Orange would be just another lovely and historic Provencal town, with an attractive old centre and a scattering of ancient buildings such as the 12th century Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-Nazareth d’Orange, were it not for the fact that it is also home to some of the most magnificent Roman remains on the entire continent. Orange’s 1st century Roman Theatre is one of Europe’s finest ancient buildings to have survived into the modern era.
The Théâtre Antique d’Orange, with its 103m long, 37m high facade, and capacity to seat 9,000 people, and the equally impressive Triumphal Arch, are two blockbuster sights that make Orange an unmissable stop on any visit to Provence. It’s no surprise that they have been recognised as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO, it is surprising how few people were visiting either the day we were there.
Orange’s Roman history really starts in 105 BC, when two Roman armies were heavily defeated by a confederation of Gallic tribes at the Battle of Arausio. It would be another 70 years before the Roman city of Orange was built by veterans of the Second Legion in the now pacified Gaul. It grew into a politically and economically powerful Roman city until it suffered the same fate as the rest of the Empire. The Visigoths sacked it in 412.
The theatre is still used today for performances and after clambering up to the very top where there are views over the town, it really must be an incredible experience to see a show here. While the main thing to do in the theatre is soak up the atmosphere, there’s an interesting audio guide that gives you the history of the building. After our visit we walked into the old town to explore its medieval and Renaissance-era centre.
The town gets its name from the ancient settlement called Arausio that was here before the Romans arrived. It mutated into Orange over the centuries until in the middle of the 16th century the city gave its name to the Princes of Nassau. The then rulers of the Netherlands became the House of Orange-Nassau and built a massive citadel on the hill above the theatre.
Through this twist of dynastic fate, Orange would go on to give its name to other parts of the world as well as to William of Orange, or William III, King of England. It stayed a Dutch possession until the 1713 Peace of Utrecht ceded it to the Sun King, Louis XIV, and it was incorporated back into France. It was Louis who ordered the citadel destroyed, today so little remains that you’d be forgiven for never knowing it existed.
The town cathedral is a microcosm of Orange’s at times, turbulent history. The Romans arrived as the Empire was Christianising and the cathedral was founded in the 4th century. Today, it mostly dates from the 12th century. During the French Wars of Religion in the 16th century, it was converted to Protestantism, and during the French Revolution it became secular. There’s a monument to twelve nuns killed during the Revolution.
Orange is a small place of fewer than 30,000 people, so seeing the old town and its main sights doesn’t take long. As we wandered around we passed plenty of nice looking restaurants, eventually we settled on a tiny place in a narrow street serving Provencal specialities for lunch. It was the perfect culinary end to our time in this part of France. We were heading north after lunch to Mâcon and then back to Brussels.
First though, we made a stop at the Triumphal Arch which is slightly out of the centre on the old Roman road, the Via Agrippa. At one time it was incorporated into the towns defensive walls, today it stands splendidly isolated still on a major thoroughfare in the middle of a traffic roundabout. The location might be odd, but the arch itself is glorious with intricate carvings of Roman military victories.