Ten of the best Roman sites in France

There’s something irresistible about a good Roman ruin and France is positively littered with them, from fragments of villas to complete temples, small sections of masonry to towering arenas.  These are a few of my personal favourites:

1.  Le Mans (Pays de la Loire)
Roman city wall, Le Mans Le Mans is synonymous with the famous 24-hour motor race, but this attractive town was once an important Roman community and the master builders left their mark in dramatic fashion.  Tourists flock to the picturesque Cité Plantagenet with its quaint cobbled streets and medieval half-timbered houses, often without realising that the walls and towers were built by the Romans. 

Amongst the best preserved in the Roman Empire, these lofty ramparts are decorated in striking geometric and floral patterns of orange, black and white brick – for the best views, stroll through the riverside gardens below.

Germanic Arch, Saintes 2.  Saintes (Poitou-Charentes)
Nestled in the heart of the Cognac vineyards 21st century Saintes is a popular departure point for guided cruises along the picturesque Charente which once buzzed with the comings and goings of flat-bottomed boats laden with wine, cognac and salt.   But Saintes started life in the 1st century AD as the Roman city of Médiolanum Santonum, and was the Gallo-Roman capital of Aquitaine for 100 years. 

Today, Saintes boasts two outstanding Roman remains – the Germanicus Arch, built in 18 AD, and the Gallo-Roman amphitheatre, erected in 40 AD.  Nestled in a natural hollow, it could once seat 15,000 – the entire population of the town and is still used for summer concerts.  For the full atmosphere, stand in the centre of the arena and imagine facing the gladiators or, outside opening hours, look down on it from the perimeter footpath.

Fourniere Hill amphitheatre, Lyon 3.  Lyon (Rhône-Alpes)
The Romans founded the city of Lugdunum in 43 BC on Fourvière hill that overlooks the confluence of the Rhône and Saône.  Today, Lyon is one of the few cities in the Roman empire that can still boast twin theatres.  Discovered in 1933, there’s a large one for plays and a smaller one alongside for more intimate recitals and lectures. 

Two millennia later, their impressive theatres still stand near the 19th century basilica of Fourvière that dominates France’s third largest city.  Access is free and summer visitors can make like a Roman and enjoy the Nuits de Fourvière arts festival from a seat on the tiers.  The museum overlooking the theatres is packed with exhibits, if a tad traditional in its approach.

St Romain-en-Gal 4.  St.Romain-en-Gal (Rhône-Alpes)
St Romain-en-Gal was part of Roman Vienna but today Vienne and Saint Romain sit on opposite sides of the Rhône in different administrative departments.   Vienne may have the theatres and the temple, but St.Romain has the villas and the street plan, not to mention a modern riverside museum with a wealth of artefacts, models and mosaics that bring the age vividly to life.

The extensive site dates back 2000 years but was discovered only 30 years ago.  Opened to the public in 1996, it continues to surprise archaeologists.  Tread paving stones pitted with the grooves of chariot wheels, wander the courtyards of elegant villas with mosaic floors, and see a line of communal Roman toilets.  Evocative stuff.

Gallo-Roman theatre of Vienne 5.  Vienne (Rhône-Alpes)
Half-an-hour’s drive south of Lyon on the east bank of the Rhône is Vienne, or Vienna as it was called by the Romans who founded the town some 80 years before Lugdunum.  Today Vienne is only other city in France to boast twin Roman theatres and one of just two – the other being Nîmes – to boast a complete Roman temple.
The main theatre is set to acoustic advantage against the steep hillside and, in its heyday, seated up to 13,000 people, a third of the town’s population.  Today it is so well preserved that up to 10,000 people can sit on the steep stone terraces to enjoy summer concerts by artists ranging from James Blunt to The Who, as well as the annual summer Jazz à Vienne festival.

Roman ruins 6.  Vaison-la-Romaine (Provence)
There are more grooved paving stones at Vaison-la-Romaine, largest archeological site in France.  Once the affluent town of Vasio, this small 21st century town was the capital of the Voconces area in the 1st century AD.  The first digs took place here in 1907 and archaeologists are still at work today, uncovering more clues to what life was like here 20 centuries ago.  The excavations are spread across two sites, La Villasse and the hill of Puymin, divided by two large car parks and the Tourist Office. 

Atmosphere oozes from every stone and you half expect to see men in togas heading for the public baths or taking their seats in the hilltop theatre which once held 6,000 spectators.  The archaeological museum in the heart of the Puymin site contains a rich collection of marble statues, mosaics, frescoes and everyday objects.

Roman theatre, Orange 7.  Orange (Provence)
Orange holds the distinction of being one of just three Roman theatres to have retained its entire back wall intact, the others being in Turkey and Syria.  You can see it towering over the rooftops from the town centre, but that does nothing to lessen the ‘Wow-factor’ when you enter the auditorium beneath the tiers of seats.  In Roman times, the back wall of the stage was covered in marble.  Today only marble columns remain, but it’s easy to imagine the former splendour of the vast structure which once seated an audience of 9000.  

Buy a ticket for the annual summer music festival, Les Nouvelles Chorégies, to experience the atmosphere of a production first-hand.   And don’t miss the Art and History Museum opposite to see artefacts found in and around the town – busts, mosaics and a rare stone cadaster, a Roman register inscribed with details of land ownership.

Roman Arena, Arles 8.  Arles (Provence)
One of the best preserved Roman arenas in Provence, the vast oval in Arles once staged gladiatorial events.  Two thousand years later, there are no gladiators but the towering tiers are still packed with atmosphere whether you take a quiet stroll through its towering galleries or buy a ticket for the corrida or ‘bull games’ of the Camargue. 

There are summer performances too in the semi-circular Roman theatre just a short walk away across the square.  At other times, buy a ticket to stroll amongst the ruined columns or simply enjoy the views from the perimeter road that winds down through the old town, immortalised in the paintings of Van Gogh.  Visit the Alyscamps burial ground on the south side of the city; the Constantine baths beside the Rhône; and sections of the city ramparts.  For the full story, visit the eye-catching blue triangle that is the Museum of Ancient Arles and Provence.

Maison Carrée, Nîmes 9.  Nîmes (Languedoc-Roussillon)
Developed around a natural spring by a Celtic tribe in the sixth century BC, Nîmes became an important Roman colony in the 2nd Century AD and today boasts two of the best preserved monuments in the Roman Empire. 

Once a temple at the centre of the Forum, the impressive Maison Carrée is now home to a video presentation of city history, just across the square from the Carré d’Art museum of contemporary art.  A short walk away through the atmospheric streets of the Old Town stands the magnificent amphitheatre, still in regular use for concerts, presentations and bull games.  Pick up an audio-guide and climb to the top tier for the full impact.

Pont du Gard 10.  Pont du Gard (Languedoc-Roussillon)
One of the most famous Roman monuments outside Italy, the Pont du Gard is part of a 50km aqueduct begun around 50AD to bring fresh water from the spring at Uzès to the bustling city of Nîmes.  Built on three levels from large blocks without cement, the bridge spans the deep valley of the Gardon and is spectacular from any angle.

Visitors generally approach from the extensive discovery centre which befits its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For the full story, visit the museum, cinema, and children’s discovery centre.  Or simply head straight for the aqueduct to walk beneath it, along it and around it – the site is open to the public, free of charge, throughout the year and around the clock.  Awesome in the extreme.

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Gillian Thornton

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