On the border between Provence and Languedoc, Nîmes is inescapably linked to two things – denim and Rome. The latter’s influence resulted in some of the most extensive Roman remains in Europe, while the former (de Nîmes), was manufactured for the first time in this city’s textile mills and exported to the southern USA in the nineteenth century to clothe slaves. The city is worth a visit, in part for the ruins and the narrow lanes of the compact old city, but also to experience its energy and direction, having enlisted the services of a galaxy of architects and designers – including Norman Foster, Jean Nouvel and Philippe Starck – in a bid to wrest southern supremacy from neighbouring Montpellier.
The focal point of the city is a first-century Roman arena, known as Les Arènes, at the junction of boulevards de la Libération and Victor-Hugo. One of the best-preserved Roman arenas in the world, its arcaded two-storey facade conceals massive interior vaulting, riddled with corridors and supporting raked tiers of seats with a capacity of more than twenty thousand spectators, whose staple fare was the blood and guts of gladiatorial combat. When Rome’s sway was broken by the barbarian invasions, the arena became a fortress and eventually a slum, home to an incredible two thousand people when it was cleared in the early 1800s. Today it has recovered something of its former role, with passionate summer crowds still turning out for some blood-letting – Nîmes has the most active bullfighting scene outside Spain.
Nîmes’ great passion is bullfighting, and its ferias are attended by both aficionados and fighters at the highest level. The wildest and most famous is the Feria de Pentecôte, which lasts five days over the Whitsun weekend. A couple of million people crowd into the town (hotel rooms need to be booked a year in advance), and seemingly every city native opens a bodega at the bottom of the garden for dispensing booze. There are corridas, which end with the killing of the bull, courses where cocards are snatched from the bull’s head, and semi-amateur courses libres when a small posse of bulls is run through the streets. Two other ferias take place: one at carnival time in February; the other, the Feria des Vendanges, in the third week of September at grape-harvest time. Recently, events have been marked by small but vocal protests and in 2006 several organizers of the local tauromachie world were injured by letter bombs. The tourist office can supply full details and advise about accommodation if you want to visit at feria time.