What Have the Romans Ever Done for Us?

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November 10th 2017
Published: November 10th 2017
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Thursday marked the four-week mark of my holiday and my second day staying in Nimes. I wasn’t planning to spend the day in Nimes though, but to travel to some nearby Roman sites.

The first item on the itinerary was to head over to the town of Arles. Avoiding the motorway, the drive took about 45 minutes so I arrived at midday. The scenery on the drive was not as spectacular as earlier in the trip, but it was alright. Driving into town I could see that it was much smaller than Nimes, but the trees lining the road had lost most of their leaves, but the leaves not yet fallen added a nice autumn colour.

My first stop was the tourist information centre where the helpful lady helped me plan my afternoon. I was only interested in the Roman sites, but there were more than I was expecting. I wanted to be on the way at about 4, so I decided not to buy the ticket for all 6 Roman sites. Instead, I went for a ticket that gave me 4 sites and a museum. I doubted I would have time for the museum, but it was still cost effective for visiting 4 Roman sites.

Leaving the tourist information centre, I walked into the old part of town. As I was taking a photo of the Place de la Republique, I was disturbed by a large group of children who were obviously on a school excursion. I had a sneaking suspicion they would be visiting the Roman sites, so I quickly headed across the plaza and into the Hotel de Ville which is the entrance to the Cryptoportiques. The teacher was there before me and I had to wait as she bought 30+ tickets for the site. Fortunately, she then headed back outside so that gave me a chance to head in before it was invaded by kids.

The Cryptoportiques are the foundations of the old Roman forum. Instead of a whole bunch of digging to make the forum flat, the Romans instead built the forum up and created a series of basements. The ground level of Arles, like most towns and cities, has actually risen over the years so they are now well underground. There wasn’t a lot to see, but I still enjoyed exploring the underground rooms.

As I headed back up, the schoolkids were listening (in theory) to their teacher telling them about the place, so I hoped I had a headstart on the next site. But which one? I was tempted to head straight to the amphitheatre, but to get there I had to go past the theatre so I headed there first. The theatre wasn’t huge, but I still spent a good amount of time looking around. I could hear a large group of children nearby and was worried that there were more of them at the amphitheatre, but from the top of the theatre I deduced that it must have just been a nearby local school instead.

I then walked over to the amphitheatre. I started by reading some information panels on the south side and then walked around the eastern side, hoping that would be the best side for a photo like the one I got of the amphitheatre at Nimes. Unfortunately, instead of the nice open square at Nimes with the statue of the bullfighter, the amphitheatre in Arles is surrounded by roads and carparks. The eastern side also happened to be the long way round to the entrance on the north-western side.

As I headed in, I couldn’t see the schoolkids but I thought I could hear them above me. The lady at the entrance gave me directions to the tower you can climb (like the amphitheatre in Nimes, this one was fortified in the middle ages, but three of the towers are still there today). As I headed to the tower, I ran into the schoolkids who were exploring the tower. As I arrived, a group came down the stairs so I headed up. Another group came up behind me which I was annoyed about, but to be honest, they were pretty well behaved and didn’t bother me. One lad even gave me a polite “bonjour!”

Walking around the amphitheatre was interesting, but not as good as at Nimes. There is a lot of modern seating added and it was more focussed on the bullfighting than Roman gladiators. You also cannot head out onto the arena (from the Latin for sand) because it is clearly still used for bullfighting. As I’m not a fan of animal cruelty, this disappointed me. Still, the visit was good and it showed how well preserved the Nimes amphitheatre is.

From the amphitheatre, I headed downhill to the banks of the Rhone river that passes through the town. I looked around for somewhere to have lunch, but the part of town I walked through seemed pretty much shut. I guess during the tourist season it would be much different, but while I enjoyed the low number of tourists, I couldn’t blame the places for not being open for a late lunch when there were so few in town.

I walked along the bank as I headed to my final Roman site – the baths of Constantine. The lady at the tourist information centre had suggested the Roman cemetery instead, but I headed to the baths because the cemetery was out of the old town and I thought the baths would be more time effective. It was, but partly because there’s not much there. I was fortunate to arrive just as the schoolkids were leaving, but I didn’t spend much time there.

It was now 3pm, so I decided to walk back up through the old town and see if there was anything open closer to the main plaza. Fortunately there was, so I had a nice baguette at a small café before heading back to the car.

Leaving Arles just before 4, I was right on schedule. The reason for the schedule was that the next item on my itinerary is lit up at night so I wanted to get some photos. In fact, I have been carrying around my tripod and have yet to use it because I tend to be too tired by the time night falls. But my original reason to bring it was to get some photos of the Pont du Gard at night.

