The Romans were an amazing lot. Not content with their stunning city on the Tiber, they set out to conquer the world and for a time, they did just that. Unfortunately for them, their reign over the known world was not to last and ingenious as they were, some say a little lead ignorance ultimately brought them down (others would just say increasing political, martial and economic instability but where’s the fun in that?).
Fortunately for us, we can still admire their ingenuity in many places, and Provence is one of them. If you’re in need of a break from the seemingly endless quaint hill towns, produce markets, lavender and cicadas, checking out the local Roman ruin is a wonderful diversion. There are scads of them in Provence but here are a few I’ve been lucky enough to have visited.
Pont Du Gard
I now have 2 notches in my Pont du Gard bedpost, and I could easily go back for a third time and still be impressed. Parking on the left bank of the river gives you the closest access from the car park (follow signs to Pont du Gard Rive Gauche) and a leisurely walk from the car park brings you out to where you slowly start to see glimpses of the Pont. And what a Pont it is. Well actually, it’s the part of an enormous aqueduct that spans the Gard River (hence the name!) and carried water to Nimes from 50kms away.
As you approach the Pont there are some impressive olive trees that were imported from Spain, or so a photographer in Loumarin told me. I can’t even begin to imagine how old they must be but they’re pretty spectacular just the same. However old those trees are, they still can’t rival the antiquity or sheer awesome scale of the Pont.
It rises almost 50 metres above the river and this section is almost fully intact, an impressive feat considering no mortar was used in the construction. Arriving early in the morning gives you an opportunity to see the bridge lit from both sides – well, in winter at least. You may need to do your own research on sun angles in various seasons to see if you can do the same. Regardless of sun angles, arriving early means you beat most tourists and even more importantly, loud and obnoxious school groups.
Several trails lead you to various vantage points on either side of the bridge, and on the right side, the trail leads through a tunnel where you can see the aqueduct continuing, although not in as good condition. You can even walk right down to the riverbank and ogle up in wonder. I hear you can even float underneath the bridge if you’re game enough to get in the water, but swimming in winter isn’t my bag.
Ancient Theatre at Orange
This is one of the rare opportunities to be able to clearly imagine what it must have been like to be Roman. The theatre at Orange is one of only 2 remaining Roman theatres in the world that still have the back wall intact. Studying Ancient History at school gave me an idea of what the Roman amphitheatres looked like in their heyday, but actually walking into the theatre at Orange and seeing the scale of it took my breath away. Standing at the bottom, the rows of seating seem to reach dizzying heights and the back curtain is gobsmackingly huge.
This is also one of the rare times when the audio commentary provided is actually interesting (Palais du Papes in Avignon is an unfortunate example of coma-inducing commentary, well for me anyway). Take a seat half way up and take in your surroundings as you learn more about the history of this incredible monument. Imagine what it must have been like in the day sitting cheek by jowl with your fellow countrymen watching the latest comedy, or even in later times listening to Pavarotti belt out “Nessun Dorma’.
There was nothing scheduled at the time we were there but it would be worth checking ahead if you know you’ll be in the area on a certain date to see if there’s something on – what an incredible experience to take home with you!
I wonder if anything built in modern times will still be in heavy use in 2000 years time? As late as 2005, the Julian Bridge was still open to traffic, an absolute marvel considering it was built around 3 BC. The elegant span arcs over the Calavon River and a handy parking lot nearby allows you to pull up and amble down to the river for a closer look. In the morning the bridge is lit beautifully and you have a wonderful view as you cross the modern bridge now in use. There’s really not a lot else to see here, but if engineering or all things ancient are your bag, it’s worth pulling over.
For a more atmospheric ramble amongst Roman ruins, head out to the Barbegal Aqueduct, near Arles. There are no ticket booths, queues or hordes to detract from your rubble appreciation and you can stroll leisurely in and amongst the ruins of an ancient aqueduct, Roman ingenuity at its finest. There are still arches in tact and a tumbled down section gives you a look at the top of the aqueduct where the water would once have flowed.
Follow the ruins along the olive grove to where the aqueduct splits in two and then head through a channel cut in the rocks to take in the stunning vista before you. We visited late in the afternoon and there was a couple who had settled down with a blanket and bottle of wine for sunset – cracking idea! Unfortunately we couldn’t stay for sunset so I can’t tell you if it would have been worth it or not, but perhaps that’s an idea you can try if you’re in the area and have the time. Take all your valuables from your car though, there seemed to be quite a bit of broken glass on the roadside pullout.
As well as being a favourite of Van Gogh in his time, Arles was also a favourite with the Romans and there are several key points of interest to explore. A ticket to the Amphitheatre will also gain you entry to the theatre (which is in much worse state).
At the time of my visit, the Amphitheatre seemed to be set up for a concert (either just past or upcoming) in addition to extensive renovations so there was quite a bit of scaffolding and stadium seating marring the view of the ancient stones (the stadium seating may even be permanent). Even so, it was still a worthwhile stroll in and about the various levels and tunnels.
Interestingly, in medieval times, an entire fortified village sprang up within the arena, taking advantage of its solid walls for protection. You can still see a medieval window here and there if you keep an eye out.
The theatre is still interesting but unless it’s included in the price of the amphitheatre, it probably wouldn’t be worth paying a separate entry. Besides, you can stroll around the fence line along the street at the back and peak over the fence for a pretty good view. The only surviving part of the stage is 2 tall columns and at the back of the enclosure is a carved stone graveyard where all the pieces of the theatre that still survive have been piled.
Provence boasts loads of things for you to see, do and taste, but having a nose around a blast from the past should definitely feature on your hit list!