Strolling along Nimes’ very elegant Esplanade Charles de Gaulle on a warm Friday afternoon, this wide avenue, which sits in a beautifully manicured park, is full of kids running around, couples walking hand in hand and small dogs yapping.
So far, so French, but I stop short when I see a familiar-looking structure rising up in front of me: a huge, oval colosseum, almost identical to the one in Rome. Standing nearly 70ft high, it was constructed in 70AD, and could originally seat 24,000 people.
Today it’s used to stage concerts, ballets, opera, and – whatever you think of it – one of this region’s most popular activities: bullfighting.
It’s easy to picture chariots thundering around its inner perimeter, or gladiators in hand-to-hand combat. And in fact, some of the Russell Crowe film Gladiator was shot here.
Despite being in the South of France, Nimes still bears the hallmarks of its very Roman past. The colosseum (or arena, as it’s known here) is the most prominent.
Opposite it is the new Musee de la Romanite ( museedelaromanite.fr/en/ €8 ), which is full of local artefacts, mosaics and frescoes from the 500 or so years of Romans rule.
Today, Nimes is a buzzing little university town, composed of handsome architecture.
Streets are lined with elegant, pale stone buildings, while in the historic old part, known as L’Ecusson (which means shield because of its roughly triangular shape), there are dozens of charming, narrow alleyways.
L’Ecusson is full of souvenir shops – many of which sell products based on the local lavender crop.
A five-minute walk away, up the broad Boulevard Victor Hugo, is another beautifully preserved site: the Maison Carrée. This multicolumned stone temple dates from 2AD, but is so clean it looks brand new.
By now I’m hungry, so I head to Les Halles, Nimes’ huge indoor food market. Typical dishes include brandade, a paté made from salt cod; tapenade, an olive paste; and my favourite, petit pâté Nimois, veal and pork pie.
I buy a few things and take my picnic to the Jardins de la Fontaine, a beautiful, sprawling park and the location of the original spring which drew the Romans to Nimes, the capital of the Gard region of southern France.
The growing city needed more water for fountains, pools and baths, so the Romans’ ingenuity caused them to build the next monument on my journey.
Just 18 miles away is the Pont du Gard, all that remains of their 30-mile aqueduct. Eighty-eight gallons of water per second gushed through this incredible structure, which took 20 years to build, and stood nearly 164ft tall.
It is made entirely from stones which were cut to size then slotted together. Gravity moved the water down the slight slope to the city. On my guided tour, I climb to the top and walk through the tunnel where the water flowed.
From here, there is an incredible view of the jade-coloured Gardon river which flows into the Rhone.
The water which ran along this aqueduct came from another major source, in the small, nearby town of Uzes. This is worth visiting in its own right, not least for its picture-perfect old town, full
Travel Editions is offering a six-night Languedoc Roussillon by Rail escorted tour from £925 per person. The trip Includes Eurostar travel from London St Pancras International to Paris and onwards to Montpellier by TGV on May 30 or September 5, B&B of historic, sand-coloured houses framed by green or lavender shutters.
If you’re a foodie, you can visit the market – voted fourth best in France – on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Town centre stalls are piled high with ripe cheeses, glistening olives, charcuterie and more, providing a mouth-watering backdrop to this charming place.
A 2,000-year-old Roman mosaic was discovered here recently and should be on display soon.
Just as well the Romans built to last, or we wouldn’t be able to see any of the magnificent legacy they left in France.
PERFECT SETTING Russell Crowe filmed in Nimes’ colosseumROMAN TEMPLEMaison Carrée