Historic Roman sites only highlights here

Trip Start May 30, 2010
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of France  , Provence,
Sunday, August 22, 2010

One benefit to spending a couple of days in Avignon is its proximity to several smaller towns with historic sights. Today I took the train 21 kms north to the town of Orange (not pronounced like the fruit, but or-on-j). The town of 30,000 is best known for its Roman monuments which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Had I known what the Avignon bus station looked like I probably would never have gone by bus but the Sunday train schedule was pitiful. I don't think I've ever been more shocked by the condition of a transit center than I was at the Avignon bus station! For such a beautiful town it is inconceivable how they can find such a dirty, dark, smelly and ugly bus station acceptable. It was worse than any Greyhound station in the US and that's a hard to reach low. There was no one working at the bus station (I mean no one!) but every now and then a bus would come in to drop off or pick up a few people. The buses were run by different companies but were all nice and modern. The bus station is basically the first level parking garage of a building next door to the train station. The Avignon local buses leave from outdoor stops just inside the city walls which is a vastly more pleasant location.

The bus driver was friendly and the ride pretty quick since no one was around on Sunday morning. Even better, the bus stops right next to the Roman Theater in Orange. Roman Orange was founded in 35 BC and in the first century AD this theater was built with an intricately carved stage more than 100 yards long. There were no scene changes in Roman performances so the quality of the stage was important. A large statue of Emperor Augustus is top and center on the stage as he presided over every performance. The seating area for 9000 was built into the hillside with seat location determined by social standing.

During the visit I watched a short movie detailing the history of the theater and then more information was provided through the audio guide that took me on a tour. After Roman Orange declined and the theater stopped being used villagers built houses inside it. Not until Napoleon recognized the historical significance of the ruins in his empire did he ordered the theater vacated, restoring it in 1869. Today the theater is the most impressive still existing in Europe and the only one with its stage still intact.

Since 1869, the theater has been been host to a famous annual opera festival, Choregies d'Orange. In 1971, the "New Choregies" were started and became an overnight, international success. Many top international opera singers have performed in the theater, such as Barbara Hendricks, Placido Domingo, Montserrat Caballe, Roberto Alagna, Rene Pape and Inva Mula. Operas such as Tosca, Aida, Faust and Carmen have been staged at the theater and it nows hosts popular concerts as well.

Next door to the theater are the ruins from an ancient Roman temple. They are basically just the foundations and experts aren't sure what the structure or significance of the temple might have been so it was hard to have much context when viewing the ruins.

Across the street was a museum that was included with admission to the theater. The permanent exhibits in the museum were dark and drab paintings and some slightly better relics from the Roman period. What I found more interesting was the temporary exhibit showing photographs of Roman theaters from across Europe, Africa and the Middle East. I had no idea there were that many remaining but I did recognize probably a dozen that I had visited in person.

From the theater I walked to the other important historical monument in Orange, the Arc d'Triomphe (no relation to the one Paris). In Orange, their arch is actually called the Triumphal Arch of Orange which doesn't have quite the same ring to it. The arch is said to date from the time of Augustus or Tiberius although recent dating places it later than that. Regardless, the detailed carvings and solid workmanship still look great 2000 or so years later. The signage at the arch was all in French so I'm once again thankful for Wikipedia.

On the long walk to the train station in Orange (not attractive I might add; walk and train station both) I continued to search for a place to get a Coke Zero. I know being Sunday limits my options but in Orange that meant my options were none! In the town of Orange, the warmest in all of France in terms of average temperature, it wasn't until I found a vending machine at the train station that I could purchase a soft drink (and you think this travel is easy!).

Orange is a tourist destination because of the theater since there is precious little else to see of note. The town itself has pretty pockets but they are few. Unfortunately, the run-down buildings and lack of services for tourists tends to discourage all but the most persistent of visitors. Tourists will find much more to see and do in Avignon, Arles and Nimes.
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