Unusually, this year’s edition of the Vuelta a Espana kicked off in Nimes. It’s only three hours down the motorway from us and it’s a place we’ve only ever driven past, never visited. We drove down on Thursday afternoon after an expensive lunch in Antibes. I rarely park in the road but there’s no parking fee in France during the lunch break (12:30 – 14:30) – so civilised. We parked on the opposite side of the road, about 100 metres down from the restaurant. Tom was looking particularly fine as he’d just been for a wash and polish. When we went back to the car after a very pleasant lunch, I noticed someone had keyed the length of the passenger side of the car. I checked the cars either side but mine was the only one chosen for such treatment. Hence my comment about an expensive lunch.
I’d decided we would stay in Uzes, in a small, highly rated B&B which lived up to its billing. Uzes is a chocolate boxey, bastide town in the Occitane region, on the western fringes of Provence, 45km west of the Medieval walled city of Avignon, 25km north of the Roman city of Nimes and a mere 6km from the world UNESCO heritage site, Pont du Gard. Aside from its Roman origins, it’s home to the first duchy of France, whose glorious Ducal Castle, built on the site of the Roman Castrum (camp) is still in family hands.
There are plenty of grand Renaissance mansions, plus the Cathédrale Saint-Théodorit d’Uzès, a place of worship since Roman times, which dates from the Middle Ages. It has been destroyed and rebuilt several times. What remains is largely from the 19th century, only the organ remains from pre-Revolutionary times. Next door is its fascinating and iconic Fenestrelle tower, the only Lombard style campanile tower in France which dates from the 11th century and stands guard over a wonderful Medieval garden, restored to its former glory in 1995.
The town’s cobbled, largely pedestrianised streets spill out into elegant squares, shaded by gently worn, pale golden stone and shuttered buildings. In the centre of town, ancient sycamore trees dominate and shelter the Place-aux-Herbes and its fountain which is fringed by golden arches. This is where you’ll find the town’s famous twice-weekly (Wednesday and Saturday) market. The place is a gourmet’s delight, surrounded by truffle plantations, vineyards and home to Le Musee du Bonbon, opened in 1996 by Haribo. Though the town’s traditionally famous for its liquorice rather than gummy bears.
To be honest, all we did was stroll around the town, meandering along its cobbled streets, pausing every so often to oooh and aah over its captivating architecture, its wonderful specialist food shops and plentiful restaurant menus. We also visited Pont du Gard, an incredible World UNESCO heritage site, 275 metres long and 48 metres high, spanning the river Gardon, which was built in 50AD as part of the Nimes’ Roman acqua-duct, in use until the 6th century.
Sadly there was no time to visit any of the many wineries, olive oil mills or the Haribo Musee du Bonbon – next time! Nor, aside from Nimes with its amphitheatre, did we see much of the rich Roman heritage in the area in Arles, Orange, Avignon and Chateauneuf-du-Papes – another time.
Saturday was devoted to wandering around Nimes and watching the Vuelta’s opening team time-trial. The city is located between the sea and the Cevennes hills. It was established by the Romans, on the edge of the Mediterranean plain, some 16 kilometres inland, and has the finest collection of Roman remains in France, plus an attractive old town.
The teams started on the steps of one of Nimes’ most famous Roman remains, the Maison Carrée – the best preserved Roman temple anywhere – and rode through the 2,000 year old Arena, one of only three large Roman arenas in the south of France. The city has several other Roman remains, in particular the Temple of Diana and Tour Magne.
Apart from its Roman monuments, Nimes has an attractive and historic centre, with narrow streets and tree-lined boulevards typical of the south of France. The park of the Jardins de la Fontaine, the site of Friday’s team presentation, laid out in 1745, is one of the oldest city parks in France, and a delightful area of greenery, fountains and shade on the edge of the old town. It also has some striking modern civic buildings designed by Jean Nouvel, Lord Foster and the Portzamparcs.
I had hoped to follow in the Vuelta’s footsteps for a few stages more but my beloved had to fly off to China at lunchtime on Sunday. While I might not visit Nimes again, I’d certainly consider a return trip to Uzes and its gummy bears!