Not only was our campsite located right outside the quaint and very old city of Sommières, but it turns out that it was also just a short drive to Nimes, Pont du Gard and Orange. These sites are incredible examples of how the Romans took Rome with them wherever they conquered. Our first stop was to the city of Nimes (neem). Originally a Celtic city dating back to 500 BC, Nimes is mostly noted for its Roman roots. During the first century BC it was taken into the Roman Empire and given special status. It was thoroughly Romanized. The symbol of the city, a crocodile tied to a palm tree, testifies to its status as a retirement home to the Roman officers that had conquered Egypt. Roman soldiers retired after just twenty years of service, and who wouldn’t want to retire to the South of France -especially if you could take the comforts of Rome with you?
We visited the amphitheater. It was completed around AD 100 and is considered one of the best-preserved amphitheaters in the Roman world, better than the Colosseum in Rome! Remember there is only one Colosseum, and it is in Rome. Everything else is an amphitheater. It is about 425 feet in diameter and over 65 feet tall. It seated about 24,000 spectators and like the Colosseum in Rome, the 60 arched entryways allowed for rapid exits within minutes. These were appropriately called vomitoires.
Unlike the amphitheater in Rome, this one is still in use. You heard that right! We showed up hoping to cruise around inside and were denied access. It turns out Nimes was celebrating its own version of Santa Barbara’s Old Spanish Days Fiesta, the Feria. The amphitheater was being used for a bullfight! Not wanting to miss out on my only chance to see the inside of this arena I purchased a ticket and watched the modern equivalent to gladiatorial battles. Meg wisely took the kids for a walk around the park while I went inside. I wasn’t sure how to feel about it all. While I’m opposed to slaughtering animals for entertainment, I was also trying hard to put myself into the context of ancient Roman times -and see this amazing amphitheater. I sat right in the middle of the arena with hundreds of straw hatted, “Olé!” shouting fans. The lower seats in the arena had been remodeled and numbered. Apparently, during the winter there’s an awning that covers this area allowing for shows, concerts, and ice-skating. I uncomfortably watched two bulls begin their road to Big Macs and then got up to wander the quiet corridors. I was able to wander everywhere. Up to the top and down to the floor levels. Access was not a problem here. The bullfighters were finished with bull number three and beginning on number four. I had had enough. The arena is beautiful, but the spectacle of Rome is pretty bleak. My imagination works pretty well, and after watching a little “reality” it was well greased and beginning to imagine the atrocities of the big Colosseum back in Rome.
We then braved the crowds of Feria revelers and walked across the old town area to the Maison Carrée, a Roman temple built around AD 4 in the same style as the Parthenon in Athens. Now, the Rick Steves’ guide commented that, “This temple rivals Rome’s Pantheon as the most complete and beautiful building that survives from the Roman Empire.” I guess beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. It is a beautiful temple from the outside, and perhaps I would have been a bit more in awe if there weren’t sound stages backing up to it for the Feria concerts, but it reminded me all too much of a cheap copy of the Athens Parthenon. The Pantheon is complete and truly original to the Romans; it still gets my vote as Rome’s most complete and beautiful building. And besides, who wants to go to a Roman temple that has been converted into a cheesy movie theater? The inside of the Maison Carrée has been converted into a theater that shows a touristy movie about Roman life. The movie-house atmosphere has overly commercialized this once grand structure.
Nimes Amphitheater and Bullfighting