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Discovering the Romans in Provence

The Roman theatre, Orange Provence, view from the top of the theatre wall looking over seating

‘The Romans were here’ is writ large throughout the beautiful region in southern France known as Provence. The very name ‘Provence’ speaks of an historical connection to the Roman empire as it was the Romans that named the area ‘Provincia Romana’. Colossal structures and stupendous engineering feats have stood for 2,000 years here as testament to the skills and determination of the Romans.

In the footsteps of Vincent Van Gogh

We first encounter a Roman site just outside the charming town of St Remy de Provence. One particular path through town takes Anne, my wife, and I along the Van Gogh route. We marvel at marked sites where Vincent painted many of his beautiful paintings. And, at the end of the route we come to Saint-Paul de Mausole, the institution where Vincent received care for a short period of time in his later life. As we leave the monastery, we’re surprised to find a Roman site just a few hundred metres away. The town that once stood here was known as Glanum.

The Roman ruins of Glanum

Roman ruins of Glanum in Provcence, remains of walls strewn over the landscape

 Glanum is an ancient site first settled by the Celts, then the Greeks and finally by the Romans. It flourished due to its location between Italy and the Rhone River. As I enter this site, I come upon two structures, a triumphal arch and a Mausoleum. Within the site are the Spring of Glan, which gives the site its name, Hellenistic houses, twin temples and Roman baths. The site continues to be excavated. When the city was sacked in 260 AD its citizens moved less than one kilometre away to the town that eventually became St Remy de Provence.

I find myself enchanted by the setting of Glanum. On the blue-sky day when we visit, a light breeze ruffles the pine tree branches that spread around me. They meander up onto the low mountain ranges nearby. These small mountains are called the Alpilles. They consist predominantly of limestone rock and scrub. They run from the Rhone River to the Durance River.

Vincent may well have stood where we now stand as he has left behind paintings of these low hills. We climb a short way above the ancient site and see St Remy de Provence in the foreground and in the distance beyond is the historic and sophisticated city of Avignon.

Arles

Steps leading to the great Roman amphitheatre of Arles, Provence

Westwards now to Arles. When we arrive, it is mid-afternoon and the sun shines brightly on the Amphitheatre. This is an outstanding Roman site in this sultry city, and it is vast in its scope. During Roman times it could accommodate 21,000 observers of gladiatorial combat. Like St Remy, Arles too pays its respects to Vincent Van Gogh and a number of sites note where he painted artworks during his time in the area. It might have been shamelessly touristic, but I couldn’t resist a coffee break at the café where he once painted ‘Café, le soir’.

Avignon

 The September sunshine is finally interrupted by an overcast, humid day. We spend the morning wandering around the stately city of Avignon, home for a large part of the 14th century to a succession of popes. It remains a fascinating, elegant city. Later in the afternoon a light drizzle sets in and we decide to visit the Pont du Gard, in the opposite direction to our accommodation in the lovely Luberon (strictly speaking the Pont du Gard falls just outside Provence in the region of Occitanie). I have read much of the majesty of this Roman structure spanning the river Gardon.

Pont du Gard

Tall three tier Roman aqueduct of Pont du Gard straddles a river under a blue sky

When we arrive in the car park there is hardly a soul in sight. I cannot see the famous bridge from the car park but fortunately a man walks by our car under an umbrella and I ask him if he knows how to find the bridge. He smiles and says, ‘follow me’. After walking for a few minutes, the Pont du Gard comes into view and we are left speechless. What scope, what majesty! As dusk begins to fall, we take the opportunity to view it from both sides. We almost feel like we have discovered it and that it has been lost to history for millennia as, at this moment we have it virtually to ourselves.

It is for good reason that this is the most visited ancient monument in France – it is quite simply, outstanding. A marvel of Antiquity. It is part of a 50-kilometre aqueduct built to bring water from Uzés to Nimes. The aqueduct is a masterpiece of engineering as it falls by just 12 metres over its 50 km journey thus ensuring that water would move along it purely by the force of gravity. The bridge itself is 49 metres high and 360 metres long. It contains 52 arches.

More Roaming the Roman ruins

Years later my heart yearns to return to Provence to wander around other Roman remains and to partake in the daily life of this wonderful corner of the world. I really must visit Nimes and marvel at its Arena, the temple known as Maison Carrée and gain the opportunity to be further educated at the Musée de la Romanite. Orange is also on my bucket list. Its theatre houses an incredibly well-preserved stage wall . It’s also renowned for its Triumphal Arch as well as a wonderful mosaic in the town’s Museum. I’ll meander north from there to Vaison-la-Romaine too. Just its name conjures Roman images and with two Roman sites and a Roman Bridge, roaming here will be perfect.

No doubt the Romans were not welcomed by the Celts two millennia ago as they rampaged through southern France. But today we can very much appreciate the wonderful legacy that they left behind.

By Mark Harrison who  is from the Land Down Under so Europe is a long way away for him but he land his wife Anna love Mediterranean Europe and France is particularly dear to them.