Roman Forum 2006

Roman Forum 2006
Foro Romano, from the Palatine Hill - a favorite photo from one of my favorite cities

Monday, July 26, 2021

Bloggo Sud de la France-o 11: Last Day Trip from Avignon, to Orange

 Orange! Yes another ancient Roman city in Gaul, another place I visited on my own waaaay back in 1999, and the very last day trip (also on my own) of my very last trip abroad to date (Covid's fault, not my own). Located only a half hour or so from Avignon, with plenty of daily trains to and from, quite easy for me, and much desired by me. 

The reason? One only, though I am sure there are others. I had a great urge to re-visit perhaps THE best preserved ancient Roman theatre in the world. In 1999 it was high on my list, as I was in Europe specifically to photograph famous performance spaces for my theatre history class. Ithaca College's slide collection was a woeful mess when I was offered a job in the Department of Theatre Arts. And while I began building the collection from my earliest days at IC, I had to wait for my first sabbatical leave to really (truly, madly, deeply) increase it.

The center of old Orange is easily enough reached. I discarded the idea of a taxi as it was a pretty day, and instead walked briskly for between 12-15 minutes along a road that took me directly from station to ancient theatre.

The theatre is impossible to miss, and once found it seems at once a big deal and not a big deal, as upon entering the plaza on which it stands/of which it dominates, this is what the visitor is confronted with the huge (see white van at lower right for perspective) rear wall of the scaena, or scene house - overpowering, and not terribly attractive:

Once inside, after paying a small entrance fee and walking through the at least as small souvenir shop, I was first caught up, looking to my left, in the front wall of the monumental scaena frons (the front of the scaena as well as the backdrop for the pulpitum, or stage. 

Then, looking to my right, I couldn't help noticing the cavea, the tiered, semicircular audience space.

As I climbed up into the cavea, each time I stopped and turned back on the journey up, I got a an increasingly full and quite grand view of the most imposing scaena frons and in front of it, about 5 feet off the ground, the long, thin rectangular pulpitum, or stage. 

As Stevie Wonder used to sing it, "higher and higher."

So! scaena, scaena frons, pulpitum, cavea - get it? got it? good! There WILL be a quiz. There is only one statue on the scaena frons, that of Augustus Caesar, dead center. To get a better sense of what it might have looked like in the days of ancient Rome - or in this case Gaul - imagine the other niches on the wall also containing statuary - splendiferous, right? You should also notice three doors, largest at center, the other two flanking it. 

(Above, the central door and the statue of Augustus.) Those three doors were used as entrances for the actors. Two other entrances/exits, at each end of the pulpitum. In ancient Greece these would have been spaces from which the chorus entered. But in the Roman era the chorus, a seminal part of Greek drama, was eliminated. But the end entrances were used, one of them said to head to the agora, or center of town, the other to head out into the country. Romans also loved spectacle, and frequently large parades were added to the drama, participants entering at one end of the theatre or the other.

Some of you have by now had enough or more than enough of learning about the parts of ancient Roman theatres. But I want to show you two more photos looking at either side of the stage and beyond.

I climbed higher in the cavea, on the hill it was built. The actors would have been pretty tiny from this height, but to the right there's a great view of Orange's rooftops, and beyond, the mountains.

And to the left, the remains of an ancient Roman Temple

The wooden floor of the pulpitum is pretty obviously newer than the rest of the stone theatre. It was placed there in the 20th century for summer productions of opera held here - still held, though I'm fairly certain that in summer 2020 no festival was held, probably not this summer either.

One last shot of the scaena frons and pulpitum, with a few people looking at it, just for perspective.

All in all a beautiful theatrical experience. 

In the Place du République, the square next to the theatre, there are several places to eat - I had a good omelette at one of them before heading back to Avignon.

In addition, there is a small museum of history and art, admission included in your ticket to see the theatre.

I found this statue (see below), in the square and facing the gigantic scaena, dramatic and impressive, if somewhat enigmatic. 

I had to do a bit of digging to find the "meaning." Want to know what it is? An artist named Injalbert created it. "The theme of [his] composition is 'L'ame antique remettant le flambeau de l'art au genie moderne' ('the spirit of antiquity re-igniting the flame of modern art')." Get it? Got it. Good!

And on walk back to the rail station, I couldn't help noticing this clearly impressive (well, impressively named) place - New Jack. Has a ring to it. I'm afraid that I remain Old Jack, but glad to see that there's a newer, younger, brighter version.

And that is that! Except for a few details, travel nightmares and the day I spent in Frankfurt before I flew back to the U.S., which I'll write about in my next blog, my last trip abroad pre-pandemic came to an end. What a journey! I only hope that those of you who read this blog will have at at least as much fun, good weather, and new adventures, as I did on my three weeks in the South of France. 
Au Revoir et Merci!

