Skip to main content

Orange, Provence

Home to some of the world's best Roman ruins

featured in Towns & villages Updated

Driving from Lyon south on the Autoroute A7 towards Provence, you may notice the signs for Orange, the first major town in the region.

What attracts the thousands of visitors to Orange are the two monumental Roman structures, the Arc de Triomphe and the Théatre Antique, both of such stature that a turn off the Autoroute will not disappoint. And if you're a Dutch national and a fan of the Royal Family (the House of Orange), a trip here will certainly be on your list.

History & Culture in [locality]

A prosperous town under the Roman emperor Augustus, in the 5th century it was pillaged by the Visigoths, becoming an independent county in the 11th century, later passing to the house of Nassau.

In 1660 it was captured by the French King Louis XIV, who had its fortifications pulled down, and it was eventually ceded to France in 1713.

Famous for its Roman architecture, the theatre was built around 27BC - 14AD and is the best preserved of its kind. Originally seating around 1,100 people, an imposing statue of Augustus stands about 3.7m tall in the wall's central niche.

There is also a famous arch, one of the largest built by the Romans at about 19m high, it has fine sculptures of victories of Roman general and statesman Julius Caesar. The theatre, the arch and its surroundings were designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1981.

Modern day Orange is an agricultural processing centre, tourism and glass manufacturing are also important.

Sights & Attractions in [locality]

The most impressive approach to Orange from the north is by way of the N7, which leads directly to the Triumphal Arch on the north side of town (parking nearby). Most historians think that this ornate Roman arch, one of largest and best preserved, was dedicated to Tiberius or is it Julius Caesar, commemorating the military exploits of his legions, some 20 years BC. A few others doubt the attribute. But what is clear is that this arch tells a story. On the facades you can see the chiselled decorations that tell of Gallic slaves captured, with hands tied behind their backs, of military attributes - helmets, flags, javelins - of naval elements - anchors, ropes, tridents - of battles between the Romans and the Gauls. The arch tells you that the legions of Tiberius, or another emperor, were here and don't you forget it. The crowning glory on top, a chariot drawn by four horses, is now sadly missing.

Just south of the old town and close to the tourist office you'll find the Roman theatre, the best preserved theatre of the Roman Empire. Built during the reign of Augustus, it still serves today as a place to enjoy concerts, opera or ballet. Although it has suffered through the ages from natural decay, fires and looters keen on finding building materials for their own architectural designs, the theatre gives a sense of how the productions in Roman times might have been. It seems, however, that the earlier audiences enjoyed better acoustics (with clever awnings stretched over the seating area) and a more ornate backdrop with statues of Roman dignitaries.

Now we are only treated to a statue of Augustus in a niche, assembled from the rubble 1,500 years after a fire destroyed the backdrop in the 4th century. It's not even certain whether the head is that of Augustus, but he looks impressive enough with his Roman salute. Whether the earlier audiences enjoyed more comfortable seating is entirely doubtful.

A private cushion is the first requirement for an enjoyable evening in the theatre. And when the Mistral strikes, you may well want to bring a sweater, blanket, parka, gloves and other warming devices. A hilarious account of an Aida performance during a Mistral can be read in Yvone Lenard's The Magic of Provence. The chapter is appropriately called "A Song in the Wind." During the performance the strong wind picks up and the Spanish diva Victoria de Los Angeles "holds onto her wig with one hand and attempts to control the ballooning skirt with the other while keeping a precarious balance, in great danger of being toppled by the merciless gusts".

For the Dutch, a walk up to the Eutrope hill, which overlooks the village is a must. There they find the dismal remains of a castle that Prince Maurits built in 1622, using the remains of Roman structures as his building blocks. Fortunately he left the theatre, to a degree, in tact. In the 16th century the principality of Orange was passed on to William the Silent, Stadtholder of the Dutch Provinces. For the next hundred years or so the ownership of the territory was much in dispute, torn this way and that by the religious wars between Catholics and Protestants, with the French King being more than annoyed about this Dutch enclave in his territory. Finally, in 1713, the decree of Utrecht decided that Orange was to be part of France, but that the descendants of William the Silent could still call themselves prince or princess of Orange, without land. To this day the primary title of the Queen is Princess of Orange. And when you see a soccer match of the Dutch national team and wonder about all those orange colours, now you know why.

After the visit to the Roman theatre, the Arch and the remains of the considerably smaller Dutch empire, you may wander about the old town. There are agreeable squares with restaurants that offer decently priced and good meals. Orange is worth a half or full-day stay. But be sure to bring your winter clothes when you attend a performance at the theatre.

Events in [locality]

There are plenty of events going on in Orange throughout the year. One of the oldest and most well known has to be the Choregies d'Orange, an annual International classic music festival set in the Roman theatre.

Dining in [locality]

You'll find a great selection of restaurants, cafés and delis in Orange. Some feature in the Michelin guide, but if you're not looking for fine dining you'll find plenty of choice to suits your tastes and budget.

Nightlife in [locality]

You can take in a show at the Roman theatre as well as the Theatre du Sablier in the centre of Orange. If you're just looking for a place to drink, there are plenty of bars and cafés to choose from.

Hotels in [locality]

There are a good selection of hotels in and around Orange, as well as a lot of charming B&B's and apartments for rent.


Map of the surrounding area