Go slow with the flow in the south of France
THE INCIDENTAL TOURIST
A FEW paces from my hotel in Nimes, mothers sit soaking their feet while kids splash up and down the narrow, shallow ‘‘fountain’’. A moving footpath of water runs down the broad mall linking the train station to the Roman arena at the edge of the old city.
Horse chestnut trees spread their shade over wooden and stone benches. It’s the south of France; it gets very hot here in summer. But when it does, even the poor African immigrant youths have somewhere to come.
Two cafes sit immediately outside the station. Customers lounge and wait, enjoying a quiet drink or meal. I escape the heat of my room to sit with them and observe.
Closing his laptop, a father rouses his snoozing son. They disappear into the station and emerge with a tiredlooking woman holding a briefcase — Maman, commuting from work in Marseille or Montpellier.
Two old ladies in sun-frocks collapse into the seats beside me. The waiter greets them with great respect and apologises: the cafe is closing soon, all he can offer is a pression (beer) or a glace (ice cream). They settle for the latter and the waiter patiently makes separate change for them.
Nimes does not jump to mind when travellers think of the south of France. It’s not St Tropez or Nice, or even Avignon or Aix. But it’s a lovely city, mixing lost grandeur and modern redevelopment. Some years ago architects were encouraged to create modern buildings to smarten it up. One result is Norman Foster’s beautiful Museum of Contemporary Art, which sits perfectly across the road from a tiny, exquisite temple dating from 5AD. The modern interacts with the ancient everywhere in Nimes.
The big-ticket Roman ruin is a small, extraordinarily intact arena, hosting a series of pop concerts in summer. Lying in bed one night I hear music drifting down the mall and then prolonged clapping and whistling for Mark Knopfler.
I walk through the extensive gardens on the edge of the old city, now an island of calm amid busy thoroughfares. Les Jardins de la Fontaine were developed in the early 1700s around a series of tanks built to capture the waters of a spring used by the burgeoning textile trade (denim is a corruption of de Nimes).
With their stonework and statues, the tanks are reminiscent of ancient Roman baths. The gardens climb a hill and incorporate two significant Roman ruins — a temple to Diana and a tower with a commanding view.
Back down in the old city I stumble on Les Halles, the covered market. I swivel on a tall bar stool at a lunch counter while the cook produces sauteed vegetables in season, a plate of jambon serrano, bread and a glass of wine. My day ends with a visit to the museum of bullfighting. The nearby Carmague is famous as the breeding ground of the white horses and black bulls used in bullfights, as popular in this part of France as in Spain. The region has its own traditional form of bullfight where the matadors enter the ring unarmed and the bull survives.
A life-sized statue near the arena is that of Nimes’s famous matador son, Christian Montcouquiol, known as Nimeno II. Sadly, he took his life two years after being rendered a tetraplegic following a goring in the bullring.
But perhaps the constant presence of death is part of the fascination for those who enter the ring. It’s not a sport that sits easily with our sensibilities, but it’s part of the story of the beautiful city of Nimes.