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Bloggo Sud de la France-o 10 : Two Day trips from Avignon (Vauclose, Rousillon & Gordes; and Roman Sites

The day trips I took from Avignon are proof that Provence is relatively compact. I refuse to drive in Europe. I don't like to drive even at home in the US. Trains are for me, but when I can't get to a place by train I sign up for organized day tours. Full-day trips are available, but at my age I tire easily, even on  8-9 hour tours, whereas 11-12 hour tours have become out of the question. Avignon is rife with long-ish tours but I was able to see a good bit of the area around it on half-day organized mini-van tours.

The first of these excursions led me to the Luberon, an area filled with hill towns in beautiful settings, brought to a life of sorts by Peter Mayles in his books on the area. I think I must be one of the few people that don't enjoy reading Mayles, possibly because I'm a pauper and he was clearly wealthy enough to rig up a posh villa in this expensive area. Ah well, doesn't matter, he is of course mentioned in organized tours, but I prefer a Luberon without the condescending tones of that author. 

The tour I booked included a stream that seems to spring out of nowhere, near Vauclose (just outside the official boundaries of the Luberon, but every bit as beautiful), the dramatically set gray-white town of Gordes, and the beautiful, ochre-hued village of Rousillon. 

Driving off the main roads as we neared Vauclose, we entered an almost Medieval world. The church there looks like it was not so much built, as grown naturally out of the land. 

We were given time on our own, and could choose to walk uphill in an attempt to find the secret source of the stream that runs above and through Vauclose, or to stroll/shop around the tiny town, or simply to have a cafe au lait and pastries. 

I chose the first option, walking briskly up a not terribly steep hillside along what seems a magical river.

The photo above is not doctored. The emerald green is achieved by the algae that cover the riverbed. Perhaps the sun and the time of day added to its appearance, but I was mesmerized. 

Walking closer and closer (and up and up) to the source there is more than one rushing streams - three by my count, though I think legend has it that there are seven - which gradually converge into the river that flows peacefully through Vauclose.

There are tales about the source of its origins. My favorite has a traveling minstrel asleep on the way to the spring awakened by a nymph... there's more to the story, diamonds that reveal gushing streams of water, etc...but isn't that enough to tease you into a quick "Google" to read a bit more on the subject?

The mysterious atmosphere is aided by a cave most of the way up the climb

and if you have enough French you might get hints to the secret of the Fontaine de Vauclose (below). 

I did not have the French for it, and I never discovered the secret, alas, but after a bit of a climb up I was able to ponder it as well as to enjoy the view on the lovely walk back down to the village.

I would have gladly spent a bit more time there, but I came, I saw, and so what if I did not conquer? 

We moved on next to a view in the distance of Gordes.

That great view was all we were to see of it, and it was certainly enough me, mainly because during World War II Gordes had been a hive of the resistance. The Germans bombed it nearly out of existence, enough so that it had to be rebuilt from scratch after the war. Its charming setting from a distance is more than enough, as the place itself is "new to look old" per the guide. One from the group of three older American couples, ardent worshippers of the great god Trump, complained that Gordes was listed on the tour and insisted that we should see it, but though he grumbled about it he was overruled by the great ruler of that city, Monsieur Jackie, who forbade any Trumpists from entering his city (looks a bit like me...hmmmm) 

The truth is that the same fellow had made us VERY late in leaving Avignon, at the set time of departure he was MIA. Turns out he had driven the few minutes from his inner city hotel, but couldn't find a place to park and dropped his wife near the meeting point, then kept on driving to find one. Our practically saintly guide patiently explained via the wife's mobile phone that there was a place very nearby where he could park, and, led to it he did, but by the time all was said and done we had been kept waiting nearly an hour by a couple that couldn't find it in themselves to walk the short distance from their hotel. Of course he complained as we were driving how this would never have happened back home, that we had much more room and availability to park back in the good old US of A. The ugly American rears his head! But the polite tour guide explained that we had to get back on schedule (he didn't SAY as much but this was clearly because of the boorish American).

All this nonsense settled (though the guy kept on grousing) off we went towards much greener pastures.

Did I just write "greener"? I should have called our next and last stop "more ochre-esque" if that's the word. For, while the large amounts of limestone in Provence are the common building blocks for much of it, the beautiful village of Roussillon is made mostly from the rusty-reddish rocks that surround it and is best known for its hues of ochre. 

Above, Roussillon as we approached it.

The ochre surrounding it (above and below)

And a few of the results in the city. A small ochre-hued road

Different shades of ochre in the houses as we approached the farm market

Even the foliage is ochre! Granted I visited in autumn...

The bright and beautiful Roussillon could not be topped and was best saved for last. In spite of the ugly American(s) it was a fine tour.


On my third day in/out of Avignon I climbed into another minivan with 5 or 6 others (more Trump troglodytes I fear, but one very nice British fellow) and a VERY smart guide to see a few of the many Roman sites in the area. This, after all, was once known as Gaul, and several cities date back as far as Ancient Rome.

Two of the best-preserved are located in Nimes, our first stop. First we had a look at the beautiful Maison Carrée. 

There have been several restorations to the building, originally built before 4 and 7 A.D., but its basic shape and layout have not changed. It is an excellent example of Vitruvian symmetry and balance (think Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man drawing), named for the ancient architect Vitruvius, not only important when he lived, in ancient Rome, but tremendously influential on the Renaissance. Below is the entrance.

