This Small City in Southern France Has Roman Ruins to Rival Rome Itself
A new museum brings ancient history to life in one of the continent's best-preserved Roman colonies.
The South of France has long been a traveler's dream for its epic coastlines and iconic lavender-covered hills. But a visit to the city of Nîmes, between the Mediterranean coast and the Cévennes mountain range, will transport you not just to another place, but to another time — 2000 years ago, in fact.
In June of this year, the city opened the Musée de la Romanité ("Museum of Romanity") — the new home base for tours of the city's expansive network of Roman sites. Once among the most important cities of the Roman Empire, Nîmes is home to incredibly well-preserved buildings and sites from the first centuries of the Imperial era, rivaling even Rome itself.
At the center of this walkable city of 150,000 residents sits the Les Arènes amphitheater, built in the 1st century CE as a gladiatorial arena. With its perfectly elliptical shape and interlocking stone construction, the arena was a testament to the prowess of the Empire and soon christened the city a destination of prestige.
Thousands of years later, the new museum is located just across from the amphitheater, bridging the present and the past with its ultramodern design and expansive green spaces. Inside, virtual reality exhibits bring the ancient world to life, transporting visitors to scenes such as the construction of the ramparts that once surrounded the town. Nearby, recently unearthed mosaics are displayed with projections of their original setting.
From now until the end of September, visitors can also explore Gladiators: Heroes of the Coliseum, a traveling exhibition on loan from Rome that covers everything from arena design to the daily lives of fighters.
After exploring the new museum, travelers to Nîmes will have added context for touring the many amazing sites around town. This ancient city rose to prominence after sprouting up around a freshwater spring; at the Jardins de la Fontaine, the ruins around this ancient fountain include the Temple of Diana, a monument built for Emperor Augustus set among 37 acres of manicured gardens.
The Maison Carrée, or “square house,” once anchored the Roman forum and is known as a remarkably well-preserved example of Vitruvian architecture. Also a must-see: the ancient arched aqueducts at Pont du Gard, still standing after more than 20 centuries.
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