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Provence Travel Guide

Nîmes

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.

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