Crocodiles, palms and rollerblades

Nîmes goes way back with its history. A Celtic tribe (like Arles) settled around a spring there, liked it so much they made it a deity, and more or less welcomed the Roman armies when they arrived – thought more strategically helpful for survival than resistance. It too became prosperous, having various wonderful buildings erected until the bad old days of the Middle Ages brought on the pillaging and plundering and everyone went into a deep decline.

Then the wars of religion put a blight on everything everywhere and protestants were debarred from public life. Fortunately, they turned to cloth production which thrived, the cloth being exported throughout Europe and even to the Spanish Indies! Now we all wear it. Denim. It is the cloth that came from Nîmes – ‘de Nîmes’!

So Nimes too still has its Roman amphitheatre, and it too today holds bull fights, but we decided to focus on places more in keeping with the future directions the city is taking. Three examples of this are La Maison Carée and town square – the old Roman forum and temple, the Carré d’Art and Musée d’Art Contemporain, and the Arbibus station – a new bus station of Philippe Starck’s design.

The forum space, still the large town square, still has at its centre the old Roman temple, now known as Carré d’Art – the square house. It is the only fully preserved Roman temple of the ancient world and very impressive the restoration and preservation is. Its beautiful proportions, white pillars and Corinthian capitals, stand on a high podium. The roof has also been restored to a faithful reproduction of using large flat tiles together with hand-moulded curved ones like the originals. It looks so good it is hard to believe it is so old. The paving of the square too has been restored in light coloured marble – a great surface for the young people practising precision roller blading navigating through series of cups they’d set up. The old has been brought into the new.

Today Nimes is future facing, rebuilding and restoring monuments of the past, and translating them into contemporary design and remodelling itself yet again as a centre of leading-edge contemporary art. Its town planning projects are given to great international designers and it faces the future while keeping its pastis does have a very forward thinking

Appropriately, the Musée d’Art Contemporain, is housed in Carre d’Art – purpose built on one side of the Square and designed by Lord Norman Foster (also designed the Gerkin building in London). It is all lots of glass and transparency, and also houses large libraries of books, media, and sound. The contemporary art gallery part houses around 400 pieces of contemporary art from 1960’s onwards, including works from movements that started in the south of France as well as elsewhere in Europe.

When we were there, the special exhibition was of Larry Bell’s  work. He is an artist from the west coast of the US who explores borders and perspective, moving between sculpture, architecture, painting, and photography to do this. It is work that very much requires the participation and engagement of the viewer. I loved it!!

He plays around with glass, vapour, reflective and iridescent paint and glass finishes and things appear and disappear. A great exhibition, definitely worth looking into if you get a chance and the real thing of course is much better than the website, though that’s still worth your while. To find out more about other work at the gallery, google Musée d’Art Contemporain Nimes and choose the translate to English option.

Abribus Philippe Starck The structure of the new bus station is minimalist, and based on the very ancient coat of arms of the city – the crocodile and palm tree. (Octavius defeated Anthony and Cleopatra’s fleet ensuring Rome remained the centre of the world, Caesar Augustus was born, and a coin was minted in Nîmes to celebrate. This symbol is all over the city including on all the bollards every town has in abundance.

The shelter is on an elongated teardrop of a traffic island – the basic shape of a crocodile. The seats are and main shelter structure are of cubes of black marble, resembling crocodile skin, with the seats arranged in an elongated S shape (also reminiscent of the crocodile) going through the shelter. A palm tree stands on the other end of the shelter. What it represents probably more than the crocodile and the palm, is that the city seeks to make even these very basic and functional structures structures of beauty and art to enhance everyday life in the city.

Nîmes felt a bit like Nice with its modernity and energy so that’s what we concentrated on when we visited. There was so much more to see, old and new. The gardens of the fountain, remains of the old Roman palace and temple to Diana, an octagonal imperial temple by the spring, the old roman gates, the very rare castellum that received water from the famous 50km aqueduct associated with the Pont du Gard… and that’s where we headed!

PS I just found this post which hadn’t been published in May when it should… Pardon!

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