City Hopping in the South of France. Where History and Modernity Blend
A smaller Colosseum structure stands proud in Nîmes; a Pope’s Palace, like a miniature Vatican, dominates the centre of Avignon; and grand, noble mansions line the stylish streets of Aix en Provence.
These three cities are just as accessible as Paris, via a two-hour flight or the new Eurostar route to Avignon, not to mention the surprising short and scenic train journeys in between.
It’s just that they just have a different story to tell.
In the south of France, history that spans centuries is a backdrop to a flourishing contemporary and artistic lifestyle.
When the Romans built the Domitian Way road from Spain to Italy, they created a trail of history and culture, which now meets here in the middle. Later, from the 16th Century, trade paved the way for prosperity. Today, monuments, palaces and mansions from these times have been preserved and play host to art galleries, boutique stores, festival stages and apartment space.
NIMES – “The French Rome”
Within minutes I called Nîmes “Baby Rome”, but it is more affectionately known as “French Rome” or “Roman France” having been built during the reign of Emperor Augustus up until the 2nd century AD.
The Amphitheatre was then one of the largest, yet its two levels might seem small in comparison to the Colosseum’s four. But ask anyone in Nîmes and they will proudly tell you that theirs is the best preserved of the Roman world. Today it serves as one of two main
arenas for the annual Spanish style Féria that’s been held here since 1952, which includes the debatable sport of bullfighting.
The Maison Caree (Square House) is the only fully preserved temple of the ancient world, and you’ll find many people relaxing on it or enjoying the creative space of its interior. It is likely it wouldn’t survive without the modern Carre d’art building (built by Lord Norman Foster) that sits opposite. The water drainage system beneath the stylish glass façade of this contemporary gallery, library and rooftop restaurant saves it from the damage of flooding.
A stroll through the Jardins de la Fontaine (Gardens of the Fountain) took me back to the bourgeois period of the city from the 16th century onwards, alongside peeking into the city mansions and admiring their preserved stonework. Roman history lays hidden underneath the well-manicured lawns - the people wanted to see something more modern – yet key structures were incorporated. I ended my time here climbing the 32 metre high Tour Magne to be rewarded with the incredible view of the city below and stood within the Temple of Diana, wondering, just as others have, what its exact use was.
AVIGNON – Ancient Christian Capital. Modern Performing Arts Hub
I immediately noticed the opulence of the grand Avignon’s baroque and classical buildings, but nothing hit me more than the first sighting of the magnificent UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Palais de Papes (Pope’s Palace).
This fortified home to the Sovereign Pontiffs was built in the 14th century by two popes who came to Avignon following civil war in Italy. 25 ceremonial and frescoe embellished rooms make it the largest Gothic Palace ever constructed – and I enjoyed getting a small glimpse of the Papal life that made Avignon the capital of Christianity until 1378, when the papacy returned to Rome.
From here you can wander the surrounding gardens and marvel at the Avignon Bridge that ends abruptly in the middle of the Rhone River. Built in 1177, it was damaged several times by river floods and was rebuilt only up until the 17th century. It has since become a key symbol of the city.
Art forms a part of Avignon’s true character. When the Popes resided here, the town flourished with an influx of merchants and artists. Many of these buildings are preserved and used as living space, and others, such as the Museum Vouland, house a collection of decorative arts from the 17th and 18th centuries in the former private home.
Today the theatre scene is prominent. Le festival d’Avignon, established in 1947, annually showcases a series of aesthetic and political projects and The Fringe Festival, which began in 1966, continues to be one of the leading international theatre events globally. Over 1000 different theatre companies from all of France and the world turn the city into a giant stage, it’s main setting being within the Pope’s Palace. Theatre is also brought to the street, via entertainers, scatterings of street art (including famous theatre scenes which I loved stumbling upon), and the Whimsical Walking Tour – a quirky, alternative view of Avignon from the perspective of two clowns.
AIX EN PROVENCE - The Artistic, Stylish city
Quant and stylish, it’s no wonder that post-impressionist artist, Cezanne, found inspiration in the landscapes of the former Capital of Provence.
Aix en Provence has the third largest collection of Baroque architecture in France, after Paris and Versailles, with preserved mansions from the 17th and 18th centuries. Some of these spaces are cultural relics are lovingly restored and open to the public.
Like Hotel de Caumont – a 2,500sq metre mansion from 1720, now open to the public after two years of restoration. Each room is designed to take you back to a time where elegance abounded, which you can feel simply by lounging in the tearoom and classical garden before perusing the gallery exhibition space.
Outside, the city is filled with stylish vibrancy with al fresco diners, outdoors markets and the hum of University student life. Strolling the city boulevards and wandering down it’s many side streets, I soon saw that the architectural baroque beauty is filled with top designer names and the most stylish of hangouts.
Modernity paints a new picture of centuries past, and so it was fitting that I ended my time here standing within the Atelier de Cezanne, my camera in hand, ready to project my art onto his.
Ready to find a way to capture a region whose history spans over 2000 years, yet whose contemporary elegance that will be admired for years to come.