Provence is famous for its charming hilltop villages, brilliant sunflowers, and fragrant lavender. It is also where you can find some of the best Roman ruins in all of Europe. This is because Provence was once an important part of the Roman Empire. The Romans even gave it its name: “Provence” comes from the original Latin “Provincia Romana.”
If you like beautiful temples, magnificent amphitheaters, and stunning aqueducts as tall as an 18-story building, then Provence is the place for you. Let’s take a look at some of the best of these Roman sites.
Just west of present-day Provence, Nîmes was the capital of Provincia Romana. It was known as “the most Roman city outside of Italy.” In the heart of Nîmes sits a 24,000-seat Roman arena, perhaps the best-preserved in the world. Today it is used for everything from concerts to sports to mock gladiator battles.
Right next door is the Maison Carré, considered one of the world’s most perfect Roman temples. It’s gleaming columns and classic form have inspired architects for centuries. And across the street is the sparkling-new Roman History Museum. Full of beautiful mosaics, scenes of Roman life, and enough digital technology to keep the kids entertained for hours, it’s superb.
Other highlights of Nîmes include the Tour Magne (Magne Tower)—part of the old city fortifications. And there’s the Jardins de la Fontaine (Fountain Gardens)—originally part of a large complex of Roman baths.
Pont du Gard
Ancient Nîmes had an elaborate system of fountains and public baths that required a steady supply of water. The closest major spring was many miles away, so Roman engineers built a gigantic system of canals and pipes to bring its waters to town. One of the challenges was crossing the Gard River Valley, which cut right across their path. No problem! The Romans built an aqueduct to cross the valley, the Pont du Gard, which rises nearly 200 feet above the valley floor.
To make it so tall, the engineers came up with an elegant three-tier design. Huge base arches topped by progressively smaller ones. The Pont du Gard is truly an awe-inspiring site. Just next to it is an excellent museum that explains the whole water system and how the Romans built it.
Arles sits on the banks of the mighty Rhône River, making it the perfect hub for Roman sea and river trade. Large ships that plied the waters of the Mediterranean Sea would come to Arles to exchange cargo with the smaller vessels that could navigate the Rhône, or would unpack their loads for overland travel to other cities in the empire.
With all of this coming-and-going, it was inevitable that some of the cargo would wind up in the Rhône, presumably lost forever. But in recent years scientists have been able to explore the river’s murky depths and have made some remarkable discoveries. First was the bust of Julius Caesar, considered the best ever found. And then came an actual Roman barge over 100 feet long. Both are now in the Museum of Ancient Arles, along with mosaics, coins, and other artifacts dating to the glory days of the empire.
Other highlights of Roman Arles are its arena, seating 15,000 and still in use, plus the large Roman theater. Ther’s also a sprawling burial ground called the Alyscamps.
Orange is best-known for its magnificent Roman theater. Performers come from all over the world for its annual summer festival. The main wall of the theater is over 120 feet tall. It’s so lovely that King Louis XIV called it, “the most beautiful wall in my kingdom.” The wall’s great height means that its statue of Emperor Augustus looks tiny even though he is over 10 feet tall!
Orange also boasts a massive Roman triumphal arch. It’s a bit like the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. And there’s an excellent museum of Roman art and history.
Today’s charming St-Rémy-de-Provence began as a settlement known in Roman times as Glanum. The ruins of this important Roman city have been excavated and it is well worth a visit to see the remains of its temples, baths, markets, and houses. Just across the road are a well-preserved triumphal arch and a mausoleum, standing side by side.
Glanum was supplied with water by the nearby Lac de Peiroou. This artificial lake was created by the Romans using history’s first arched dam. While the ancient dam is long gone, the lake still exists and its sunny shores are a wonderful spot for a picnic.
Keith Van Sickle splits his time between Silicon Valley and Provence. He is the author of One Sip at a Time: Learning to Live in Provence and Are We French Yet? Keith & Val’s Adventures in Provence. Read more at Life in Provence.