Nimes, flavours and delights of authentic Mediterranean culture

The city of Nimes, considered by many to be “the Rome of France”, has the best of Mediterranean culture wrapped in its toga. And I don’t just mean its historic remains, which make for a wonderful break in their own right. I went in search of that Nimes which, using its impressive monuments as a backdrop, enabled me to enjoy a delicious range of gastronomy, the joy of evening strolls past enticing shop windows and those café terraces where, whatever the time of year, it always smells of summer and holidays.

“Le Cheval Blanc” Wine Bar, the oldest restaurant in Nimes

To begin a trip to Nimes in great culinary style, there is nothing better than observing the great amphitheatre from close by in one of those restaurants where you have the ever-present feeling that characters like Hemingway or Picasso are going to come through the door at any moment. Le Cheval Blanc is in all probability the oldest restaurant in the city. Sitting at a small table and looking right to the back of the arched brick gallery, I discovered a real museum of art and bull-fighting where, as well as paintings, sculptures and very “fifties” decor, you can see (and taste) a good selection of traditional Mediterranean cuisine accompanied by an entertaining selection of wines.

Le Cheval Blanc - Place des Arènes 1 - (External link)

Terraces and cafés in the old centre

The best thing about the centre being picturesque, easy to explore and pedestrianised is that terraces can be set up in the street, extending your opportunity of absorbing the city of Nimes in small sips. I found some good options in the Place du Marché around a symbolic palm tree and in Place aux Herbes, where I amused myself for some time reading the excellent Romanesque friezes on the cathedral while enjoying an ice-cold home-made lemonade.

The sophistication of Mediterranean cuisine with the best views of the Arena

Having not been back to Nimes for five years, I found one of the best reasons to return to this Occitan city. And that is the brand new Musée de la Romanité, a modern museum that is educational and interactive for all ages, with over 5000 items on show from the Roman past of this part of Gaul. What I never expected was that at the top of that museum I would find myself eating a wonderful tataki of tuna as part of a menu for all budgets in a fabulous restaurant with views (I would say the best views) of the Roman amphitheatre. With the Arena at my feet just for a while I had no hesitation in enjoying to the full La Table du 2.

La Table du 2 - 3rd floor of the Musée de la Romanité - (External link)

The charming terrace of Le Vintage

From aperitifs or tapas in the centre (these are very popular in this city so keen on Spanish culture) it is also a good idea to treat yourself to a good dinner on the pleasant terrace of Le Vintage while toasting the good life in Nimes where the night is always young. To round off the day, I sat by the Maison Carrée that was as white as the moon to soak up the positive energy of this city.

Le Vintage - 7, Rue de Bernis - (External link)

Gourmet shop windows and sampling brandade

One of the things I like best whenever I visit any French city is looking in the shop windows arranged with so much care. One of my favourites in Nimes is opposite the cathedral, Chocolaterie La Tabletterie, although last time I spent more time at La Maison de la brandade “La Nimoise”. The star product of this fourth-generation business is the brandade, an emulsion of salt cod, olive oil and various herbs very typical of the region. Dipping into a brandade is as much a Nimes custom as going to the Pentecost Feria. And here you can taste before you buy. I can’t think of a better souvenir of Nimes.

Chocolaterie La Tabletterie - 4, Rue des Marchands - (External link)
La Maison de la brandade “La Nimoise” - 9, Rue de l'Horloge - (External link)

Touching the sky of Nimes from the art square

Whereas I had eaten the previous day with views of the Arena, the next day found me lunching looking over the venerable Maison Carrée in the old Roman forum from the Ciel de Nîmes restaurant at the very top of the modern building designed by Norman Foster (Carrée d’art or Art Square). This mix of art, history and gastronomy is amazing. On the table a slate with the best steak tartare in Nimes and a glass of wine. And just outside, the best preserved Roman temple in the world. That’s all!

Le Ciel de Nîmes - 16, Place de la Maison Carrée - (External link)

In the sun and the breeze of the Jardins de la Fontaine

Nimes can be a peaceful, quiet city when it wants to be, as it also has places to escape to a mere five minutes from the historic centre. In Les Jardins de la Fontaine, at the foot of a hill where the Gauls lived long before the Romans arrived, there is a green space where you can breathe pure air, go for a run or sit and read a good book by the eighteenth century fountains (magnificently illuminated at night). Walking through the ruins of the temple of Diana, watching the ducks in the ancient wellspring or climbing up to the top of the Magne Tower always seems a good idea to experience another Nimes at a very relaxed pace.

Like Hemingway at the Imperator

If you are hoping to indulge in the high life in Nimes, what better than to do it at one of the traditional hotels, which will not only send you to seventh heaven with its five stars, but also let you listen to the walls talking, walls that have seen pass by people such as Picasso, Hemingway, Ava Gardner and the best bull-fighters of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The Imperator is the most charismatic hotel in Nimes. And not only for its magnificent facilities but also for the delights emanating from its stoves, under the baton of prize-winning chef, Pierre Gagnaire. Even if you are not staying here, a cocktail in the Hemingway Bar makes it easy to imagine the writer putting the finishing touches to one of his books. And with an original Andy Warhol hanging on the wall!

Hotel Imperator - 15, Rue Gaston Boissier - (External link)