“Congés annuels” – A badly-timed visit to Nîmes

A home exchange in southern France sounded like a great idea at the time. However, Nîmes in August with four kids and a dog proved to be one of our most challenging travel experiences yet…

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.

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At the Roman Arena in Nîmes

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:

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Translation: “Annual holidays from Friday 12th August to Sunday 21st August. Reopening on Monday 22nd August”


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:

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Source: Google Maps

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?

Congés annuels.

 That’s right: EVEN THE LOCAL TOURIST INFORMATION OFFICE WAS ON HOLIDAY…

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Small disclosure: this is not a photo of the actual sign on the Tourist Information Office. Regrettably, we forgot to photograph that. But the message was unmistakably similar…

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).

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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.

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Bit of a missed photo opportunity here…

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!

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Does the tooth fairy come to Nîmes? (Yes, as it turned 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!

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Maison Carrée, Nîmes

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…

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The Nîmes crocodile at the entrance to the Musée Archéologique

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.

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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

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Author: daisythebus

Father-of-four based in Luxembourg. I write about "off the beaten track" travel adventures with my family. Expect to read about nature, outdoor activities, the arts, authenticity, and alternative ways of discovering the world around us.

37 thoughts on ““Congés annuels” – A badly-timed visit to Nîmes”

  1. Interesting to read everyone’s comments since I first read this and thanks for linking up to #AllAboutFrance. Bizarrely I recently read an article on the greenest cities in France and Nîmes came 8th (out of 50) so there must be some green spaces somewhere, just well hidden from visitors! Either that or the situation is really dire for all other French cities!! Here’s the link if you’re interested http://www.konbini.com/fr/tendances-2/voici-le-palmares-2017-des-villes-les-plus-vertes-de-france/

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    1. That is truly bizarre because – as you see from the map – there really was no green space at all anywhere near us. Must be the other side of town 😉 Anyway, we made the most of it and have very fond memories of our – slightly weird – visit to Nîmes.

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  2. I think you’ve just described what we would call a ‘making the most of it’ holiday! And it sounds like you managed it…….
    I am always amazed that businesses just close their doors in the height of the season, it’s something we just don’t see at home, but it’s almost understandable if the regular clientele is away – but the Tourist Office too? That’s Bizarre! #AllAboutFrance

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  3. I’ve only been to Nimes once, with no dog and no kids, just a husband in our Mini Cooper on a road trip where we stayed somewhere different every night. My favourite memories of Nimes, however, are of the canals that led us to shady gardens. I can’t remember if there was grass, but there was certainly paths to explore as we climbed up the hill, surrounded by greenery. In my post I said I’d go back just to visit the gardens again! Here is my link http://www.frenchvillagediaries.com/2015/06/mini-cooper-road-trip-day-four-to.html #AllAboutFrance

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  4. Oh dear! Three years’ on and I still find this shocking in my town of Lyon, but in Nimes, one would think that the lure of the tourist trade would make a difference. I guess that at least you got to see it without the crowds. Eek… #AllAboutFrance

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  5. I do not like crowds but I would not like to be in a ghost town either. I would like some activity. I find Nimes very impressive. Those Roman ruins r every well preserved. #CulturedKids

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    1. The Roman ruins at Nîmes are incredible. In fact, they are so well-preserved that they are not really “ruins” at all. Of course they have been restored and renovated over the centuries, but the present result has a highly authentic feel. Highly recommended… but just not in August with kids and a dog! ;o) Thanks for reading!

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    1. I hope my post didn’t come across as being too negative: overall we enjoyed our stay in Nîmes and we had a good laugh at the absurdity of the “congés annuels” situation. The lack of green space, on the other hand, really was a bit of a problem. Our border collie is not particularly motivated to return to Nîmes anytime soon. ;o) Thanks for reading.

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  6. Fantastic review and fascinating to imagine being in a ghost town in the height of summer (zombie apocalypse scenarios running through my mind too!). Also funny to think that the beaches I’ve visited in Nice during those months are crammed with folks from Nimes including their entire tourist board haha. How brilliant to lose your tooth inside such a historic arena! And how on earth are crocodiles the emblem of the city?? Amazing, thanks for sharing both ups and downs of your trip x

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  7. Wow you certainly hit an extreme version of congés annuels, I’ve lived in France for nearly 20 years and have NEVER come across the tourist office closed in August! That’s quite something. I’ve been to Nîmes but only for 24 hours and only 2 kids and no dog and not in August and loved it, remind me not to taint that memory with a visit in August! House swapping is a great way to travel but I guess has positives as well as negatives when you stay in “local” areas. Thank goodness you had a garden and pool to play in. #CulturedKids

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  8. We were in France mid-August too, albeit in a place with plenty of French tourists. They don’t all head south, lots were in Brittany! I’m amazed at the lack of green space in Nîmes; where on earth do the locals go to play boules?! Despite the challenges it still sounds like you had a good break 🙂

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    1. Yes, we did have a good holiday overall. The “congés annuels” were a nuisance, but it became so absurd that we ended up just laughing about it. The lack of green space, on the other hand, really was rather frustrating; I have genuinely no idea where the locals go to unwind. We were rather glad to return to the forests of Luxembourg! ;o) Thanks for reading

