Romans in Provence
Rome’s interest in modern Provence began after it conquered territories in Hispania after the Carthage wars in 146 BC. Its primary interest was to connect Rome with its new territories by land. By about 120 BC, Rome had occupied all the regions of Transalpine Gaul bordering the Mediterranean sea.
The Romans initially called this region, Provincia Nostra (“Our Province”) which in regular usage took the form of just Provincia, giving way to the modern French name of Provence (pronounced as “Pwovaance”).
Over the next few centuries, many great cities like Massilia (Marseilles), Nemausus (Nimes), Arelat (Arles) and Arausio (Orange) flourished with a lot of trading activity and heavy investments by Rome in infrastructure and engineering projects which included building roads, aqueducts and monuments like arenas and amphitheatres in this region, many of which survive to this day. This article focuses on the great city of Nemausus, modern Nimes, and the architectural marvel of Pont du Gard, arguably the most important Roman monument in this region.
Named Nemausus for the god of spring, Nimes can be covered as a day trip from Avignon, but the better way to experience Nimes would be to spend a night as the city is enticingly beautiful at night. Nimes is just 30 minutes by train from the Avignon Central station and there are trains every 30 minutes during the day. The city fell to the Romans in about 21 BC, but flourished under their occupation as it became an important transit point on the Via Domitia. Built during the reign of Cneus Domitius Ahenobarbus, the Via Domitia is the Roman road that connected mainland Italy with the territories in Hispania (modern Spain) passing through Nimes, Narbonne, Perpignan and Ambrossum.
Under Roman citizenship, Nimes was redeveloped as a modern urban centre with an impressive street grid with a protective city wall to keep invaders out. The city slowly acquired monuments that were typical in any Roman municipality. These included a forum with temples, an amphitheatre, a watch tower on top of a hill and a few baths. In the more recent history, Nimes has emerged as a textile hub, with the word “denim” originating from de Nimes (Of/from Nimes).
The Roman Amphitheatre at Nimes, built around 80 AD, is the best preserved one surviving today. The amphitheatre had been used for the games conducted to celebrate military triumphs or for entertainment of the citizens, which had electoral benefits for the sponsors. These games would contain races, battles against beasts and gladiatorial combats. Contrary to popular opinion propagated by Hollywood, gladiators were neither slaves nor killed in these combats. The gladiators were mostly free men who exchanged their freedom temporarily to be trained as gladiators. These gladiators were highly paid for their performances, and the only times a gladiator would be sentenced to death would be if he had been a coward in battle. And if sentenced to death, the conductor of the games had to compensate the trainer with gold. And hence, most gladiators never died in combats in these arenas.
The amphitheatre is open to visitors and provides a very good audio guide for a supplement on top of the entrance fee. The audio guided tour would last about 90-120 minutes recreating the life at Nimes in the first century AD. The amphitheatre also serves as a concert venue during the summer festival in Nimes, and as a bull fighting arena during the season. Thankfully, the bullfights are mostly bloodless.
The Maison Carree was built to celebrate the birth of the two sons of Augustus Caesar in the first century AD. Today, the temple is open to visitors as a museum and contains as impressive statue of Apollo inside.
The Tour Magne is located at the summit of the Mont Cavalier (about 115m high) and is accessible through a short hike from Le Jardins de la Fontaine or from the Rue de la Tour Magne. Tour Magne stands 34m high, and the 140 step climb to the top offers a splendid panorama of the city. The Jardins de la Fointaine is a beautiful area of greenery in the middle of the city and has a large fountain where musical shows are conducted during the summer festival.
Nimes has only one hostel, the YMCA, which is about 3.5 km from the city centre on the other side of the railway station. However, there are enough cheap hotels inside the city in convenient locations which offer rooms on single occupation for about 30-40 euros a night.
There are cafes all around town, but the ones near the amphitheatre and Place de Fontaines are the more expensive ones. There are lots of cheaper eats near the Maison Carree, which get very busy in the late evening and nights. There are lots of small squares, in the are between the Maison Carree and the amphitheatre which are full of restaurants and cafes. If you are looking for a quick bite, there are enough sandwich shops to feed you for a few euros.
While the day is good for exploring the Roman history of Nimes, the city is at its enchanting best at nights. The well lit amphitheatre with its matador is a sight to behold under the moon.
Pont du Gard
The greatest challenge Rome faced during its long reign of power was keeping its cities prosperous and liveable for its citizens. The plebes or the common people, back then as even these days, just want their governments to provide basic amenities to lead a normal life. The Romans succeeded in provided civic amenities to its people with some ingenuity coupled with marvellous engineering. The Pont du Gard is a perfect amalgamation of this example. For Rome to keep cities in Provence flourishing, especially the ones away from rivers and lakes, they had to provide a source of drinking water. Their solution was to build a massive waterway from the Alpine mountains to these cities by engineering an expansive network of aqueducts constructed with precision. These aqueducts often carried water over hundreds of kilometres using only gravitational force created by a slight gradient of about 1mm per metre of length.
The aqueduct at Pont du Gard, built around 20 BC, crosses a gorge about 50m above the river Gardon. The bridge is close to 275m long, with its width ranging from 9m at the base to 3 m at the top, with a total 52 surviving arches. The three tier stone structure laid without any cement or mortar, which has survived for nearly 2000 years, is a symbol of Roman engineering. The stones used in the aqueduct were finely cut and weighed nearly 6 tons each. The aqueduct carried water from the springs of Eure in the Alps for about 50 kms to the city of Nemausus for nearly 900 years. The first level of the aqueduct had been used as a bridge to cross the river Gardon, while the water conduit was located at the top of the third tier. It is a short hike from the right bank where the tourism centre is located. While the view from the top is majestic, a word of caution as there are no rails to prevent a fall from the top.
The aqueduct site at Pont du Gard is open all through the year to tourist and the admission is free. However, there is a 18 Euro charge for a vehicle for upto 5 people. The site is easily accessible from both Avignon and Nimes by car and public buses. You can download the current bus schedule from Avignon and Nimes from the respective links.
The Pont du Gard site is a great destination for a day trip from Avignon or Nimes. If you are going as a group, pack a picnic so that you can have fun filled day full of activities there. If you are going solo, then the bus schedules are your saviour, as its practically impossible to hitchhike your way back. I tried unsuccessfully for a couple of hours there…