Breaking apart my breakfast croissant, and watching the world meandering its lazy way towards work across the Place du Marché, it suddenly dawned on me why I like Nîmes so much. It’s a town that still looks and feels like France used to be, when I first started coming here as a girl. Broad open boulevards without irritating concrete bollards, winding little ruelles with lively local tabacs and headily odorous chocolatiers, without garish neon signs over aluminium shop windows, and hardly a phone shop or a “centre d’informatique” in sight… And best of all, lots and lots of shady pavement cafés with bamboo and wickerwork chairs (the type that leave a criss-cross pattern over your cellulite when you stand up), where customers are sipping café crèmes from Choky cups whilst perusing L’Equipe, or El Toro, twisted round wooden poles. Nîmes is a rare French phenomenon — a Grosfillex-free town!
Of course, I’m ignoring the soulless sprawl of the zones commerciales and banlieu-building-blocks that crawl so horribly around all French cities, and I’m not referring to the splendidly preserved historic 1st century Roman architecture for which Nîmes is most famous. I’m just talking about the well-cared-for, lived-in town centre, with its clean, neat squares, streets and 18th century houses, and its pleasant, civilised and unhurried people — who haven’t yet got their ears glued permanently to mobile phones. We did notice a preponderance of hairdressers and opticians, however, but we put that down to the near-constant presence of the mighty mistral, whistling over the flatlands of the surrounding pays Nîmois, playing havoc with everyone’s carefully coiffed hairstyles, and whipping fine dust up into their streaming, damaged eyes…
The night before we had feasted in Nîmes’ really great rosetted restaurant. The terrace of Le Lisita looks straight onto the amphitheatre, and as darkness began to fall the ancient arches above us were gracefully lit in a mottled silver-grey sheen. It was like gazing at a car-free, cat-free Colosseum, with just the sound of our fellow diners chomping contentedly away on their amuses bouches and the squeal of a thousand swallows swooping in and out of the Roman “vomitoires”.
It is a smart-looking restaurant, but the prices are not at all outrageous for the quality of the cuisine, with a lunchtime menu at €31, and wines of the region well-priced. We had the €48 evening menu and everything was an utter triumph, starting with a tiny slice of cured salmon offset by two mini-glasses of chilled soup — one melon, the other a crème de moules. Our rich and tantalizing entrées, one of a foie gras pancake and the other a lobster and duck concoction, were followed by simpler but utterly superb main courses of succulent lamb and a plancha of rougets (any chef who can get the humble rouget to taste as moist, cod-like and delicate as that has to be worth his salt.) The cheeseboard was huge, the pre-desserts, the desserts — including one triple pineapple dish of a sorbet, fresh carpaccio and also contrasting honey-baked crispy slivers - and the coffee nibbles were all brilliant. Come to think of it, no wonder I was looking at the world so benignly the following morning, with all that inside me! I already had the rose-coloured spectacles; all I was missing was a blow-dry from nearest coiffeur….
If you’re thinking of staying overnight in Nîmes, as we did, I can also thoroughly recommend the modest, traditional hotel we stayed in, just a few steps round the corner from Le Lisita, called L’Amphithéatre. Ask for one of the spacious rooms with casement windows that open onto the colourful, palm-tree-lined, traffic-free Place du Marché. At €60 for a double room in full season it also felt like stepping back in time — surely you, too, can remember that time when France boasted reasonable prices?! (04 66 67 07 79).Juliet Young