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Wanderlust: Nîmes, France — What to Eat and Where to See Roman Monuments

By Alexander Lobrano

A side view of Maison Carrée, shot from the Musée de la Romanité.
 
Sabine Mirlesse
A side view of Maison Carrée, shot from the Musée de la Romanité.

Watching starlings streak through the arches of the bone-white stone amphitheatre 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 façade is all glass and aluminium; 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 artefacts, with a façade 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.

Sabine MirlesseThe Roman-era Les Arènes, which can hold up to 14,300 spectators, as seen from a quiet side street.
The Roman-era Les Arènes, which can hold up to 14,300 spectators, as seen from a quiet side street.

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.”

Stay 

Jardins Secrets

After Annabelle Valentin inherited this 18th-century coach house from her grandmother in 2009, she and her husband transformed the Tuscanised property into an inn. They acquired three neighbouring 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

Sabine MirlesseAn old cloister wall at Jardins Secrets.
An old cloister wall at Jardins Secrets.
Sabine MirlisseA silk canopy bed at Jardins Secrets.
A silk canopy bed at Jardins Secrets.
Sabine MirlesseAn arrangement in the Jardins Secrets kitchen.
An arrangement in the Jardins Secrets kitchen.

Villa Meridia

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

Sabine MIrlesseBlooming oleander by the outdoor pool at Villa Meridi.
Blooming oleander by the outdoor pool at Villa Meridi.

Eat

Skab

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

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 mouldings, 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 

La Pie Qui Couette

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

Shop

Domus

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 mid-century lights by Charlotte Perriand and Le Corbusier. 011-33-4-66-76-13-56 

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

Ateliers de Nîmes

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 centre. 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

See 

Musée de la Romanité

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

Sabine MirlesseThe rooftop courtyard of Musée de la Romanité.
The rooftop courtyard of Musée de la Romanité.

Maison Carrée

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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