You can’t go to Orange in Provence and not see the UNESCO listed Roman Theatre. I think it might actually be against the law!
It’s not a theatre like we might know it, somewhere with a dark interior with plush velvet seats. It’s an open-air theatre with a 37-metre high wall and a stage facing a round auditorium of stone benches, the top seats gleaming white against the azure blue sky. Built in the first century AD, it is an absolute wonder to see.
The most beautiful wall in France
When Louis XIV visited Orange, he said of the theatre that it was “the most beautiful wall in my Kingdom”. He would recognise it if he visited today because, thanks to a quirk of fate, the 1.8m thick, 103m long wall has survived almost intact.
High up in the centre of the wall is a statue of the Emperor Augustus – looking down on everyone from his lofty perch. From the ground you’d never know that he’s 3.5m tall. But if you were able to climb up there you’d be able to tell – and how do I know this? Because I did climb up there!
Inside the Roman Theatre, Orange
My friend Guillaume who works at the tourist office organised a special visit for me. I have vertigo and don’t like being up high at all, but I wasn’t going to miss this unique opportunity. So I took a deep breath, kept my eyes to the front – and climbed. If you were thinking this is just a wall, then you’d be mistaken. Behind that stony time worn exterior is a narrow building inside the wall.
The steps to the top are rough. Carved away by time in places, worn and crumbling in others, whilst some steps are so steep I had to literally pull myself up to them like climbing a tree. Onwards and upwards, round and round we went. Through dusty ante chambers, and skinny corridors, crossing planks of wood with deep chasms below. Eventually we emerged onto a platform high up, right behind the famous statue of Emperor Augustus.
I have to tell you it’s a heap higher up when you’re there with the Emperor than it looks from the bottom of the arena. The visitors milling about below posing for selfies on the stone benches, taking photos of me without knowing it, looked tiny. I wondered if they would see my head sticking out behind the statue when they looked at their photos later. I stood on my secret perch for a while contemplating the immense history of this incredible monument. That statue has witnessed life for 2000 years.
I made my way down rather more gingerly than I went up and was happy to be on terra firma (sorry not sorry – I couldn’t resist a Roman phrase in this article). In what were the changing rooms of actors there are now exhibitions. You can see film clips of people watching plays here from 100 years ago, the ghosts of the past.
If only these roman walls could talk
This place has always had something special about it even when it wasn’t in use – which is how its survived so well.
Extraordinarily, hundreds of years ago, the theatre became a housing estate of sorts. In the 16th century the poor people of Orange built ramshackle houses up against the wall and within the arena, their dwellings spread until the whole place was under cover.
During the 18th century makeshift prisons were set up in the theatre. In the 19th century, while in some areas of France, town architects pulled down ancient buildings to make way for new, this place survived when Prosper Mérimée, an inspector with the newly formed Monuments Historiques, implemented an extensive restoration campaign. This consisted of clearing away the constructions built in and around the stage area and the lower tiers.
The Roman theatre was finally restored to its former glory and from day one, it wowed the public.
What’s on at the Roman Theatre in Orange
The theatre at Orange continues to inspire and delight audiences – just as the romans intended. In 1869 the theatre hosted what was then called “Fetes Romaines”, theatrical performances which were an immediate success. This became an annual summer event renamed Chorégies and it now attracts internationally-renowned artists to perform in front of crowds of more than 9000.
Sitting on one of those ancient stone benches (tip: squash a cushion in your bag to make it more comfy), as the sun sets on a warm evening, watching the stage lit up, the performers inspired by their surroundings, is one of those experiences you never forget.
Many of the evening performances at the theatre are free. You can get tickets during the day at the theatre reception desk. The acoustics are stunning, the location is wonderful, the ambiance is exquisite, the events are spectacular. Classical music, ballet, opera, pop, rock and more are on offer. Whatever you do, when you go to Orange, if you get the chance to experience this theatre in action – don’t miss it.
You can also take an audio guided tour of the theatre, climb those steep bench steps and see the “The Ghosts of the Theatre” multi-media show.
Details of events and tours: www.theatre-antique.com
Useful websites: www.orange-tourisme.fr; www.provenceguide.com