The Ancient Romans were prolific builders and imperialists and France (ancient Gaul), especially the south, was one of their favorite stomping grounds. In the 1st century BC to 3rd century AD there were literally hundreds of Roman cities, towns, colonies, and settlements in what are now the regions of Provence and Languedoc-Roussillon. What remains today are some outstanding examples of Roman engineering, town planning, architecture and grandeur in a variety of sites dotted around the countryside.
The Romans' first settlement and provincial capital in Gaul was the city of Narbonne in the late 2nd century BC and although there are still remnants of their military stronghold of Narbo in existence in the form of parts of the Via Domitia in the main square and the well-preserved underground merchants' warehouses of L'Horreum, there are several more grandiose and impressive Roman remains located elsewhere.
We started our Roman adventure in the city of Orange. Orange was a Roman military colony called Arausio, founded in 40 BC and developed into a larger city, complete with sizeable public buildings by the 1st century AD. The town itself is quite lovely and you can stumble upon its original Roman center without too much effort or a map. The Roman Theatre of Orange (www.theatre-antique.com/en/orange) may not have the reputation of some of the grander amphitheatres in neighboring cities, but it is a fine example of Roman construction and the monument is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site. When we visited, a bulldozer was removing the last of the sand after a beach volleyball tournament there the previous day. It is considered the best preserved Roman theatre in Europe and the tiered seats of its gallery, the stage, and the impressive original stage wall are basically in tact (minus a bit of ornamentation). There were very few tourists which made the visit more pleasurable. Entry to the theatre includes a ticket for the Archaeological museum located across the road and cost €7.70 ($12) for adults and €5.90 ($9.20) for children over the age of seven. If you arrive an hour before closing time, you get €1 ($1.55) off the ticket price. Pay for three tickets and get one child's entry for free.
Next door to the theatre are the remnants of a temple and religious buildings, but most of the area isn't accessible to visitors, except from behind a barrier at the theatre's exit. A 15-minute walk from the theatre leads you to a significant triumphal arch that graces the city's original entry point. Built, arguably, at the time of Emperor Augustus, today it sits in the middle of a busy roundabout with cars zooming past, barely paying attention to the impressive monument.
The city of Nîmes is best known as being the home of denim, but two thousand years ago, it was a flourishing large Roman city. Locals here pride themselves on their antiquity and are the first to point out that they are indeed a "Roman" city. The amphitheatre or Arènes (www.arenes-nimes.com/en/nimes) is referred to as the best preserved in the Roman world, but after a visit there, I was left feeling rather deflated and unimpressed. Don't get me wrong -- the structure itself is magnificent, but the fact that they have put massive scaffolding over the main audience area and laid down particle board seating over the original stonework spoils the overall feel of the space. I didn't want to take photographs as the authenticity of the area seemed diminished by its modern usage.
Like many other historic sites in France and elsewhere, nearly every visitor to the site was running around with audio guide hand pieces. I personally hate those things and believe that they detract from the overall visitor experience. They also lead site management to reduce the amount of visual interpretative material like signage and plans. On the plus side, they can be helpful for those who have no background or prior knowledge of Roman architecture and offer information in eight languages (French, English, German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Japanese and Chinese). They are free with the cost of admission, but unless you really feel the need to be spoon fed information, give them a miss. If you have had the pleasure of visiting other Roman amphitheatres, particularly the Colosseum in Rome, you may wish to skip the €7.70 ($12) entry fee for the Nîmes amphitheatre and concentrate on admiring its external arches and walls instead. Alternatively if you can stomach the brutality, bull-fights take place in the amphitheatre during the "Féria" -- local festivals including Whitsunday, Carnival in February and the Harvest festival in September).
Nîmes' other well-known Roman building is a temple known as Maison Carrée (entry €4.50/$7), located a five-minute walk from the amphitheatre and smack in the center of the town's shopping district. At present the Maison is being restored and was covered in scaffolding on three sides. We decided not to pay for entry (actually the girl who sold us our entry ticket for the amphitheatre said it really wasn't worthwhile to enter the temple) as that would only entitle us to watch a video. Again, this s a building best admired (when not covered in scaffolding) from outside.