The Pont du Gard is the highest Roman Aqueduct and one of the best preserved. Judging by the surrounding infrastructure, it must be one of the biggest tourist attractions in the area. Arriving so late, however, meant there were very few people there. I arrived before 5pm, but the guy at the ticket office told me the museum was closing at 5 and it would take 15 minutes to walk there. That didn’t faze me, because that wasn’t why I was there.

Even though the sun was still up (just), it was already getting quite cold so I donned my jacket and grabbed my tripod and walked down to the aqueduct. I’d seen pictures of it many times, but seeing it in person was something else. It is huge! If the Romans hadn’t impressed me before then (they have actually, repeatedly!), they would have now. The arches on the second tier are massive and I can only wonder how you would go about building such things without modern technology.

I wandered around, using the last available light to get photos from down near the river. There were many signs around talking of swimming at your own risk, so presumably it is a popular thing to do in summer. Not so much in November, unsurprisingly. The footing down by the river was a bit treacherous, so with some good photos taken, I headed back to the even paths.

After exploring what I could, I sat down and waited for the lights to come on. Apparently, they wait for it to get properly dark and that meant it was properly cold too! Eventually they came on though and they weren’t quite what I was expecting. I assumed they just used spotlights to light it up, but it was actually a bit of a light show, with the lights changing colour. The changes were slow enough that I could still get some long-exposure shots, thankfully. The only disappointment was that some of the lights seemed like they weren’t working. You can see that on the photos. No matter, I was still happy with what I got and I headed back to Nimes before I froze.

Friday morning I checked out of the hotel and had to drive to Lyon. On the way I was planning to stop off in the town of Orange. As I previously mentioned, I had bought a ticket in Nimes that gave me access to a couple of sites in Orange. One was the Roman theatre, but I couldn’t remember what the other one was. So my first aim was to head to the tourist information centre to find out. Unfortunately, the signposts were a bit lacking so I didn’t find it (I actually spotted it as I was driving out of town and was not sure how I missed it!).

Instead, I headed down to the Arc de Triomphe. I was expecting it to be just a smaller version of the one in Paris. While it was surrounded by a roundabout, it was much less chaotic. What surprised me most though, was that it was actually a genuine Roman triumphal arch. It is in a very good condition too, which was nice. The carvings depicting victories on the edge of the empire, and I was impressed to find out that it was raised by the Second Gallic Legion in about 20AD.

I then headed back into town for another look for the tourist information centre, but gave up and headed to the theatre instead. The lady there told me that my ticket gave me access to the museum across the road, so the search had been pointless anyway.

I headed in to look around the theatre, not expecting much. Boy was I wrong! I have seen many Roman and Greek theatres but until seeing the one in Orange, I hadn’t realised how much was missing. Most nowadays have the round semi-circle of seating and that’s about it. The one in Orange has mostly reconstructed the seating, but that is clearly not the highlight. The Roman theatre in Orange is the only one in the western Roman Empire to still have the stage wall intact (the only other two are in Turkey and Syria).

The theatre in Orange is not only unique for that, but it was also one of the first Roman theatres built in Gaul (France). It was built during the reign of Augustus and is used to host operas today. The reason for this is more than just tradition. The huge wall helps to project the sound to the audience, proving that the Greeks and Romans knew what they were doing.

I was amazed by the size of it. You can look up the dimensions yourself, but if you look at my photos, note that the statue of the Roman emperor is actually 3.5m tall. Part of the reason I was so surprised was that I had walked past it earlier when I first arrived in Orange and was looking for the tourist information centre. I hadn’t registered its size then (in my defence, the outside is covered in scaffolding as part of the preservation work) so it blew me away when I saw it.

After looking around, including some interesting multimedia displays in the “caves” (the Roman theatre lasted all day, so there were rooms behind the seats that were essentially bars) I headed into the gift shop, which you have to visit if you want to leave. Finally I found a decent sword for sale and I snapped it up! It’s a gladius, which I already have one of, but this one is different, and I think they will pair up well when displayed on my wall at home.

It was now 1:45pm and even though the museum would be open soon, I decided to skip it. Not just because I’m a bit over museums (the old-school ones, not the awesome ones like at Alesia and Bibracte!) but because I wanted to arrive in Lyon before peak hour. I have bad memories of driving in Paris back in 2005, so I was a bit worried about driving in France’s second largest city. In the end, the drive wasn’t too bad at all and I arrived at my hotel at 4:30pm. It’s really nice too so I’ll enjoy spending the next couple of days here, essentially the end of my trip.

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