PROVENCE - We're barreling through Southern France on a TGV bound for the Riviera. TGV as in tres grande vitesse. As in “very high speed.”
To be honest, you don't exactly “barrel” on a French silver and blue-nosed bullet train. You scythe smooth and straight through the countryside at a blurring rate ... 180 mph sometimes ... like a Michael Schumacher Ferrari in full song with 300 passengers on board!
The time to Nice will be 1 hour, 22 minutes precisely. Just enough time, if the muses comply, to tell you a little something about the Provencal town of Orange and a day we spent there, just messing about.
We went on a whim, really, because we had some extra hours to spare. It was easy to reach by train, we had never been there before, and there was Roman stuff to look at.
We've become quite besotted by all things ancient and Roman ever since we first saw the massive Pont du Gard, part of a towering, multi-level aqueduct system that carried water 30 miles into Nimes. It was built some 19 years before the arrival of Jesus Christ, and still towers over the River Gardon.
Arriving mid-morning in Orange, we immediately checked into the best-looking of the three modest hotels adjacent to the train station - a little 3-star number called the Louvre et Terminus (rooms $60, breakfast $7 extra), and struck out for town, maps and guide books in hand.
The Tourist Office provided additional sightseeing materials, and some instant smiley facts.
Orange, pronounced “or-AHNGE,” has a population of 26,964. It was named after a Dutch count, is rich in art and history, has a reputation for good food and wines, and is home to two world-renowned monuments.
Orange in season, Easter time and May through September, is a popular destination for foreign tourists - Brits and Americans mostly. But in mid-October, it isn't exactly bustling, which makes sightseeing and strolling an unusually pleasant proposition.
Orange's Arc de Triomphe was stop No. 1. Located on the northeastern edge of town on the ancient Via Agrippa, which links Lyons with Arles, the arch was used for some 2,000 years both as a defensive tower and a war memorial. Our Green Michelin Guide spilled out the specific details.
Impressively proportioned at 72 feet high by 69 feet wide, the magnificently preserved arch was put up in 20 B.C. to commemorate the campaigns and ultimate victory of Rome's Second Legion over the Gauls.
The battle scenes are still clearly visible in several stone panels. As are the helmets and javelins, shields and flags, anchors and tridents, skulls and scalps.
Romans, 1. Long-haired Gauls, 0.
To visitors who show up for a quick look-see without any visible explanatory matter, the extraordinary edifice has little meaning beyond its obvious antiquity, which is quite a shame, really.
Because the next object of our visit, the 3-star Roman Theater, was on a two-our lunch break along with the rest of Orange, we took our omelets, salads, and carafe of municipal water on a pretty square directly in front of the 18th century Hotel de Ville.
Intriguing here, besides the people watching, was the fact that the intricate wrought-iron bell tower was purposely opened up to the elements because the prevalent Mistral winds would have blown anything solid clear into the Mediterranean.
The theater, the real pride and joy of Orange, and the best preserved in the entire Roman Empire, was nothing if not sensational. Worth a visit. Worth a journey. And certainly worth the $4 price of admission.
For two solid hours we breathed in the Roman air. And the atmosphere. We clambered up and down the ancient stone seats and steps cut into the side of a hill and explored the many corridors and staircases to get the best possible pigeon's-eye views of the Great Wall - a stunning 118-foot-high backdrop, punctuated by bays and stage doors, and once ornately decorated with multi-colored marble pillars, statues, mosaics, and such.
Nine thousand spectators could be seated here on three different levels, arrayed according to social status, and they would look down upon a wooden stage featuring a mechanical curtain and a “velarium” - a canopy that shaded the most noble from the strong Provencal sun.
Clever chaps, those Romans.
In ancient times, the theater was used for every kind of special event - political meetings and concerts, lectures and shows featuring conjurors, jugglers, and sword swallowers.
Elaborate plays were also staged there - but the contents of all those comedies and tragedies have sadly disappeared in the veils of time.
Today, the theater provides a quite extraordinary venue for public spectacles, taking full advantage as it does not just of a unique and evocative setting, but of almost perfect acoustics.
Very clever chaps, those Romans.
For us, the simple fact of being there, treading in the footsteps of the Caesars and imagining the scene 2,000 years ago, has vaulted Orange into one of our all-time favorite Roman holidays!
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