Unexpected Roman architecture


With its impressive collection of Roman structures, the town of Arles (External link) has been recognised by UNESCO. Feast your eyes on the vast Roman amphitheatre with its 120 arches – built in 90 AD, it was capable of seating over 20,000 spectators and provided entertainment in the form of chariot races and bloody hand-to-hand battles. Today, it draws large crowds for bullfighting during the Feria d'Arles as well as plays and concerts in summer. Also in Arles is an antique theatre, the ‘cryptoportiques’ (underground galleries) of the forum, the Constantine baths and the Alyscamps necropolis. Romanesque and classical heritage abound in the St Trophime church and cloister, the Hôtel de Ville (town hall) and ‘hôtels particuliers’ (private mansions) – and don’t miss the archaeological museum. Arles is also closely connected to post-Impressionist artist Vincent van Gogh, whose stay here was one of the most productive periods in his career, with over 300 paintings and drawings completed in 15 months. Tourist passes are available year-round: choose from the ‘Freedom’ pass (which covers one museum of your choice plus four buildings or monuments) or the ‘Advantage’ pass, which covers all of Arles’ cultural treasures.


For nearly a century the site of Vaison-la-Romaine (External link) (formerly ‘Vasio’) comprised the largest archaeological area in France. Spread over 15 hectares between La Villasse and Puymin, archaeological digs here have revealed immense, luxurious and elaborate Gallo-Roman homes. Mosaics floors, marble, marquetry, statues, atriums and private thermal baths have all been uncovered, demonstrating life as it was in Roman times. The Musée Theo Desplans in Vaison houses over 2,000 everyday Roman objects and the amphitheatre – which could formerly hold up to 7,000 spectators – is today where the ‘Choralies’ singing festival takes place in August.


A southern French town between the Cévennes and the Camargue, Nîmes (External link) is all about contrast: today a lively commercial centre, but rooted in 2,000 years of history. The amphitheatre and Maison Carrée – a majestic, recently restored temple – are just two of the numerous Roman gems to be found here; there are also splendid mansions and grand gardens, notably the Jardins de la Fontaine which were laid out on a Roman site in the 18th century. Museums and markets line the palm-fringed streets and the city comes alive with festivals in the summer months.


Fréjus (External link) is ancient military port and another Roman town, rising above the fertile alluvial plains that separate the Esterel mountains from the Maures. It’s been an active and dynamic town since Julius Caesar himself founded it in 49 BC and is stuffed with monuments, including one of the largest amphitheaters from Gallic times (1st or 2nd century), a Roman theatre, the Porte Dorée (a golden door, accompanied by the ruins of 3rd-century Roman baths) and the Porte des Gaules.

The Pont du Gard

A true masterpiece of ancient architecture, the Pont du Gard (External link) is one of the most distinctive Roman constructions in Provence and a listed UNESCO World Heritage Site. Situated between Uzès and Nîmes in the Gard department, it spans the River Gardon and was built to support Nîmes’ aqueduct, supplying water to the town for five centuries. It was constructed with remarkable precision and remains a true marvel of engineering (even by today’s standards), built entirely of dry materials without the need for masonry – stones weighing up to six tons each were hoisted 40m high, with only the tallest part of the bridge (48m) made of rubblestone fused with mortar. Today it is one of the most frequently visited historic monuments in France, with admission also allowing entry to the facilities situated on either side of the river: a museum and history film; an outdoor exhibition charting the history of the site’s human occupation over 2,000 years; Ludo, an entertaining and educational space for children; and a waterside café-restaurant.