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  9. I can SOOOO relate to this. Our first summer in Copenhagen we felt like we were living in a ghost town in our neighborhood. Sure – there were a million free spots to park your car (which we didn’t have) and no queues at the grocery store and the busses uncrowded and easy to get on. BUT – all local shops were lukket. CLOSED. And NO ONE was around to meet for picnic at the beach or bike to the park to play ball. This past summer we made like the locals and skipped town during the “closed” weeks. I appreciate you “making the best of it” – we have also learned to approach travels this way! Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t! Cheers from Denmark, Erin #FarawayFiles

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  10. Oh dear! I can sympathise – we once arrived in France on Bastille day, to find the entire country closed for business. It’s tough staying with kids in a city that has so little green space, too. #FarawayFiles

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  11. Such a very French problem! The August holidays is not something that a lot of people are familiar with so it’s a really good idea to bring it to people’s attention. After all, who wants to see a town with all of its population gone and replaced by tourists? I always tell people to avoid Paris in August but it’s the same for so many other French towns and cities as well. I think you managed extremely well in the end. Who can resist a crocodile hunt or a wonderfully old-fashioned natural history museum? Thanks for sharing it with us on #Farawayfiles

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  12. First of all I commend you for travelling with four kids and a dog in mid-August, I’d say it does have its challenges! Yes it’s so surreal in August when cities seem to have been evacuated of locals… but it’s hilarious that even the Tourist Info crowd had deserted the place! Mental. I can understand your kids not enjoying some museum experiences – to be honest, I am very temperamental and cranky myself in museums (especially if I haven’t been to the cafe/gift shop first for cake & a caffeine injection) and would have much preferred the Musée d’histoire naturelle like they did. I love those old-fashioned, wooden-cabinet places that haven’t changed for decades, with weird stuffed beasts. I’m impressed with Nîmes it sounds really interesting; definitely one for my to-do list of Aer Lingus weekends. Lovely post 🙂 #FarawayFiles

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    1. Nîmes is genuinely interesting; definitely worth a visit. I had to self-edit this post many times before I published it because I didn’t want to make it sound like we had an utterly miserable time. Challenging, yes, but worthwhile. The Musée d’histoire naturelle was a surprise hit. Thinking about it, growing up in a world of interactive exhibits and VR simulations, the kids had simply never seen a museum like that before (probably didn’t even consider that museums like that ever existed).

      And, by the way, you were right the first time ;o) #FarawayFiles

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  13. Oh wow. That does sound challenging but I like your ‘get on with it’ attitude. The Roman ruins are magnificent and I especially love the Maison Carrée. Do you think you will ever return to Nîmes? #FarawayFiles

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    1. Good question. I guess we won’t be planning on returning for a while (there are so many other wonderful places to visit) but it is definitely an interesting town for a short break. Could definitely be doing with some more public spaces though…

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    1. Ha ha, no I don’t blame the house swap family. They were taking their traditional holiday at that time, just like everyone else. They probably never even thought about it. And the city centre wasn’t a “ghost town”; it was still busy from the many tourists. It was our residential area that was deserted and all the small businesses that were closed. But – hey! – everyone needs a holiday ;o) Thanks for reading!

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  14. Nimes looks like an interesting place to visit! I would never thought so many locals would leave it in Mid August! Here in Spain, we also have lots of tourists in August, but most of the locals always stay around, probably, cause it´s the best moment to make money…

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  15. Oh no! I’ve had a similar experience in Paris but hadn’t quite realised just how it would affect other cities – I was in this part of France years (many year) ago in August and I remember it being staggeringly hot but we didn’t have long to spend (or kids/dog) so it evidently registered less. Thanks for linking up with #citytripping

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    1. I’m guessing that Paris is something similar, if not even more exaggerated. I should add, though, that we were very lucky with our HomeExchange accommodation in Nîmes, a wonderful “maison de maître” of around 200m2 with – crucially – a yard for the kids to play in and even a swimming pool. If we had been stuck in a cramped hotel I think we would have gone crazy! ;o)

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  16. Huge respect for taking Nimes with such an entourage. We were very close to there in July but didn’t get to explore. I’m surprised there’s so little green space in the city though . I sometimes find that about trips…they can often be better when looking back. Travel, especially with children, can be a challenge sometimes. #citytripping

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    1. The lack of green space is something we didn’t consider at all beforehand. Coming from Luxembourg, I guess we are more used to the big Germanic cities (Hamburg, Munich, Vienna, etc.) which are full of parks, playgrounds and wonderful public spaces. Our next trip will surely be east!

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  17. How interesting.. I feel like I have just seen Rome AND Athens within the same city. I never thought about a city being empty of its residents during peak tourism period because their residents are busy holidaying.. But yeah! Where did all the tourists come from – they must have came from somewhere! #CityTripping

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    1. We’d never thought about it either! I had heard of this happening in Paris, but didn’t think that it would also occur in a provincial city like Nîmes.
      Thanks for reading and for the comment, and apologies for “approving ” it so late (it got stuck in the WordPress system somehow…)

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