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Nîmes in Southern France: Roman Ruins and a Bullfight

Nîmes, France

Southern France has well-preserved, ancient ruins that showcase the Romans’ prowess in engineering, including the Pont du Gard aqueduct near Nîmes, and in the city center, the Maison Carrée temple and huge Roman Arena — today a bullfighting ring.

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While its cities are packed with important sights, Provençal life feels rooted in its countryside, small towns and vibrant markets. Its famous fields of lavender and sunflowers inspire painters. Its howling Mistral wind can — as they say — blow the ears off a donkey. And its coveted Cotes du Rhone wines showcase this region’s confident mastery of good living.

And around here, good living is never far from nature. Where else can you canoe through such charming scenery and then under a nearly 2000-year-old aqueduct? This region’s evocative Roman ruins make history part of the picnic.

The Pont du Gard reminds us that throughout the ancient world, aqueducts were stone flags heralding the greatness of Rome. And they still proclaim the wonders of that age. This perfectly preserved Roman bridge supported a canal or aqueduct on the very top. It was a critical link, helping keep a steady river of water flowing cross-country to Nîmes — one of the Roman Empires largest cities. Remarkably, the water dropped only one inch for every 350 feet. Let’s go inside.

This is what Roman aqueducts were all about. This is part of a thirty-mile long channel, a man-made river flowed through this for 400 years. You can still see the original stones, a thin layer of mortar that waterproofed the channel, and, after centuries of use, a thick mineral build up.

The Pont du Gard’s main arch is the largest the Romans ever built — 80 feet across. The bridge itself has no mortar — just ingeniously stacked stones. Taking full advantage of the round arch the Romans invented, it’s made strong by gravity.

The Pont du Gard museum shows that a steady supply of water was an essential part of the Roman “art of living.” You’ll see some very old plumbing, walk through a rock quarry, and learn how they moved those huge blocks into place and constructed those massive arches.

All this work was designed to bring water into the still grand Roman city of Nîmes. The water finally gushed out here into this modest-looking distribution tank from where it served the thirsty city’s needs.

Imagine the jubilation on that day in AD 50 when suddenly the system was operational. This is the very end of the aqueduct and water would tumble out of this hole and fill this pool. The system was designed to prioritize according to how much water was available. If the water level was high, these holes would send water to homes of the wealthy, to decorative fountains and to public baths. But if the water level was very low, these holes would still send water to the essential neighborhood wells.

Today, the town’s many Roman ruins testify to Nîmes’ former importance. The Maison Carrée rivals Rome’s Pantheon as the most complete building surviving from the Roman Empire. The temple survived in part because it’s been in constant use for the last thousand years.

The lettering across the front is long gone, but the remaining “nail holes” presented archeologists with a fun challenge: match the pattern of the nail holes to the letter it once held.

And they solved the puzzle. They determined that the temple was built to honor Caius and Lucius, the grandsons of Emperor Augustus. And from that information, they dated the temple to the year AD 4.

Nîmes' Arena — which is still in use — is considered the best preserved from ancient Rome. It’s another fine example of Roman engineering… and Roman propaganda. In the spirit of “give the masses bread and circuses,” admission was free.

The emperor’s agenda was to create a populace that was thoroughly Roman — enjoying the same activities and the same entertainment, all thinking as one.

The arena still hosts colorful pageantry. And macho men still face dangerous beasts…bulls.

A bullfight à la Provençale is more sporting than the bloody Spanish bullfights. A tiny ribbon, laced between the horns, sits on the bull’s forehead. The daredevil fighters, gripping special hooks, try to snare the ribbon.

The loudspeaker announces the reward various local businesses offer to the man who gets the ribbon. It’s both advertising — “Pierres’ patisserie” offers 100 euros — and encouragement for the fighters.

If the bull pulls a good stunt, the band congratulates him with a tune from the opera Carmen. Unlike more bloody bullfights, in Provence the bull — who, locals stress, “dies of old age” — always prances proudly out of the arena.