"The collection consists of but two objects, but these objects are so fine that I will let the word pass. One of them is a triumphal arch, supposedly of the period of Marcus Aurelius; the other is a fragment, magnificent in its ruin, of a Roman theatre. But for these fine Roman remains and for its name, Orange is a perfectly featureless little town; without the Rhône, which, as I have mentioned, is several miles distant, to help it to a physiognomy. It seems one of the oddest things that this obscure French borough, obscure, I mean, in our modern era, for the Gallo Roman Arausio must have been, judging it by its arches and theatre, a place of some importance, should have given its name to the heirs apparent of the throne of Holland,and been borne by a king of England who had sovereign rights over it." This is how Henry James described Orange in his book about his 1882 trip to France, "A little Tour of France".
Our first impression: How right he is, even today! But over time Orange grows on you, especially if you focus on its two outstanding Roman monuments, the Théâtre Antique and the Arc de Triomphe. There are a few charming places in what is otherwise a pretty busy town with a severe traffic problem. It appears that infrastructure funds are not trickling down here from Paris and Aix en Provence as long as the town's inhabitants elect ultra-right mayors. Be it as it is, Orange is one of the required stopovers for the historically minded Provence aficionado and - during July and early August for the opera buff.
Orange, population 28.000, possesses what is probably the best preserved Roman theatre in Europe, and an imposing Roman triumphal arch, both built during the reign of Augustus. They were listed in 1981 by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. There is a beautiful 19th century theatre, the 17th century Hôtel de Ville (town hall) and the 16th century Jacobean church, now a Protestant church. The historic town has some nice pedestrian streets and squares with small shops, restaurants and cafés.
We need to learn a bit about Orange's history to put these two impressive Roman monuments into perspective. Ever wondered why the heir to the Dutch Throne is called Prince of Orange?
Orange was a Celtic settlement known as "Arausio", the name of a Celtic water god. After the defeat of the Celtic tribes by the Roman Empire veterans of the 2nd Roman Legion in Gallia settled here around 35 BC. It became the capital of the Northern Provence, an important Roman town with many impressive monuments, the theatre and arch, a monumental temple complex, a forum and many town houses. Orange's importance declined during the turbulent times after the fall of the Roman Empire. It was partially destroyed, re-built and in the 4th century it became a bishopric. The County of Orange, an ancient Carolingian fiefdom, was passed to the Lords of Baux (visit the impressive castle ruins of les Baux near St.Rémy de Provence) in 1173 and then to the House of Châlon in 1388. William I, the "Silent" of the Hessian house of Nassau-Dillenburg inherited Orange in 1544. He took the title Prince of Orange; well known in history as the main leader of the Dutch revolt against the Spanish (80 years war), that resulted in the independence of the United Provinces (Holland) in 1648. William III of Orange, the Dutch Stadtholder, later became King William III of England. The Principality of Orange comprised Orange and land to the West, such as Gigondas. It was surrounded by the Papal Territories to the South, East and North, with the Kingdom of France across the Rhône to the West.
It is important to understand this period in Orange's history, because it unfortunately resulted in the destruction of many Roman monuments. The stones were used to built a magnificent castle on top of St.Eutrope hill and city walls. The Arc de Triomphe was incorporated into the city wall and became a gate. Orange was occupied by the forces of Louis XIV from 1673-1679 and 1690-1697 during the Franco Dutch War war and the castle was dismantled. The Principality of Orange was finally ceded to France in 1713 under the Treaty of Utrecht. The title "Prince of Orange" was claimed by the Dutch and the German House of Hohenzollern; a compromise was reached and both can use it to this day. Louis XIV did not care about the title; he had what he wanted, the land and the town of Orange. The current title holder of "Prince of Orange" is Crown Prince William Alexander of the Netherlands. He is officially addressed as "Zijne Koninklijke Hoogheid de Prins van Oranje" (His Royal Highness the Prince of Orange).
After the French annexation Orange became a sleepy provincial town. In the 19th century the restoration of the Théâtre Antique (Roman Theatre) and the Arc de Triomphe started. In the last century the town gradually recovered. Today it is an important regional center for industry and commerce. It gained notoriety in France when it elected Jacques Bompard from the right wing National Front as mayor in 1995. He was reelected in 2001 with more than 60% of the votes. In 2005 he changed his affiliation to the less radical Mouvement pour la France of Philippe de Villiers.
