Exploring Nîmes and the Gard

The director of a newly renovated boutique hotel in the old town of Nîmes tells me he recently won and lost a star. The hotel’s restaurant, Rouge, run by Benin-born chef Georgiana Viou, recently won its first Michelin star. But the hotel itself, the Margaret Chouleur, has been downgraded from a five-star hotel to just four.

The interesting thing is: it was the hotel that did the relegation. The top level rating turned people off, so it has been reclassified as four stars.

It’s a very Nîmes move. With the Côte d’Azur to the east and artsy, chic Arles as its nearest neighbour, Nîmes flies just under the radar of many tourists and is firmly in the good value category.

First prized by Gallic tribes for its natural resources, Nîmes made its fortune in the heyday of ancient Rome. Julius Caesar rewarded his Gallic campaigners with land in the area, and so began a long tradition of welcoming wealthy retirees. The campaigners and their successors spent lavishly on the city, which was a convenient intermediate point between Rome and the Spanish provinces.

Nîmes is feeling good about itself as its Roman temple was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List last year

Today, this southern French city of 150,000 is easily accessible from further afield in Britain by Eurostar and TGV. Nîmes is the capital of the Gard department, a land of walled cities and a center of Protestantism (first tolerated, then brutally suppressed in the Wars of Religion and the Counter-Reformation). The prosperity of the Gard towns waxed and waned on either side of the 1789 Revolution. And it continues to do so today.

I have come to explore some of them, from Nîmes for a few days, then follow the points of the compass: 30 minutes (more or less) north to Uzès, east to Beaucaire, south to Aigues-Mortes and west to Sommières (they can all be reached cheaply by train or bus, but to follow the route without going back to Nîmes each time you need your own wheels).

Nîmes feels good about itself as a Roman temple, the Maison Carrée was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List last year. It’s honestly surprising it wasn’t on the list earlier. The Amphitheater and Amphitheater of Nîmes are two of the most beautiful Roman buildings outside Rome itself (the nearby Roman aqueduct Pont du Gard was on the list in 1985). The shield-shaped medieval center already feels like a conservation area, with independent restaurants, bakers and specialty shops selling everything from board games to brandade, the dried cod paste, a local specialty. It’s a lovely place to wander around; Les Halles de Nîmes (the food market) and Gamel restaurant (on a small square, with a twist on southern French classics) are among my favorite foodie discoveries.

Adding to the city’s allure this year is an exciting new triennial arts festival, La Contemporaine de Nîmes, held across the city in public and museum spaces (until June 23). From performance art to sculpture, dozens of established and emerging artists from France and beyond will show work around the theme of ‘a new youth’.

Best of all, denim has returned to its birthplace after a century. The city museum tells the history of the durable material that the city’s weavers began to supply to the bourgeoisie and rural workers in the 18th century. Serge de Nîmes found his way to Manchester and the US – and saw his name tailor-made to make ‘denim’. In 2020, a local entrepreneur founded Ateliers de Nîmes to start making jeans in the city again.

Leaving Nîmes, I head first north to Uzès, closest to the Gard to Provençal honeypots like Saint-Paul de Vence, with sleek medieval streets popular with famous homeowners. But there is still good value to be had. Rooms at the beautiful and relaxing Hôtel Entraigues (no restaurant, but a swimming pool and a great private roof terrace) start at €130 B&B.

Once the locals arrive, L’Uzès takes on the atmosphere of genuine hedonism that characterizes a true French bistro

There is a market twice a week on Place aux Herbes. After the clothing and food stalls have been packed up, the cloisters around the square are a good place for a quiet drink. L’Uzès on the main road (Boulevard Gambetta) feels a bit austere, with its vaulted limestone ceiling, but once the locals arrive it takes on that air of genuine hedonism that characterizes a true French bistro. It serves French classics with a few Asian twists: or Occitan-style fish and chips, if you prefer.

In Nîmes and now in Uzès, faces are drawn and grimaces barely suppressed when I say I’m running alongside Beaucaire, famously won by the far-right National Front. Right-wing mayor Julien Sanchez greeted the British departures by naming a side street Rue de Brexit.

However, I discover that Beaucaire also has a beautiful walled old town, built by merchants who made their fortune at the annual Foire de la Madeleine. From the mid-15th century, goods from the rest of France and the world were brought in by boat. As in Edinburgh during the festivals, locals made small fortunes renting out their rooms or even a small campsite in front of their house.

The arrival of the railroads came in the mid-1800s, and the fairgrounds are now a parking lot, although the celebration is marked with costume parades each July. There are no chic boutiques in Beaucaire’s medieval center and attractive canal district, but the hilltop Saint-Roman abbey and hermit caves are worth a visit.

After a day in Beaucaire, I spend the night in the countryside at Domaine des Clos, an 18th-century winery converted by a former travel writer and her family (it’s just 9km from the city and can also be easily reached by bike reaches). Outside are peaceful groves of cypresses and palm trees and a swimming pool; inside it’s all art, colorful fabrics and home-made food.

My route to Aigues-Mortes takes me south into the Camargue, through a quiet landscape of canals and fields where white horses graze. The fortified town overlooks the salt marsh area, with the hills of the Cévennes biosphere reserve to the north.

A brisk walk around the ramparts of the Tour de Constance, once a prison for unrepentant Protestants and their families, takes about 25 minutes. I descend from the ramparts into what seems the most touristy of my experiences near Nîmes. I find myself frowning at the main square with its circuit of bars and restaurants where waiters beckon you inside. But the food is good, the prices competitive, the experience very unlike Cannes.

The last stop on my tour is Sommières. The village is dominated by a bridge built in the time of Tiberius. The Vidourle River flows under the bridge and under the cobbled streets – until it doesn’t. The last really serious flood was in 2002, when water reached the second floor windows as a 300-meter-wide stream cut off the city.

The railway no longer comes to Sommières, the old station is now a three-star hotel. However, it still feels like the timeless southern French city that attracted novelist Lawrence Durrell, who spent his final years here. They are proud of Durrell: his beautiful country house overlooking the river is now rented out as holiday cottages, and the cultural center is called Espace Lawrence Durrell.

Nîmes and the Gard are still lumped together in many people’s imaginations with their larger neighbor to the east. But this is not Provence, and not even particularly Provençal. Are La France Profondesouthern style.

More information about Nîmes and surroundings at nimes-tourisme.com.
Eurostar returns from London to Nîmes cost from £180

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