A Christmas visit to Provence, France forcefully brought forward two thoughts about the ancient Romans—they were not afraid to invest in public infrastructure– and they built things to last on a scale unimaginable today. The first site we visited was the Roman theatre at Orange about 15 miles north of Avignion. The Romans built it in the First Century AD as a means of spreading Roman culture among the conquered Gauls, but also a means of diverting the public from engaging in political activity. Like the Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan the Romans knew it was one thing to defeat a country’s armies, but quite another thing to successfully occupy the country afterwards. The theatre can seat about 10,000 spectators and, as its acoustics are rated as excellent, is still used today for musical events. It has hosted performances as varied as The Three Tenors, and in the 1970’s underwent a phase as a hippy haven with rock acts like Procul Harum
. It is one of only three Roman theatres that still has the stage wall intact.
Perhaps the most spectacular of the Roman sites, is the Pont du Gard—a triple decker aquadict located about 15 miles west of Avignion. Designed to carry the water across the small Gardon river valley, it was part of a nearly 50 km (31 mi) aqueduct that brought water from the springs near Uzès to the the Roman city of Nemausus (Nîmes). The full aqueduct had a gradient of 34 cm/km (1/3000), descending only 17 meters vertically in its entire length and delivering 20,000 cubic meters (5 million gallons) of water daily.
It was constructed entirely without the use of mortar. The aqueduct’s stones – some of which weigh up to 6 tons – were precisely cut to fit perfectly together eliminating the need for mortar. The masonry was lifted into place by block and tackle with a massive human-powered treadmill providing the power for the winch. A complex scaffold was erected to support the aqueduct as it was being built. The face of the aqueduct still bears the mark of its construction, in the form of protruding scaffolding supports and ridges on the piers which supported the semicircular wooden frames on which the arches were constructed. Various inscriptions are found across the surface, containing instructions used in construction. For example, phallic symbols, intended to ward off bad luck, and graffiti left by builders throughout the ages. Incredibly, It is believed to have only taken about three years to build, employing between 800 and 1,000 workers.
Nimes, about 15 miles south of the Pont du Gard, also hosts a number of Roman sites, but the town is more famous perhaps for the heavy cotton cloth that was developed here in the 1860’s bearing the city’s name– denim (de Nimes). Quoting Frommer’s guide, “an Austrian immigrant, Levi Strauss, started to export this heavy fabric to California to be used to make work pants for gold miners, and rest, as they say, is history.” On the site of a Roman Shrine sits le Jardin de la Fontaine—an 18th century park planted with rows of chestnuts and elms and crisscrossed by canals.
Our final stop on this Roman odyssey was Arles, the town where Vincent Van Gogh spent one of the last years of his life and whose countryside provided the inspiration for his sunflower series of paintings. Also in Arles is a well preserved Roman amphitheatre that seats 25,000 and still hosts bullfights in the summer as it did for centuries before.
Even if you are not interested in architectural antiquities, Province is a great vacation destination with its great food, quaint towns, beautiful scenery and mild weather friendly people who tolerate bad spoken French. A whole other dimension to Province is the spectacular Mediterranean coast scenery of the French Riviera—Cannes, Nice and Monte Carlo—but that’s a story for another article.