NIMES, France — Although geographically in the province of Languedoc, this city's heart, soul, color and flavor were forged and flowered under Rome's rule, just as in the towns of neighboring Provence, leaving it the most Roman of all French cities.
And, as in Italy, citizens live among their antiquities with almost nonchalance, quite casually accepting the fact that they pass what are probably the best-preserved Roman temple and amphitheater in the world on their way to work each day; picnic beside the Pont du Gard aqueduct outside town, built in 19 BC and one of France's most recognized monuments after the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame.
They attend a performance of "Tosca" or a corrida in the amphitheater, walk by the Temple of Diana and Roman baths in one of France's most beautiful gardens on the site of an old Roman quarter, even give their children Romanized names.
Being surrounded by all this beauty and tradition has given the citizens an easygoing aplomb and friendly nature. About the only thing they're not given to openness in discussing is the location of their favorite places for hunting the lactaires , wild mushrooms so important to many marvelous local dishes. Such secrecy, even with friends and family, is accepted behavior and very nimoise .
Here to there: Fly Air France to Paris nonstop, Pan Am, TWA and American without changes. Air Inter will get you on down to Nimes in an hour. Or use French National Railroads' France Vacances Pass to ride the 165-m.p.h. TGV through the French countryside in about four hours.
How long/how much? Two days for the city, at least another for a leisurely visit to Pont du Gard, the magical hill town of Uzes near where the aqueduct began and other scenic towns of the province of Le Gard. Lodging costs are inexpensive to moderate, superb dining moderate on our scale.
A few fast facts: The franc was recently valued at about 16 cents, 6.05 to the dollar. Spring and fall are best times to visit, hot in summer but not unbearably so. Walk most of the old town, excellent sightseeing buses for getting around the city and excursions into the surrounding country.
Getting settled in: Hotel des Tuileries (22 Rue Roussy; $48 double, $72 for a lovely suite) outdoes its three-star category considerably, probably because it only serves breakfasts. Small, new and on a quiet street near everything you came to see, with most of the amenities and presided over by personable owner Monique Veillerot, who seems concerned with every guest's needs. A fine Breton seafood restaurant across the street.
Hotel du Louvre (2 Square de la Couronne; $36 double) faces one of the main squares, an old-style town house in a historic building dating to 1672. Handsome dining room with fireplace serving all meals, fish a specialty, rooms spacious but a bit dour. We've liked this one for years.
Royal (3 Blvd. Alphonse Daudet; $29 to $43 double) is in another old home at town center, just steps from arena and the Maison Carree temple. Modest yet just given a bright sprucing up with white walls and contemporary art about; young and energetic owners.
Regional food and drink: Brandade de morue nimoise is the town special that separates the very good from so-so chefs: a cod dish prepared with olive oil and milk, then mashed into the consistency of a light mousse and served hot. It's made with or without a touch of garlic, our choice being the former.
Every menu lists olives as an hors d'oeuvre, Nimes being France's largest producer;both the green and ripe varieties are mashed into tapenade, an assertive spread that's heavenly on bits of toasted French bread.
All restaurants seem to have a huge selection of pelardons (chevres), wrapped in chestnut leaves one of the best. Costieres du Gard are excellent red, white and rose Rhone wines, while the local Clairette du Languedoc goes very well with seafood.
Moderate-cost dining: A la Louve (1 Rue de la Republique, opposite arena) has great specialties of the region, including a masterful brandade a la nimoise and bourride de baudroie, a type of bouillabaisse of whitefish only that was the best we've ever had in France. Menus here run from $10.50 to $17.50, tout compris.
Ophelie (35 Rue Fresque) has a perfect gem in chef de cuisine Patricia Talbot who works wonders in this small and charming place. Long narrow room, small marble tables, arresting original art on walls, soothing classical music. Patricia's forte is seafood: terrine de poissons a'estragon, gratin de moules, lotte in a variety of ways.
Lou Mas (5 Rue de Sauve), a rustic country-kitchen-style room with hewn beams and an open fireplace, is owned by former Catalan Serge Pitarch, who still leans toward the Spanish way with meats. Lamb chops are grilled at the fireplace and served on a hot flagstone. Cuts of veal are garnished with various cepes, including lactaires, everything served on wooden plates.