Located in the south of France as part of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, Gard is paradoxically one of the most progressive-thinking and backward-looking areas of France. Home to some of the best Roman ruins in the world and some of the best examples of modern architecture in France, not to mention a thriving economy, Gard has all the ingredients of a tourist haven.
Gard's population was measured at 623,125 in a 1999 census, with the inhabitants strewn across a land area of 5853km². The largest proportion of denizens reside in the prefecture of Nîmes, with the list of other important communes including the following:
- Le Vigan
Strictly speaking, Gard was founded as one of the original 83 departments in March 1790 during the French Revolution. However, the territory's history is intertwined with that of the ancient Languedoc province, highlighted by a period of serious prosperity as part of the Roman Empire. With the Via Domitia constructed alongside Nîmes (then Nemausus), Gard thrived on trade between Italy and Spain. Indeed, the later Roman emperor Antoninus Pius (86-161AD) was actually an inhabitant of Nemausus.
With the annexation of Nîmes by France in 1229, relative tranquillity prevailed, with the area only notable as a Huguenot (Protestant) stronghold. Even today, the major appeal of Gard is its Roman past. However, with national tourist attractions like the Cévennes National Park, a superb climate and a thriving economy (thanks to its historic connection to denim jeans (denim being a contraction of 'de Nîmes'), Gard is by no means a one-trick pony. Indeed, as millions find out each year, the department is one of the best places to visit in France.
Gard most closely approximates a Mediterranean climate. As the second hottest region in France behind Corsica, you can expect over 300 days of sunshine and very warm summers, tempered only by mild winters. However, in recent years, Gard has been susceptible to extreme weather conditions, most notably flooding in winter. Nîmes is representative of average quarterly temperatures:
Average temperature in Nîmes
Nîmes is one of the most popular tourist destinations in France, predominantly because of its incredibly well preserved Roman ruins. Prominent in this respect is the Arena of Nîmes. Built in 27 BC under Augustus, the Arena was an amphitheatre under the Romans, a bullring in the 19th century and is now used for all types of concerts, marrying function with its wonderful form (however, it is still used twice yearly today for bullfights). Such is the quality of the amphitheatre that it can still seat over 16,000 spectators.
Another monument that simply cannot be missed is the Maison Carrée ('the 'Long Square'). Built between 19 and 16 BC, the Maison started life as a Roman temple, but was rededicated as a Christian church in the 4th century. Today, it stands as an exceptional example of Vitruvian architecture, with a sturdy shell and symmetrical design, all of which is epitomised by its Corinthian columns. Such is the power of this visual that the Maison has influenced countless later works, most notably the 18th century Église de la Madeleine in Paris.
The number of sights pertaining to Nîmes' Roman past is beyond the scope of this brief overview, but another remarkable area is the Tour Magne. Standing atop Mont Cavalier, some 92 feet in the air, the 'Great Tower' provides great views of the city landscape.
However, things don't stop with Rome in Nîmes. Other notable sights include the Cathedral of Saint Castor and Notre Dame, constructed in the 11th century in hybrid Romanesque-Gothic style. The 19th century St. Paul's Church matches the Cathedral's beauty with its own Roman and Byzantine-inspired façade and fresco-covered interior. Wherever you go though, you will see reasons why Nîmes is one of France's great treasures.
Just outside the city in Remoulins is the Pont du Gard, perhaps the most famous of the Roman ruins in Gard. A UNESCO World Heritage site, this aqueduct was built in the mid-1st century AD and is centred on a massive bridge over the River Gardon. Although now unusable, it is one of the country's top attractions today, capturing well over a million visitors annually due to its aesthetic appeal.
The points of interest don't end at Nîmes' city walls either. Also worth visiting are the Cathedral of Saint-Jean in Alès, the 11th century Vieux Pont bridge in Le Vigan (a commune which is also extremely popular in the summer) and the city walls of Aigues-Mortes. All of this attests to the sheer wealth of beauty in Gard, making it a fabulous location for culture lovers.
Gard is somewhat lacking in terms of obvious family activities such as theme parks. However, there are some options such as the Planetarium in Nîmes or taking to the skies at the aero-club de Nîmes-courbessac.
