At its peak, the Roman Empire stretched across 2.75 million km² over much of Europe, Northern Africa and the Middle East. One of the greatest empires in history, its ruins now can still be found all over Europe and the Arab world. Provence in particular has one of the highest concentration of Roman sites outside of Italy. For anyone who isn’t a buff on Roman history, should you divert your limited travel time away from Provence’s many impressive attractions, assuming you have already been to Rome and Pompeii (a.k.a. the best)?
I had been on both sides of the coin. On my first visit I saw Pont du Gard then headed west to the Luberon, deciding the rest of the Roman sites in Arles, Orange and Nîmes to be too similar to the ones I saw in Italy. Twelve years later, now with an obsession on World heritage Sites, I spent a day on visited the three towns I bypassed on my first trip. Here are the reviews on all four sites.
Pont du Gard
Before heading to Nîmes, you should detour to what make the settlement possible in the first place – the iconic Pont du Gard, a bridge that is part of the 50-kilometer aqueduct system built in the first century AD to carry water from a spring at Uzès to the former Roman colony.
According to Donald Langmead’s Encyclopedia of architectural and engineering feats, the aqueduct supplied Nîmes with around 200,000 cubic meters of water a day on a journey that took nearly 27 hours to flow from the source to the city. The highest and one of the best preserved of all elevated Roman aqueducts, the 48.8 m tall engineering marvel managed to maintain a gradient of 1 in 3,000 and descends a mere 2.5 centimeters over its entire length. Yet the aqueduct system only served its initial purpose for about 150 years; the water source was, and still is, high in dissolved calcium because of the surrounding limestone. No longer deemed to be safe for human consumption, water confined to agricultural use continued to flow to Nîmes until the sixth century. While much of the system was pillaged soon afterward, Pont du Gard remained relatively intact after being converted to a toll bridge across the Gardon River.
Roads and aqueducts are the lifelines of the Roman Empire. The best preserved Roman roads, the Appian Way, lay just outside of Rome. As for aqueduct? Your best bet is probably 1,000 km northwest in Pont du Gard.
For most cities, a 2,000 year-old Roman amphitheater is a gift from history that will manage to draw tourists from across the globe for eternity. Arles merely treats this amphitheater, along with other Roman sites, as a sideshow. See, most tourists associate Arles as the temporary home of Vincent van Gogh where the artist enjoyed the most productive phase in his short and volatile career.
Compares to the many other overly-polished Provençal towns, Arles seems to be in a perpetual state of dilapidation, and any idealized vision of an artistic haven that once managed to inspire a troubled genius will be quickly dashed. Already a backwater back in Van Gogh’s time, it was precisely Arles’ ruggedness in contrast to Paris’ glamour that attracted the artist to settle there. But like most impressionist masters, Van Gogh’s brilliance laid in his depiction of subjects of everyday life. When you follow his footsteps in Arles, what you will find are real but mundane version of a café, a courtyard, a bridge, and a flight of stairs.
At least the Arles Amphitheater is relatively well-preserved. With a capacity over 20,000, it is still in use for bullfighting and summer concerts. But its enormous stature is constrained by the tiny square it finds itself in – surrounded at all sides by residential buildings, the setting is similar to the Pantheon in Rome.
Built in the 1st century AD, at a time when southern France was established as a colony of retired soldiers, the Théâtre antique d’Orange (Ancient Theatre of Orange) was a perfect example of the Roman policymakers’ attempt to distract its citizens from engaging in politics by providing them free entertainment.
From the outside, the theater looks like an imposing fortress, dominated by a 37-meter high wall which Louis XIV declared as “the finest wall in my kingdom“. This towering wall was not just for show; its size allowed for proper sound projection and served as a decorated background of the stage. The theater could hold 10,000 spectators and had a retractable canvas canopy to protect the audience from the elements.
Its size stood out, but what made the theater a versatile platform for various types of shows was the ingenuity of its stage design. A system of cables, winches and counterweights allowed the actors and working scenery to be hidden from the audience using a curtain, along with trapdoors that enabled the crew to suddenly appear or vanish from the stage. With clever designs like these, the thought of people spending entire days at the theater watching mimes and improvisers becomes much more comprehensible.
I didn’t regret visiting Orange, but the theater was also not a must for anyone who isn’t into collecting WHS.
Before we get to Nîmes’ Roman sites, let’s clear some facts about its host city first. Located in Languedoc-Roussillon and the capital of the Gard department, Nîmes is 33 km and 45 km from Arles and Avignon, respectively. After visiting little towns like Arles and Orange, Nîmes, with its 140,000 citizens, feels downright like a metropolis.
Nîmes also has the most impressive sites out of the three, even though the Arena of Nîmes and the Roman temple Maison Carrée are not inscribed as WHS (they are on the tentative list). Of all the Roman arenas/amphitheaters I have seen, I would rank them as Rome>Nîmes>Verona>Arles>Pompeii. Nîmes’ was by far the most intact among them and was the only one that could almost measure up to the Coliseum.
The Maison Carrée, built between 20 and 12 BC, is the only Roman temple in the world that has remained largely intact. Continuous use since the fall of the Roman Empire ensured the building never fell into despair. It served successively as consular house, canons’ house, stable, seat of the first prefecture of the Gard, before becoming the departmental archives. Restoration work in the 19th century, during the 1990s and again between 2006 and 2008 have have restored the temple to its former glory.
Nîmes is the only can’t-miss among the three towns, and it makes a good day trip together with Pont du Gard from Avignon.