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Southern France, land of Cézanne, Picasso et Nimes!

© By Mike Keenan

  It's not often that one encounters a crocodile in southern France, but sure enough, as we enter the public square, there he sits, somewhat static, in the centre of a marble pool atop a fragmented Roman column. This is Nimes where veterans of the Roman legions under Julius Caesar during the Nile campaigns were allotted plots of land. Two thousand years of history, architecture and art permeated by Roman ruins provide an exotic atmosphere for tourists to absorb as we walk about the ancient streets.
     The contemporary symbol and shield of the city of Nimes includes the aforementioned crocodile chained to a palm tree with the inscription 'COLNEM', an abbreviation of 'Colonia Nemausus', meaning the 'colony' or 'settlement' of Nemausus. Nimes was located on the Via Domitia constructed in 118 BC, connecting Italy to Spain. Augustus made the city the capital of Narbonne province, and built a ring of ramparts six kilometres long, reinforced by fourteen towers, with gates, of which only two remain, the Porte Auguste and the Porte de France.
     He constructed the Forum and an aqueduct. The town enjoyed a basilica, curia, gymnasium and probably a circus. The amphitheatre dates from the end of the 2nd century AD. Nimes derives its name from the name of a spring, Nemausus, located in the Roman village.
     We visit all of the sights. The elliptical Roman amphitheatre is the best-preserved Roman arena in France. Once filled with medieval housing (slums), when its walls served as ramparts, Napoleon cleared it out and it's used today for bull fighting and concerts. Peering through the huge Romanesque arches, one imagines screams and shouts of frenzied crowds for combatants struggling inside. The arcaded two-storey facade conceals massive interior vaulting with corridors and supporting tiers of seats for 20,000 spectators, thrilled by gladiatorial contests.
     The Maison Carrée (Square House), a small temple dedicated to sons of Agrippa was built in 19 BC with amazing sense of harmony and proportion, certainly one of the best-preserved Roman temples anywhere. We marvel at the finely fluted Corinthian columns and sculpted frieze.
     Next, we tour the18th century Jardins de la Fontaine (Gardens of the Fountain) with ornate sculptures, palm trees, swans swimming in the water and long stone balustrades separating the gardens into well-defined geometric patterns. In this inviting setting we savour a typical lunch of fresh bread, Fougasse, flat, lattice-like, studded with black olives, omnipresent cheese and yes, tasty Syrah vented nearby. France's first public garden, created in 1750, is located northwest of the centre at the top end of avenue Jean-Jaurés. Inside its formal entrance, fountains, nymphs and trees enclose the Temple of Diana with a great view for us of the surrounding countryside.
     Nimes enjoys modern architecture to contrast with the old. The Carré d'art (1986), is a museum of modern art. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Nimes prospered through the manufacturing of textiles and modern Nimes is famous for its denim, the fabric in blue jeans, which derives its name from the city.
     Wandering about narrow lanes and discovering unexpected squares with fountains and cafés is a delight, and only twenty kilometres away, Pont du Gard, also built by Agrippa, is a well-preserved aqueduct fifty-kilometres-long that carried water across the small Gardon river valley to supply the city. Roman engineers were precise. There is merely a seventeen metre difference in altitude between start and finish.

Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review. Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. His work is found in QMI published dailies such as the Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun, Vancouver Sun, London Free Press, Calgary Sun, Winnipeg Sun and Edmonton Sun.

Photo Credits
Mike Keenan
Tourism Nimes

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Tourist office: http://www.ot-nimes.fr/english_nimes/index.php
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nimes,_France
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