What to do in Nimes
Nîmes, a bustling city of 140,000, contains two ancient jewels: a centuries-old temple and an arena. Both rank among Europe's best preserved Roman ruins. Situated on the border of Provence and the wine-producing region of Languedoc, Nîmes serves as a good base for exploring both areas.
The Arènes (arena), built at the end of the 1st century A.D., features 34 tiers, numerous passageways, and holds 20,000 people. From the stone seats worn smooth over the centuries by thousands of rulers and republicans, it's easy to imagine gladiators battling in the amphitheater. The venue now hosts concerts and sporting events. The Maison Carrée, a temple dating to the 5th century B.C., commands a section of the town square. The temple's ancient, pink limestone columns and walls create a striking counterpoint to the modern, glass and aluminum art museum, Carrée d'Art, across the street.
Another intriguing Roman edifice, the Pont du Gard aqueduct, lies 14 miles east of Nîmes. Dating to about 19 B.C., the structure looks impressive with its three tiers of limestone arches glowing gold in the sunlight. To detail the Roman's engineering feat, the aqueduct's museum employs a clever mix of multi-sensory exhibits. Listen to the piped-in sounds of pickaxes, see clips of old movies depicting slaves painfully hoisting stones, and watch aerial videos of the verdant valley to understand just how difficult it was to construct the aqueduct. In the hands-on children's room, kids become archaeologists, reassembling shards to create a jug, and discovering such secrets of daily Roman life as how the privileged kept unwanted hair from growing: they rubbed their skin with hedgehog bile mixed with bat brains, of course.
Less visited than Nîmes, Beaucaire, between Nîmes and Saint Rémy-de-Provence, has its charms. Climb to the top of the 5th-century, fortress-like monastery carved into rock for sweeping views of the countryside. From March to November, you can attend Les Aigles de Beaucaire, a free-flight bird show at the Château de Beaucaire. Eagles, hawks, falcons, and vultures swoop and glide above the audience.
Nearby Arles, which also showcases a Roman arena and other structures, is Vincent van Gogh country. Drawn to the region's golden light, van Gogh painted "Starry Night," "Cafe Terrace at Night," and other masterpieces in the region. Devotees may recognize aspects of the local landscape in van Gogh's work. After cutting off his ear, he ended up at the local hospital. Its courtyard, L'Espace van Gogh, has been restored to resemble the artist's "Le Jardin de la Maison de Santé."
When you've had your fill of the area's ancient ruins, head to the Camargue, 14 miles south of Arles. The Camargue features salt marshes and grasslands created by the Rhône's delta. Wild white horses roam free and egrets, ducks, gulls, and flocks of pink flamingos also find shelter in the Parc Regional de Camargue. Although you can drive through part of the park, a horseback ride is more fun and takes you into the wild lands beyond the road.
Tip: Take time to browse many of the region's fruit, vegetable, flower and flea markets.
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