Not exactly for the kids, Gard is also home to two casinos; the Casino des Fumades in Allègre and the Casino du Grau do Roi in Le Grau du Roi.
Museums, galleries and culture
Nîmes is unsurprisingly the chief location for museums and galleries in Gard. An obvious starting point is the Musée des Beaux-Arts, which houses an outstanding collection of French and Italian historical artworks. The Fine Arts Museum is complimented by the Carrée d'Art, located opposite the Maison Carrée, in a building designed by Norman Foster and holding examples of French and European art throughout the centuries.
The prevailing interest in art is counter-balanced by the Museum of Old Nîmes, which looks at local history, specifically the 18th and 19th centuries. If that's not enough for you, the Archaeological Museum looks back even further, with one of the largest collections of Roman artefacts in France. There are even some more rarefied choices available, such as the Bull Museum, which looks at regional and international bullfighting traditions.
Outside of Nîmes, you will find countless municipal museums such as the Musée Cévenol in Le Vigan (looking the commune's history). Probably the best of these is the Musée Albert-André in Bagnols-sur-Cèze, with its fine exhibition of contemporary art.
There are a number of festivals and events held throughout the year such as the running of the Camargue bulls in Beaucaire and the Féria de Pentecôte in Nimes, which is held for five days in June.
The best high street shopping will naturally be around Nîmes. The city is also the location of many excellent markets, such as the daily food market in the rue Général Perrier, the arts and crafts market on Mondays at the Boulevard Jean Jaurès South and the farmers market on Wednesdays in Nîmes Ouest Debussy.
Hikers will be drawn to Cèvennes National Park, part of which is situated in Gard. Incorporating Mont Lozère, Mont Aigoual and Causse Méjean, the area is also of historical significance, being the purported location of the 18th century 'beast of Gevaudan', which killed roughly 100 people between 1764 and 1767 and still puzzles cryptozoologists (fictionalised in the film Brotherhood of the Wolf). A simple trek across the many valleys covers the history of the region, with Neolithic residences, Roman roads and medieval abbeys visible. There are a number of trails for serious hikers around the Park, such as the Stevenson Trail, which cuts through Haute-Loire, Ardeche and Lozere as well as Gard (a cumulative distance of 252 kilometres!).
If that's a little heavy duty for you, the Jardins de la Fontaine and the Temple of Diana's gardens in Nîmes, both of which trace their heritage back to the Roman era, are two perfect spots for sauntering.
There are five courses in Gard. These are Golf Club d'Uzès in Uzès, Golf d'Alès-Ribaute in Ribaute-les-Tavernes, Golf de Nîmes-Vacquerolles, Golf de Nîmes Campagne (both in Nîmes) and Massane Golf Club in Massane.
The Languedoc holds over one-third of France's grapes and producers 40% of its wine. Gard's many vineyards can predominantly be found in the Costiere de Nîmes, Aigues-Mortes and Saint-Victor-la-Coste area. However, the quality is somewhat variable, so do your 'research' before stocking up on cases!
Food and drink
Gard's cuisine is based around Languedoc specialities like tapenade (an olive paste) and topped off by a few local delights like l'Agneau de Nîmes (specially prepared lamb) and le croquant villaret (a very hard dessert biscuit). The best restaurants in the department are situated in Nîmes.
Ease of access
If you're coming from outside of France, there are plenty of options available to you. Nîmes-Arles-Camargue Airport is connected to the UK by Ryanair, but there are alternatives like the nearby Toulouse Blagnac Airport and Charles de Gaulle International Airport in Paris (Nîmes is connected to Paris by the TGV railway line).
Nîmes can also be reached by taking the Eurostar train, and the TGV line links the department to most other major French cities.
If you're renting a car, the terrain is generally very good, and the autoroutes facilitate easy travel from commune to commune.
Value for money
Due to its burgeoning popularity, Nîmes has a great selection of accommodation, from gites to hotels, campsites and B&Bs. The average price per night for a 3-star hotel is around 80 Euros, but can be as high as 175 Euros. If that's a little too pricey, check out one of the surrounding communes.
If you want a taste of the best weather, sights, wine and food France has to offer, there are very few places better than Gard. Already attracting millions of visitors, the department (and particularly Nîmes) is only going to develop further in years to come, so now is the time to visit.