statue emperor augustus orangeA small, unassuming, rather sleepy town in Northern Provence, Orange attracts tourists for three reasons: its Roman history, its opera festival and its wine.

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The main sight, the stunning Théâtre Antique (ancient theatre) is said to be the best-preserved Roman arena in the world.

It's the venue for the Chorégies d'Orange, one of France's leading opera and classical music festivals, in the summer and well worth a visit at all times of year.

And vineyards in the surrounding region produce Côtes du Rhône wines including the highly prized Châteauneuf du Pape appellation.

A THUMBNAIL HISTORY

Originally called Aurisio in Latin, Orange was founded in 35 BC by veterans of Augustus Caesar's Second Legion and flourished as a key city for the Roman colonists in Northern Provence.

After the fall of the Roman empire, its fortunes waned until, in the twelfth century, it became a sovereign principality.

coat of arms orange franceIt was governed by a succession of rulers including (from 1530 to 1702) Holland's Orange-Nassau dynasty. Orange remained a principality until 1731 and to this day is widely known as "La Cité des Princes".

Fun fact about OrangeThree oranges (the fruit) figure on the coat of arms, pictured. But no oranges grow here. Orange-like trees can be spotted on the N7 road to the north of the town, but their fruit is inedible.

WHAT TO SEE

Orange is compact, encircled on three sides by the Meyne river and, to the south, the high Saint Eutrope hill. Its street plan features many straight Roman-style streets, and the main sights are within easy walking access.

theatre antique orangeSurrounded by clusters of restaurants and bars at the foot of its walls, the enormous Théâtre Antique, pictured, totally dominates the town centre.

It was built in the first century AD and lays claim to be the best-preserved Roman Theâtre in Europe.

The Romans had already developed the technology to build an open amphitheatre on flat land. However, for some reason, in Orange they snuggled the structure into the side of the hill.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Théâtre Antique seats 9,000 spectators and was originally used for pantomimes, comedies, dances and various kinds of circus entertainment, not gladiatorial games.

So Christians weren't thrown to the lions here - though, as the Roman Empire declined and fell, the shows became increasingly violent. Adjacent to the arena are the remains of a temple - still being excavated - which was dedicated to the cult of the Emperor Augustus.

After the Romans departed, the Théâtre Antique fell victim to the barbarian invasions and pillaging. It became at various times a fort, a shanty town (with shacks piled up on the arena terraces!) and even a prison.

It was restored in the 19th century and the first music performance in many years was staged there in 1869. Because of its back wall, the Théâtre Antique has outstanding acoustics and is ideal for these musical and theatrical spectacles.

Today the main event is the Chorégies d'Orange, a prestigious opera music festival in July and August. At other times of year the Theâtre hosts visiting entertainers.

romans in orangeThey include the Alexis Gruss Circus, which has a summer base in nearby Piolenc and puts on a horse show, Equestriades, in Orange in May.

There is a Roman Festival in September too, pictured. If you do come to the arena for any of these spectacles, be sure to bring your own cushions!

The Théâtre Antique itself is run by Culturespaces, a foundation which manages museums and monuments all across France.

Other places they look after in Provence include the Quarries of Light, the Château des Baux, both in Les Baux de Provence, and the Caumont Centre d'Art in Aix, as well as several Roman sites in Nîmes.

The amphitheatre in Orange is open to visitors all year round although, outside the main season, you may find it draped in scaffolding.

The arena requires plenty of maintenance and the uneven floor surface was full of puddles when we visited at the end of a rainy week in March! This tour is not recommended for wheelchairs, push chairs or visitors with restricted mobility.

The scale of the Théâtre Antique is undeniably impressive, though you need some imagination to appreciate its former grandeur.

That vast stage wall has been stripped of most of its friezes, sculptures, mosaics and other ornaments, except for a huge statue of Augustus with one arm raised imperiously, pictured top left. A glass roof designed by the Eiffel company (of Eiffel Tower fame) was recently added to help protect it.

But, with the same brio it has bought to its other venues, Culturespaces has created quite a few elements that offer added value and enhance the experience. The admission price includes a free and very detailled audio-guide in ten languages.

And various little films screened in alcoves in the arena show trace the history of the Théâtre Antique and recreate some of the spectacles performed there. You should allow at least two hours for your visit if you want to explore all this in depth.

One tour is specially designed for children, who are also given a free games book. There's a large and well-stocked gift shop. And the ticket also gets you into the nearby Musée d'Art et d'Histoire with more Roman goodies to see.

insider tip for the Roman arena in OrangeIf you really don't want to pay the entrance fee, you can get an excellent, if distant view of the Théâtre Antique for free from the top of the Saint Eutrope hill.

Alternatively, there are various special deals and discounts for families and children and for anyone holding a TER train ticket for the day of their visit. Serious Roman enthusiasts might also consider the Roman Pass which gets reduced admission to the ancient sights in Nîmes. Website for the Théâtre Antique in Orange.

cyclops orange museumJust across the road from the Théâtre Antique on the rue Madeleine Roch, the Musée d'Art et d'Histoire occupies the Hotel van Cuyl, a 17th century hôtel particulier (town house).

In it you can see some of the treasures retrieved from the arena and other excavations in the area.

This is a rather small sample of what's been discovered, due to the lack of exhibition space but it does include a wonderful array of sphinxes, amazons, centaurs and a splendid cyclops, pictured.

There's also the remains of the oldest existing Roman land registry, all engraved on marble plaques.

The upper floors have somewhat less interesting displays of more recent historical material: silverware, engravings, tapestries and work by two minor 19th century English painters, Franck Brangwyn and Albert de Belleroche.

arc de triomphe orangeOrange's other main Roman site, its Arc de Triomphe, sits on the northern edge of town in the middle of a traffic roundabout. It's about a ten minute walk from the Théâtre Antique. You can view it in five or ten minutes and there's no admission charge.

