyard of Musée de la Romanité.CreditSabine Mirlesse A side view of Maison Carrée, shot from the Musée de la Romanité.CreditSabine Mirlesse

Until last June, most of Nîmes’s rich collection of Gallo-Roman art and objects was kept in its municipal archives, and so Elizabeth de Portzamparc’s 30,000-square-foot museum complex is a major upgrade. Inside, you’ll find sculpture, mosaics and architectural fragments — including a winding stretch of the defensive stone wall that used to encircle the city — spanning from the pre-Roman period to the Middle Ages. There’s also an ancient prototype of Les Arènes, the real version of which is across the street and still hosts the bullfights Ernest Hemingway loved to watch. museedelaromanite.fr

With its ornate facade of fluted columns and acanthus leaf carvings, the Maison Carrée (“square house”) embodies the ancient Roman architectural ideal as described by the writer Vitruvius in the first century B.C. Completed around 4 A.D. and dedicated to Emperor Augustus’s grandsons, Gaius Caesar and Lucius Caesar, the temple has, over the centuries, functioned as a church, a hôtel particulier and a horse stable. These days, it houses a projection room that shows a short film on Nîmes’s beginnings. maisoncarree.eu

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