The last of the three Roman monuments is the Tour Magne (entry €2.70/$4.20) located on Mont Cavalier, the town's highest point. Built at the time of emperor Augustus, it is all that remains of the original city walls and ancient ramparts and provides panoramic views over the city. If you do decide to enter all three moments, you can buy a Nîmes Romaine ticket for €9.80 ($15) or €7.50 ($11.65) for seniors or children. Children under seven are admitted free to all monuments and for every three paid tickets (adult or child) in the same family, one child enters free.
The amphitheatre or Arènes de Arles (www.arenes-arles.com/arles_info/index.htm) in Arles has long been a rival of its neighboring city of Nîmes and the city itself is commonly known as "Little Rome in Gaul." This amphitheatre is larger and has just undergone a major restoration so its exterior walls and arches are gleaming. Like Nîmes, the amphitheatre is used for public events like bull-flights, concerts and spectacles, especially during Easter and the summer months. Entry to the Arènes is €4 ($6.20) for adults and €3 ($4.70) for children. Arles is home to several UNESCO world heritage listed monuments including the amphitheatre, the Roman theatre (entry €3/$4.70 adults; €2.20/$3.40 students) and the Cryptoportico foundations of the Roman Forum (all dating back to the 1st century B.C.) plus the Roman baths of Constantine, the remains of the Roman circus, the cloister and portal of St. Trophime's and the Alyscamp cemetery. A walk through the city's Roman and medieval center will be a rewarding experience with numerous historic and architecturally significant buildings.
Long before Van Gogh was inspired by the landscapes and street settings of St. Rémy-de-Provence (www.saintremy-de-provence.com), the Romans were making their mark here in a town they called Glanum. The ancient site of Glanum, just south of town at the edge of the Alpilles, was originally a Greek city, built over by the Romans and there are some beautiful Roman artifacts, including a mausoleum and the oldest Roman arch of the region. From the center of town it is a half-hour walk (or five-minute drive) along the D5 road, following signs to "Les antiques" and "Les Baux". On the right side of the road are the Triumphal Arch and Mausoleum. Both are free to visit (although if you choose to park your car at the car park next to it, you'll be charged a few Euros for the luxury -- parking across the road a few yards up is free).
On the left side of the road, a short lane leads to the Glanum site which costs €6.50 ($10.10) to enter. Van Gogh fans will also find the hospital he lived at for two years just next door plus a number of historic buildings and a Van Gogh walking trail. The Glanum site features both a residential and a public area, with a combination of private villas and monumental buildings and a religious center. The city was occupied from the 1st century BC to 3rd century AD when it was abandoned after invasions by Germanic tribes. There is a bath complex with a swimming pool in front of it and a series of large private villas. The public buildings include a council house, treasury, wells, a large basilica, forum, temples, theater complex, monumental platform and a triumphal fountain. The Sanctuary or religious area is separated from the rest of Glanum by a fortified gateway and includes the sanctuary, shrine and two temples with inscriptions.
The Roman city that I enjoyed the most is the slightly lower-key Vaison La Romaine (www.vaison-la-romaine.com). What I loved about this site is that it contains a series of private villas, streets and public buildings (temples, bath houses etc) alongside an amphitheatre and the area is beautifully preserved and maintained, including fish-filled ponds and an abundance of flowers. The €8 ($12.45) PASS ticket is a passport to all the town's historic buildings, including the Gallo-Roman site and Archaeological museum and an 11th century cathedral and cloisters. It is valid for two days, although you can cover the Roman areas in a single afternoon. The museum features a number of sculptures, mosaics and relics found on the site. The Roman part of the city is located just beyond the main city square and a ten minute walk from a Roman bridge that leads to the charming hillside medieval section of the city.
Of course no round-up of Roman sites in the south would be complete without a mention of Pont du Gard (www.pontdugard.fr), the UNESCO World Heritage listed Roman bridge and aqueduct that spans over the Rhône River near the town of Vers. There's a museum, cinema, exhibition space and children's activity center on site (all charge admission fees) but the bridge is definitely the main attraction and a walk along it is free. It is set in several hundred acres of natural parkland and makes an ideal spot for a picnic or long walk along the river bank.
Apart from Narbonne, all of the other sites listed above are within a one hour's drive of Avignon (for example Orange is less than 20 minutes' drive) and can easily be done as day trips from there or other cities located nearby. If you have the luxury of driving around the area, in between these major Roman towns you will also stumble upon remains of various aqueducts, Roman houses, wells, bridges, columns and assorted structures. Look out for the brown "places of interest" signs along the road.
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