‘More like Italy than a province’ was the verdict of the elder Pliny in the middle of the first century AD, speaking of Provence. Two thousand years later his words still hold true. The Rhône valley between Lyon and the Mediterranean was the part of Gaul where Roman influence was most deeply felt. Nature had endowed the region with agricultural riches (grain, vines, olives – the ‘Mediterranean triad’) and the Rhône corridor was the main trade route from Mediterranean lands into Gaul. This wealth allowed the construction of great cities and monuments in the Roman style.
Arles, Nîmes and Orange form a tight group of cities at the southern end of the valley, all of them Roman coloniae (privileged cities) with exceptional series of monuments. Nîmes houses perhaps two of the best-preserved structures in the Roman world: the ‘Maison Carrée,’ a classical temple built under the first Roman emperor Augustus, and a late 1st-century ad amphitheatre.Most famously, Nîmes was supplied by a long aqueduct which included the world-famous, triple-tiered Pont du Gard aqueduct. Arles rivalled Nîmes, with an amphitheatre of similar dimensions, a theatre and a great circus for chariot-racing.
Orange is famous for its theatre with a huge 37m-high stage wall and the exceptionally complete, early 1st-century ad triumphal arch. Further north, the coloniae of Vienne and Lyon also housed great theatres, and at Lyon there is a rare odeon, or covered theatre. Vienne is second only to Nîmes in the quality of its surviving Roman temple and, like Arles and Lyon, boasted a circus.
St-Rémy near Arles and Vaison near Orange show how local communities reacted to the examples set by the neighbouring Roman cities. At St-Rémy, the narrow valley in the Alpilles shows Mediterranean influence before the arrival of Rome, with buildings clearly derived from the Hellenistic city of Marseille. In the Roman period construction of amenities such as a forum and public baths, along with a triumphal arch and a splendid family tomb on the main road, were public benefactions by local wealthy families, some of whom had become Roman citizens. A similar pattern can be seen at Vaison, where there is also exceptional evidence of how these Gaulish aristocrats adopted houses that would not have looked out of place at Pompeii.
In the late Roman period Arles became one of the most important cities of Roman Europe and a fine set of baths built under the first Christian emperor Constantine I (306–37) survives along with evidence for the growth of Christianity in its churches and cemeteries. With the fall of the western Roman empire in the fifth century and the troubled times that followed, what had been great public monuments, such as the amphitheatres of Arles and Nîmes or the theatre at Orange, became instead fortified redoubts, filled with houses and churches sheltering within their massive Roman walls.
As well as the monuments there are museums, some recently created to the highest international standards, housing the sculptures, mosaics, carved marble sarcophagi and humbler items of daily life recovered from excavations in and around the cities.
Fly (British Airways) at c. 2.15pm (in 2018) or 2.00pm (in 2019) from London Heathrow to Lyon and spend one night here.
Lyon, Vienne. The theatre and odeon on Lyon’s Fourvière hill are accompanied by a museum where highlights include an impressive mosaic depicting a circus race. After free time for lunch in Lyon’s old town, continue to Vienne and its stunning temple as well as other Roman remains. Overnight in Vienne.
Vienne, Arles. Morning visit to Vienne’s Gallo-Roman museum, where remains include domestic and commercial buildings as well as the intriguing wrestlers’ baths. Lunch at the museum’s restaurant before continuing to Arles via Orange, site of the greatest of all Roman theatres to survive in the West. First of four nights in Arles.
Arles. At Arles the amphitheatre is a justly famous, early 2nd-century structure of a type developed from the Colosseum. See also Constantine’s baths, walls and a cryptoporticus built as foundation for the forum and possibly to house slaves. In the afternoon visit the Alyscamps Roman necropolis and the Musée de l’Arles et de la Provence Antiques’ spellbinding collection of classical and early Christian art.
Nîmes. See first the perfectly preserved Roman monuments in Nîmes: La Maison Carrée and amphitheatre. Continue to the Jardin de la Fontaine, once a Roman spring sanctuary and now a beautiful 18th-century garden around the terminus of an aqueduct – the water brought here across the Pont du Gard. Nestled here are the Temple of Diana, part of the Roman sacred complex, possibly used as a library, and the Tour Magne watchtower, at the highest point of the city.
Pont du Gard, Arles. Spend the morning at the Pont du Gard, an astonishing feat of engineering over the River Gardon. Return to Arles for a free afternoon, perhaps to visit the Van Gogh foundation with temporary exhibitions, or the Romanesque Cathedral of St-Trophime with one of the greatest cloisters of 12th-century Europe.
Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. Drive to St-Rémy-de-Provence, Glanum of old, and proud possessor of one of the truly great funerary memorials of the Roman world, the cenotaph erected by three Julii brothers in honour of their forebears. Continue to Marseille airport for the afternoon flight landing at London Heathrow at c. 5.45pm (in 2018) or c. 6.00pm (in 2019).
Price, per person
Two sharing: £2,570 or £2,390 without flights. Single occupancy: £2,930 or £2,750 without flights.
Flights (Euro Traveller) with British Airways (aircraft: Airbus A319); travel by private coach throughout; hotel accommodation as described below; breakfasts and four dinners and two lunches with wine, water and coffee; all admissions; all gratuities for restaurant staff, drivers; all state and airport taxes; the services of the lecturer and tour manager; hire of radio guides for better audibility of the lecturer.
Hotel Le Royal, Lyon: Ideally located on the Place Bellecour, the main square of the Presqu’île. Elegant and welcoming with a restaurant and bar. Locally rated as 5-star but more comparable to a good 4-star. Hotel La Pyramide, Vienne: A 4-star hotel situated a short walk from the centre of town, and renovated in 2015. Rooms here are contemporary with modern furnishings. There are two restaurants and a boutique. Hotel Jules César, Arles: Formerly a 17th century Carmelite Convent, and now a 5-star boutique hotel. Rooms have been recently refurbished and have modern fittings. There is a pool, bar, and a restaurant. Single rooms throughout are doubles for sole use.
Quite a lot of walking is involved, particularly in the town centres. The tour is not suitable for anyone who has difficulties with everyday walking and stairclimbing. There are some long days and coach journeys. Average distance by coach per day: 29 miles.
Are you fit enough to join the tour?
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCDO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting.