Nîmes, a glorious Roman city in southern France, is an exceptional tourist destination. It is brimming with antiquity, culture, art and architecture, and blessed with a superb Mediterranean climate.
However, whilst we retrospectively enjoyed our visit to Nîmes, we confess that we found it rather tough going at the time. This was partly to do with when we visited (mid-August) and a lot to do with who we are (i.e. a family with four kids and a dog). Let me explain…
Why visiting in mid-August was a challenge
Yes, it’s stiflingly hot; yes, the evening mosquitoes are a nuisance; but there is a more unusual problem facing independent tourists to Nîmes in mid-August – the local population has gone away.
We didn’t expect this. Tourists at the height of the summer holiday season usually have the opposite problem – overcrowding. But think about it: all those holidaymakers on the beaches of the Cote d’Azur and other popular resorts need to come from somewhere, and they come from provincial cities like Nîmes. This issue is somewhat intensified in France compared to other countries because custom, tradition and alignment of school holiday dates mean that the French generally take their holidays in a concentrated period around mid-August – the “congés annuels” (annual holidays).
And so for five days we wandered around Nîmes, somewhat baffled by the surreal situation of a city largely devoid of its inhabitants. Sure, the historic centre was brimming with foreign tourists and the larger businesses open as usual, but the residential zones of the city – including the “quartier” in which we were based – were spookily deserted, and the majority of the smaller, independent businesses closed completely. If you happened to look in a typical local shop window in Nîmes in mid-August, this is what you see:
Why visiting with kids and a dog was a challenge
This is best illustrated with the use of a map. We were staying in the area north-east of the city centre, and so our neighbourhood looked like this:
Even the most cartographically challenged will instantly notice the lack of green on this map. Kids – and dogs – need space, preferably green space. They need to run around, to whoop and whirl, to get dirty and burn off excess energy. But the only green space of any notable size in the map above is… a cemetary which, trust us, is never a good place to allow kids – or dogs – to let off steam.
The second largest blot of green above, the “Esplanade Charles de Gaulle” just south of the city centre (beside the “Arènes de Nîmes”), isn’t actually a green park at all, but a paved public space with broken drinking fountains and pricey cafés (hmmmm… suspicious…). That said, it was the only place in Nîmes where we found a public playground. Two, actually, both having a slide and token climbing frame occupying a space not much larger than an average living room. We took some consolation in the fact that we were not alone in our predicament: the “playgrounds” were jam-packed with holidaying kids furiously releasing pent-up energy whilst their stressed-out parents chain-smoked around the perimeter fence.
Also located on the “Esplanade Charles de Gaulle” was a tourist information centre, so we decided to pop in to get information on local activities for kids which weren’t affected by the congés annuels. But, guess what?
That’s right: EVEN THE LOCAL TOURIST INFORMATION OFFICE WAS ON HOLIDAY…
Making the most of it
But we do enjoy a challenge, so we decided to stick it out and give Nîmes a chance to let its fine cultural and historical pedigree compensate for its lack of kid-friendly space. Other than the amazing Roman aqueducts nearby (on which I have written a separate post) the undisputed king of kid-friendly cultural attractions in Nîmes is the glorious Arena (Roman amphitheatre).
Modelled on the Colosseum in Rome, the singularly most impressive thing about the 2000-year old Nîmes Arena is that it is still an actively-used stadium for events and concerts. Outside of these events, tourists are free to Rome (sorry) around the structure relatively unrestricted, even – to my enormous delight and surprise – onto the arena floor itself if desired.
There was also a brilliant kids’ activity trail which Child #1 (who usually gets bored of that sort of thing instantly) stuck to like glue until he had discovered everything that the Arena offered. (He later declared it the “most beautiful building I have ever visited”). Child #2 didn’t want to visit the interior of the Arena, but holds her own special memories of it anyway – it is where her wobbly tooth fell out!
The obvious focal point of the city is the Maison Carrée, a 1st century Roman temple and masterpiece in graceful classicism. To my surprise – and initial disdain – the interior had been converted into a cinema showing a short film on Nîmes’ long and illustrious history (in French). Despite the most blatant public display of queue-jumping that I have ever witnessed, Child #1 and I managed to squeeze into one showing and actually rather enjoyed it – very informative!
The website of the “Carré d’Art” (Museum of Contemporary Art) directly opposite the Maison Carrée promised kids’ activities and workshops on Wednesdays. So we duly turned up on Wednesday to find – and I think you are getting the idea by now – no workshops due to the congés annuels.
Likewise, the website of the Musée des Beaux Arts (Museum of Fine Arts) rather half-heartedly promised kids’ workshops on “certains mercredis” (translation:”occasionally on Wednesdays”). Frankly, this didn’t inspire confidence, but we wandered there after the disappointment of the Carré d’Art anyway and, sure enough, no activities due to the… well, you know the rest. We took a nosy around anyway, and can hereby confirm that taking four kids – including two under 5’s in desperate need of letting off steam – to a stuffy museum of priceless works of art is not a good idea. Amusingly, a museum attendant at one point half-way round actually asked us to produce the receipt for our entrance tickets, perhaps struggling to believe why anyone would PAY to enter such a place with such an entourage.
One museum that we did spend a happy hour or two in was the Musée d’histoire naturelle (Museum of Natural History). Imagine an old-fashioned natural history museum with jars of specimens in formaldehyde and ancient taxidermied creatures stacked up in glass-panelled display cabinets of heavy dark wood. Imagine hand-written notes in faded ink under each exhibit with long Latin names and scientific mumbo-jumbo. Imagine wobbly tiles underfoot. Yes, the Nîmes natural history museum is, in effect, a museum of a museum and, oddly, the kids were intrigued (as were we). We even returned the next day to see it again. On the ground floor of the same building is the Musée Archéologique featuring various interesting tidbits of Roman history and, bizarrely, a stuffed giraffe, which we suppose was really destined for the natural history museum before it was realised that they couldn’t get it up the stairs…
Guarding the entrance to these museums was the Nîmes crocodile – the emblem of the city. If you look closely enough, you begin to see the crocodile everywhere you go in Nîmes, and by the fourth or fifth day we were content to simply wander around the beautiful old city letting the kids look out for it, whilst finding some delightful corners along the way.
After all, crocodile sculptures don’t take congés annuels.
Daisy the bus visited Nîmes in mid-August 2016. But you knew that already.
(c) 2016 Jonathan Orr