Théâtre Antique and Chorégies d'Orange
During the 1st century the Romans built a 7,000-seat theatre here. The middle section of its steeply tiered rows of benches is carved into the rocks of Saint Eutrope hill, for the left and right parts the conventional Roman design (arched structures) is used. The stage has a depth of 50ft/15m and runs 210ft/64m along the base of the theatre's great 120ft/37m high and 340ft/104m wide stage wall. This is a huge wall, with its arches and the mandatory statue of the emperor in a niche above the stage center. On both sides of the stage are two storey towers (the "basilicae") from which actors made their entrances. They were also used to store stage sets. But where this theatre really excels is its superb acoustics, the result of its huge stage wall, the steep semi-circle of seats (the "cavea") and Saint Eutrope hill behind it. Even with a seat at the theatre's highest and furthest point, you can hear the voices on the stage without a problem; quite remarkable acoustics for an open air theatre.
There is a reason the Théâtre Antique is so well preserved. In the Middle Ages it was a fortified part of the town with dwellings constructed inside, quite similar to the amphitheatre in Arles. This saved it from quarrying. Restoration in the 19th century took quite some time as a number of property owners had to be bought out. Admire the massive stage wall, the old stone seats (many had to be restored in the 19th century) and the 11ft/3.5m high statue of Emperor Augustus above the stage center. It was excavated in 1931 and put in its old place. What is missing is the large awning (the "vellum"), stretching over the audience to protect it from the sun. So today we can enjoy it nearly the same way the Romans did 2000 years before. The Théâtre Antique was extensively renovated in 2005/2006.
Do you know the difference between a Roman theatre, amphitheatre and circus? The classical theatre is semi-circular, with the stage in front (examples: Théâtre Antique in Orange and Arles). It was used for drama and recital performances. The amphitheatre (or amphitheater) was used for spectator sports, games and displays. It is round or oval in shape (examples: Rome, Arles, Nimes). The circus was used for racing and looked more like a very long (400 - 500m), narrow horse shoe (example: Circus Maxentius in Rome).
Across the street from the Théâtre Antique is the Musée Municipal, with interesting items concerning local history. Its most valuable piece are fragments of a plate showing the property demarcations in the region. This was used in Roman times to calculate real estate taxes.
Every summer the Théâtre Antique hosts the Chorégies d'Orange festival. The word chorége derives from the Greek khorêgós, the person charged with organizing performances at the state's expense (financed via a tax levied on its citizens). The first performances in modern times took place in 1869, since 1902 on an annual basis. Famous artists from all over the world have performed here, such as Sarah Bernhardt, Placido Domingo and Montserrat Caballé. Since 1969 the Chorégies d'Orange concentrate on classical productions (operas, concerts and ballet). You can find the current year's program schedule on the website of the Chorégies d'Orange.
Arc de Triomphe
Situated North of the historic town on the former Via Agrippa, the Roman road connecting Arles with Lyon. The Arc de Triomphe was constructed around 20 BC. It is 72ft/22m high, 69ft/21m wide and 26ft/8m deep and is richly adorned with bas-reliefs in Roman and Greek styles. The top friezes (North and South side) over the middle arch depict battle scenes between Celtic tribes and Roman soldiers, the top friezes over the left and right arches show items used in maritime warfare. Arc de Triomph or Triumphal Arch is actually a misnomer. Triumphal marches only took place in Rome. This is rather a memorial erected to commemorate the foundation of Orange by the Romans and to demonstrate their power.
A large park - slightly worn out - stretches across most of the hilltop. From the Northern and Eastern belvedere you have magnificent views across the town and the Southern Côtes du Rhône vineyards with Mt.Ventoux and the Dentelles de Montmirail in the background. If you are Dutch, admire the oak tree planted by Queen Juliana of the Netherlands in July 1952 and next to it a few vestiges of what was once one of the most splendid castles in Southern France.
Parking is a major issue during the tourist season. Short term parking exists but is always full on Cours Aristide Briand, the main boulevard to the West of the historic town. Same problem at the Place du Dr.Lucien Laroyenne, which is the closest one to the Théâtre Antique. Theoretically you could park on top of St.Eutrope Hill and walk down to the Théâtre Antique; not advisable during the summer as inevitably you will have to walk back up in the heat. You most likely end up at the large parking lot near the Arc de Triomphe. There is supposed to be a shuttle bringing you to the town's center. But it is just as easy to walk South on busy Avenue de l'Arc de Triomph, which becomes Avenue Victor Hugo. Turn left into Place de Langes, leading you to the adjacent Place G.Clemenceau with the representative Hôtel de Ville (town hall). From there it is a short walk South, crossing the Place de la République, to the Théâtre Antique.