Built in the first century AD, the arch doesn't mark any specific victory. The sculptures which cover it are a general celebration of Roman supremacy over the Celts.

The Tourist Office has created two walking circuits around Orange, one devoted to the Romans and the other to the Princes of Nassau.

But they don't contain many extra revelations: the "Roman walk", for instance, includes a wholly unremarkable modern square named after some obscure archeologist.

The centre is pleasant enough but doesn't have too much more of interest to see. This is one of the poorest regions of Provence. And Orange itself has been dominated by the extreme right (the Front National and the Ligue du Sud) for over two decades. The cultural scene is muted by provençal standards and the shopping streets rather run-down.

One of the best things to do is climb the Saint Eutrope hill for superb views of the Théâtre Antique, the whole of Orange and the surrounding landscape. You might even catch a glimpse of Mont Ventoux.

The steps up the hill begin at the Montée Julie Barthet, just off the rue Pourtoules to the east of the Théâtre Antique. The ascent is quite steep and at times the path is uneven. It takes 10-15 minutes to climb to the top.

It's also possible to drive up the Saint Eutrope hill along the Montée des Princes d'Orange (this is a one-way road) and there's a free car-park at the top.

In summer the town's petit train touristique (little tourist train) can take you there too. Its one-hour circuit also includes the Theâtre Antique and the Arc de Triomphe and you can hop on and on at any of the five stops. Website for the little tourist train of Orange.

At the summit you will find a fortress and a large, leafy park where locals go to cycle, picnic, jog and generally get a breath of fresh air. From Easter to the end of summer, an open-air bar, La Guinguette, serves drinks and snacks and has music and dancing on weekend evenings.

ALSO OF INTEREST

The Chorégies d'Orange claims to be the oldest festival in France (the first edition was held in 1869). It currently runs for around a month, from early July to early August, and offers half a dozen operas and classical music concerts.

orange choregiesThe festival relies on box-office sales for the bulk of its income. So, with 9,000 seats to fill each night, the Chorégies programme needs to be mainstream compared to its rival in the region, the Festival d'Aix en Provence.

Orange has succeeded in attracting some of the very top names in the opera world, including Barbara Hendricks, Placido Domingo, Angela Gheorghiu and Luciano Pavarotti.

However in 2016 it was at the centre of a major political row between the Festival Direction and the Town Hall. A truce has been declared - at least for the time being. Website for the Chorégies d'Orange.

Orange boasts one other potent advantage: wine tourism. Vineyards are all around and there's a wine museum and wine cellar (with tastings!) in the little town of Châteauneuf du Pape just 10 km / 6 miles to the south of Orange. Read more about the wines of Châteauneuf du Pape.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

The Orange Tourist Office is on the place des Frères Mounet, opposite the Théâtre Antique.

The town's large weekly street market is on Thursday mornings on the cours Aristide Briand.

How to get to and from Orange:

By car: Orange is 31 km / 19 miles north of Avignon and 29 km / 18 miles south-west of Vaison la Romaine (another important Roman site). From Avignon take either the A7 or the A9. From Vaison la Romaine, take the D977, then the D23.

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Car parking is hard to find in the area around the Théâtre Antique, but there are plenty of car parks on the edge on town. The further ones are free of charge too.

By bus: The bus station (gare routière) is on the boulevard Daladier, near the post office. The town is served by numerous bus routes: no.1 from Bollène, no.2 from Avignon, no.3 from Valréas and Richerenches, no.4 from Vaison la Romaine, no.10 from Carpentras and no.23 from Châteauneuf du Pape.

Click here for the current timetables (look for the link marked "horaires des lignes", then choose the relevant timetable from the list).

By rail: The train station is 1 km / 0.6 mile to the east on the avenue Frédéric Mistral. Orange's three buses all run from here to the centre. There's a fairly regular train service to Orange from Marseille, Arles and Avignon.

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Click here to download the current timetable (select timetable no.10 (Marseille-Avignon-Orange-Valence) from the drop-down menu.

Where to stay: There's a notable shortage of hotels in the centre of Orange and you will need to book very early indeed if you are visiting during the Chorégies.

The top hotel in Orange is the four-star Mercure, but it's way on the edge of town 2 km / 1 mile from the centre. It's a dull walk along a busy main road and there are no buses, though you can borrow a free hotel bike!

Nearer the downtown area, the pretty provençal Villa Aurenjo is the best bet. It was full when we visited so we opted for the Kyriad Centre, which had comfortable rooms and represented very good value.

Where to eat and drink: The go-to tourist restaurant is La Grotte d'Auguste, brilliantly located right in the walls of the Théâtre Antique - with a staircase leading directly to the arena. It has bags of atmosphere and the food is more than decent.

a la maison orangeAmong the other restaurants by the Théatre, we were drawn to A La Maison, with its terrace tables set around a fountain on a pretty, sunny little provençal square, pictured.

Our great value plats du jour were sausages in spicy tomato sauce with Thai rice (odd, but delicious) and a very good onglet de veau (veal skirt steak). 4 place des Cordeliers.

Several locals also warmly recommended Au petit Patio, though we didn't have time to try it. 58 cours Aristide Briand.

Photo credits (from top): © Jean-Luc Seille for the Conseil Général de Vaucluse, Wikimedia Commons, Gromelle Grand Angle for Wikimedia Commons, Culturespaces, Carole Raddato for Wikimedia Commons, Alain Hocquel for CDT Vaucluse, Culturespaces, SJ for Marvellous Provence.

 

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