If you have come to the south to seek out Roman treasures, you need look no farther than Nîmes (pronounced neem), for the Arènes and Maison Carrée are among Continental Europe's best-preserved antiquities. But if you have come to seek out a more modern mythology—of lazy, graceful Provence—give Nîmes a wide berth. It's a feisty, rundown, rat race of a town, with jalopies and Vespas roaring irreverently around the
ancient temple and rock bands blasting sound tests into the Arena's wooden stands. Its medieval Old Town has none of the gentrified grace of those in Arles or St-Rémy. Yet its rumpled and rebellious ways trace directly back to its Roman incarnation, when its population swelled with soldiers, arrogant and newly victorious after their conquest of Egypt in 31 BC.
Already anchoring a fiefdom of pre-Roman oppida (elevated fortresses) before ceding to the empire in the 1st century BC, this ancient city bloomed to formidable proportions under the Pax Romana. A 24,000-seat coliseum, a thriving forum with a magnificent temple patterned after Rome's temple of Apollo, and a public water network fed by the Pont du Gard attest to its classical prosperity. Its next golden age bloomed under the Protestants, who established an anti-Catholic stronghold here and violated iconic architectural treasures—not to mention the papist minority. Their massacre of some 200 Catholic citizens is remembered as the Michelade; many of the victims were priests sheltered in the évêché (Bishop's Palace), now the Musée du Vieux Nîmes (Museum of Old Nîmes). Chapels throughout the surrounding countryside were damaged by Calvin's righteous rebels.
Perhaps inspired by the influx of architects who studied its antique treasures, Nîmes has opted against becoming a lazy, atmospheric Provençal market town and has invested in progressive modern architecture. Smack-dab across from the Maison Carrée stands the city's contemporary answer, the modern-art museum dubbed the Carré d'Art (Art Square) after its ruthlessly modernist four-square form—a pillared, symmetrical glass reflection of its ancient twin. Other investments in contemporary art and architecture confirm Nîmes's commitment to modern ways.
If you want to see everything, or a lot of things in Nîmes, then the Visite Ensemble ticket is good value for the money. The ticket costs a mere €10, is valid for three days, and can be purchased at most local monuments and sites.