Next, still in Nimes, we visited the admirable amphitheatre, one of the largest and best preserved of the many that dotted the landscape of Roman Italy and conquered countries. 

Built in about 70 A.D.,it is still in use today, mostly for special events and bullfighting. Thus the statue of the matador, along with his faithful assistant, Dottore Gianni.

It was being prepared for an event of some kind when we visited, so the interior was cluttered and a bit of a mess. Hardly the Colosseum, but much more complete.

There are also views to be had when you get to the top of the upper tier.

I had been waiting for decades to see these two monuments, and I was not disappointed, though I was crushed that our tour did not include the apparently brilliant brand new Museum of Rome. Had I allowed more time on my trip to France I would have returned on a train from Avignon just to visit this on a solo visit, but...

Walking back to our van we stopped at an interesting if somewhat unusual statue:

One might guess that this is a Christian statue, Mary the mother of Christ perhaps, but she is more Marianne than Mary. But she is the Lady of Nimes, standing figuratively as well as literally for the city. The "Marianne" I just refers to a symbol of the French Revolution, young women who were every bit as much involved in toppling the monarch as their men. Atop her head would seem to be a crown (if Christian, Mary, Queen of Heaven?), or halo -  mais non! Instead it is a tiny model of the Maison Carrée!

Next on our itinerary, the ancient city of Uzès: And ancient it is, another Roman-founded town, beginning in the 5th century A.D. it was known for its civility and tolerance, as a group of Jews settled there at that time, and Ferrol, Bishop of the place, is said to have been friendly in general, even inviting them to eat at his home. For this he was reported and forced to turn on his guests, forcing them to become Christian or to leave the city. He later was made a saint. One would like to believe it was for his tolerance of the Jews, but more likely for the opposite reason. Jews were expelled from the area in 614 A.D. In the early 8th century it was taken by Muslims who made the city its northernmost stronghold, but the legendary Charles Martel took the city. But Uzès seems to have been prone to tolerance. In the 13th century a small group of Jews was hosted there, along with Cathars (a Catholic heretics violently opposed by the Church proper.

Whatever its history has to offer, today the old center of Uzès (one of the entrances to the center is pictured above) is mostly pedestrianized, and to walk through its warren of tiny streets is to head back in time. We were given a good bit of time to wander. A few photos of streets, lanes, and alleys that I found particularly appealing.

Several of these tiny thoroughfares converge on a tree-lined square, which to my eyes, compared to the rest of the center is huge.

Also extremely pleasant! I chose an outdoor table at a tiny cafe and indulged in my first glass ever of Chateauneuf du Papes. A friendly and attractive woman suggested that I try a small platter to go with the vin extraordinaire, and the result was a perfect mid-morning snack.

As one blogger put it, rather crassly (but I don't always reject the crass): is "a village that just oozes charm." (In fact I wish I'd thought of it!)

Last but certainly not least, a place just outside Uzès, not a town, simply a site and what a sight!

Our final stop was the most exciting of this tour. I have seen photo after photo of the Pont du Gard, but none really prepared me for experiencing in person. 

Before I go any further, I can explain (in a way that our very bright tour guide did not) a connection between Nimes, Uzès and the Pont du Gard, other than "Roman Sites." Indeed, our guide admitted that in Uzès there are no sights from Ancient Rome in the village. It dates back to Rome, but seemed much more Medieval when I explored it. The connection is an aqueduct, the most famous (and visible) section of which is the legendary Pont du Gard. But much of the aqueduct's course was underground. Uzès is important in that the source of water for the aqueduct is located just next to it. Not far from Uzès is the most visible portion - the Pont du Gard. How does Nimes fit in? As the destination of the aqueduct, 50 kilometers from its source, is that city. The entire purpose of the aqueduct was to provide water for that important Roman city.

How about that? You're very welcome.

There is a very nice if a tad touristy area built up only a short walk from the Pont du Gard. Here's a plan of it posted at that area.

Here you'll find shops, eateries, all-important rest rooms and a small museum on the topic of aqueduct. From there one proceeds along a path that turns slightly to reveal a first view of part of the Pont.

At that slight turn you can see three olive trees - you can see a boy walking towards them, and a plaque which explains that one of them is more than 1,000 years old.

In part it reads" I was born in 908 A.D. in Spain and was planted by the Pont du Gard in 1988 - 1080 years later."

Might this have been done because in 1985 the Pont du Gard was named a World Heritage Site? Or to make the area around the Pont more beautiful? I've read both theories, but cannot be sure of either. 

The closer I walked, the more dramatic the Pont became.

To see most of the Pont, cross to the other side, take a brief walk away from it and turn back:

Wow! Correct?

There is an even better view, but for that you must own or rent a kayak, or canoe, as the smart folk pictured above did. Had I more time...but I did not, alas.

The Pont du Gard ended the trip - talk about saving the best for last...and with that I end this post. I am saving the trip I took on my own, to see the Roman theatre at Orange, for the next one, in which I'll also describe the comedy of errors of my getting back to Frankfurt and flying home.