South of France, but not as we know it: exploring Nîmes and the Gard

South of France, but not as we know it: exploring Nîmes and the Gard

The director of a newly refurbished boutique hotel in the old town of Nîmes tells me he has gained and lost a star recently. The hotel’s restaurant, Rouge, run by Benin-born chef Georgiana Viou, recently won its first Michelin star. But the hotel itself, the Margaret Chouleur, has been downgraded from a five-star to just four.

Here’s the interesting thing: it was the hotel that did the downgrading. The top-level rating was putting people off, so it has been reclassified as a four-star.

It’s a very Nîmes move. With the Côte d’Azur to its east and arty, chic Arles its nearest neighbour, Nîmes flies just below many tourists’ radar and sits firmly in the good-value category.

Nîmes was first valued by Gaul tribes for its natural springs, but made its fortune in the heyday of ancient Rome. Julius Caesar rewarded his Gaul campaigners with land in the area, and so began a long tradition of welcoming wealthy retirees. The campaigners and their successors spent lavishly on the city, which was a handy waypoint between Rome and its Hispanic provinces.

Today, this southern French town of 150,000 inhabitants is easily reachable from more distant Britannic regions by Eurostar and TGV. Nîmes is the capital of the Gard department, a land of walled cities, and a centre of Protestantism (first tolerated, then cruelly suppressed in the wars of religion and the counter-reformation). The Gard towns’ prosperity waxed and waned either side of the 1789 revolution. And it still does.

I’ve come to explore some of them, based in Nîmes for a couple of days, then following the points of the compass: 30 minutes (more or less) north to Uzès, east to Beaucaire, south to Aigues-Mortes and west to Sommières (all are cheaply reachable by train or bus but to follow the route without going back to Nîmes every time, you’ll need your own wheels).

The Maison Carrée, built at the beginning of the 1st century AD. Photograph: Abaca Press/Alamy

Nîmes is feeling good about itself as its Roman temple, the Maison Carrée was added to Unesco’s world heritage sites list last year. It’s frankly surprising it hadn’t made the list before. It and Nîmes’s amphitheatre are two of the finest Roman buildings outside Rome itself (the nearby Pont du Gard Roman aqueduct made the list in 1985). The shield-shaped medieval centre already feels like a protected area, with independent restaurants, bakers and specialist shops selling everything from board games to brandade, the dried cod paste that’s a local speciality. It’s a delightful place to wander; Les Halles de Nîmes (the food market) and Gamel restaurant (in a tiny square, offering a twist on the southern French classics) are among my favourite foodie discoveries.

Added to the city’s allure this year is an exciting new triennial art festival, La Contemporaine de Nîmes, held around the city in public and museum spaces (until 23 June). From performance art to sculpture, dozens of established and emerging artists from France and beyond will feature work on the theme “a new youth”.

A market stall specialising potatoes in Les Halles de Nîmes. Photograph: Noel Bennett/Alamy

Best of all, denim has returned to its birthplace after a century. The town museum tells the history of the hard-wearing material that the town’s weavers began supplying to the bourgeoisie and rural workers in the 18th century. Serge de Nîmes found its way to Manchester and the US – and saw its name tailored to make “denim”. In 2020, a local entrepreneur set up Ateliers de Nîmes to start making jeans in the town again.

Leaving Nîmes, I head north first to Uzès, the closest the Gard gets to Provençal honeypots such as Saint-Paul de Vence, with tight medieval streets popular with celebrity homeowners. But there is still good value to be had. Rooms at the lovely and relaxed Hôtel Entraigues (no restaurant, but a pool and a great private roof terrace) start at €130 B&B.

Twice a week, there’s a market in Place aux Herbes. After the clothes and food stalls pack up, the cloisters around the square are a good place for a quiet drink. L’Uzès on the main drag (Boulevard Gambetta) feels a bit austere, with its limestone vaulted ceiling, but once the locals start arriving, it gets that atmosphere of earnest hedonism that’s the mark of a true French bistro. It serves French classics with a few Asian twists: or Occitane-style fish and chips, should you want it.

In Nîmes and now in Uzès, faces are pulled and grimaces barely suppressed when I say I’m heading next to Beaucaire, which is known for having been won by the far-right Front National. Its rightwing mayor, Julien Sanchez, saluted UK leavers by renaming a sidestreet rue de Brexit.

I discover, though, that Beaucaire also has a fine walled old town, built by merchants who made their fortunes at the annual Foire de la Madeleine. From the mid-1400s, goods from the rest of France and the world were brought by boat. Rather like in Edinburgh at festival time, locals made small fortunes letting out their rooms, or even a small camping space in front of their houses.

The Ruins of the medieval fortress at Beaucaire. Photograph: Gkuna/Getty Images

In the mid-19th century came the arrival of the railways, and the fair site is now a car park, though the fete is marked with costumed parades every July. There are no chic boutiques in Beaucaire’s medieval centre and attractive canalside, but the Saint-Roman hilltop abbey and hermits’ caves are worth a visit.

After a day in Beaucaire I spend the night in the countryside at Domaine des Clos, an 18th-century winery converted by a former travel writer and her family (it’s just 9km from town and easy to reach by bicycle too). Outside are quiet groves of cypress and palm and a pool; inside is all art, colourful fabrics and home cooking.

My route on to Aigues-Mortes takes me south into the Camargue through a silent landscape of canals and fields where white horses graze. The fortress town overlooks the salty marshland, with the distant hills of the Cévennes biosphere reserve to the north.

A brisk walk around the ramparts from the Tour de Constance, once a prison for unrepentant Protestants and their families, takes about 25 minutes. I descend from the parapets into what seems like the most touristic of my near-Nîmes experiences. I find myself frowning at the main square with its circuit of bars and restaurants with waiters beckoning you in. But the food is sound, the prices keen, the experience very unCannes.

The last stop on my tour is Sommières. The village is dominated by a bridge built in the time of Tiberius. The river Vidourle flows under the bridge and beneath the cobbled streets – until it doesn’t. The last really serious flood was in 2002, when the waters reached second-storey windows as a 300-metre-wide torrent cut off the town.

Tour de Constance at Aigues-Mortes. Photograph: Mauritius Images GmbH/Alamy

The railway no longer comes to Sommières the old station is now a three-star hotel. It still feels, however, like the timeless southern French town that attracted the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who spent his last years here. They are proud of Durrell: his fine mansion overlooking the river is now let as holiday gîtes, and the cultural centre is called Espace Lawrence Durrell.

Nîmes and the Gard are still lumped together with its larger neighbour to the east in many people’s imagination. But this is not Provence, nor even particularly Provençal. It’s La France Profonde, southern-style.

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