As a last stop in Provence before moving on to Israel we visited the Roman Theatre in Orange. This theatre is a UNESCO World Heritage site built in the first century CE against the hill almost to the top known as Colline-St. Europe. Its acoustics are still considered some of the best in Europe. The theatre has a tiered semicircle of seating that held up to 7,000 spectators for comedy as well as tragedy. Today in addition to opera and stage performances many great musicians have appeared on the stage as well. From the 16th to the 19th centuries the interior was filled with slum housing. In the 19th century restoration began including a new roof over the stage.
This little area of Provence is so dense with things to do and see that it’s almost overwhelming. If the rest of southern France is half as full one could spend years exploring. Of course that means return trips, not the worst thing. Everywhere one goes there is something else in the “neighborhood” worth seeing and all of this is 1 hour or less from where we are staying near Le Thor (or L’Isle Sur la Sorgue). So starting with that closest neighborhood the Sorgue is a river that lies between the Alps and the Rhone River with its source the biggest spring in France.
Because the lavender is in full bloom, a trip to the Abbaye de Senanque was an appropriate stop and in the “neighborhood” is the beautiful hill town of Gordes. We did not stop there but the view from the road was spectacular. So was the Abbaye. This was the only pocket that we really felt the oppressiveness of too many tourists. Unfortunately Gordes has been discovered by movie stars and now all the rest.
The water from the Pont du Garde was destined for the city of Uzes, a medieval city mostly not on the tourist radar so a quiet stroll around led to some lovely surprises and lastly, Nimes has another almost totally intact arena that is in restoration.
In our classes this summer we have had conversations about the amazement we feel about structures such as Stonehenge or the pyramids or even the Nazca Lines and we sell human skills short by thinking someone from “the olden days” could not possibly have created such things. In this part of France there are many opportunities to marvel at the skills of our ancestors.
The Pont du Gard is one such structure, standing through wars, earthquakes, and floods since 19 BCE. The Maison Carre in Nimes, is the world’s best preserved Roman Temple from 16 BCE.
The countryside of Provence is quite beautiful and distinctly Mediterranean. I never realized how overwhelmingly dense in things to do and see. There is no way not to make this a return region to visit. There is something to see or do everywhere you turn. When we think of “old” in California we are amazed to find something a few hundred years old though there are Native American sites. Here almost everywhere you step there is something ancient and certainly there has been quite a bit of attention focused on this region.
It’s easy to see how many artists especially in the 19th and early 20th century would be inspired by Provence. The luminous quality of the light and brilliance of the colors can be seen in Cezanne, Monet, Renoir, Bonnard, Signac, Dufy, Matisse, and of course Picasso. But probably the most significant for this area was Vincent van Gogh.
Van Gogh lived in Arles for 15 months from 1888-89 and during that time painted 300 works though none of them remain in Arles (though the Foundation Van Gogh is having a show here of 31 paintings on loan from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and the Kroller Muhler Museum in the Netherlands). His works from this time have lots of yellow, ultramarine, and mauve. His subject matter was primarily landscape and reflects his Dutch heritage.
Arles is a fairly large city with a small historical center that dates back to Roman times and there are many significant Roman ruins there. It sits along the Rhone River and was also famously the home to Vincent van Gogh from 1888-1889. Because of its strategic location it was inhabited first by Ligurians in 800 BCE and then Romans around 123 BCE expanding the port capabilities. By the 5th century the population was 100,000 and it was considered the center of Gaul.
Emperor Constantine spent considerable time here and built a number of important structures, best known are the baths of which very little remains. Over the centuries it was the location for many conflicts both religious, political, and economic. Once the railroad was built the port diminished and Arles became more of a backwater and hence popular with artists and now tourists.
This posting is about three small towns all of which are tourist destinations for different reasons. L’Isle Sur La Sorgue is the closest to where we are staying and is a cute town with a small river (the Sorgue) running through it. There are more ice cream shops than banks and it attracts attention for having a great daily market but the thing that gets the most attention is a once a week antiques market that we avoided. Roussillon is a charming hill town whose buildings are all ochre colored because it is where ochre has been mined since ancient times. There are many galleries and shops where you can buy all kinds of artist pigments. The third town is St. Remy en Provence and its claim to fame is the asylum where Vincent van Gogh spent time and from where he painted many of his most well known works (more on him later).
From 1309-1377 the popes moved from Rome to Avignon because of a dispute between France and Rome. A French pope (Clement V) decided not to move to Rome and instead established his papacy in Avignon from where the next seven popes ruled. Gregory XI decided to move back to Rome. Upon his death the new pope Urban VI was disliked by some cardinals who reestablished a papacy in Avignon for a short period and considered illegitimate and called anti-popes. This lasted through two popes and ended in 1407.
Palais des Papes was home to all this and is the centerpiece of Avignon. Many renovations adding portions and then taking portions away depending on the pope (or anti-pope) and lots of restorations some good and some not so good have taken place since. Well documented for a visit with simulations, reading material, etc.
The Palais des Papes remained under Papal control until taken over by Napoleon.
A few months ago we arrived in Minneapolis on the day Prince died and it was a somber city for the few days we were there though I learned more about Prince than I ever had before. We arrived in France the day after the British people voted to leave the European Union. It seemed a somber atmosphere at the airport, not many smiling or laughing people but they may also have been jet lagged as we were. We have not had much opportunity to speak with people and our French is not good enough for French TV. We have arrived at our pied-à-terre for the week and most of the conversation has been with our fellow American friends staying here.
What I can say, and what the newspapers are saying, is that people have voted with their emotions instead of their brains. Does this sound like something we should pay attention to?
If you are in my class right now a few of you have remarked about “old” buildings and of course I’m here in the land of old buildings. We are staying in a 400 year old farm house lovingly restored and now shared with others.
We spent the afternoon in Avignon, famous for the song written in the 16th century about the bridge that goes to a dance (which was performed under the bridge). I learned it as a child and never knew what it was all about. Now I do. Avignon is a Medieval walled city that became the papal home and center of power from 1307-1377 with 7 popes residing there before their return to Rome. For a time there were two popes (one in Rome and the other in Avignon) known as the Great Schism. More about this in the next post.