Editor’s note: In September, Catherine Sweeney will be teaming up with Je Suis. Paris to co-host a tour of the French capital for women. Check out this page for more on “A Boomer in Paris.”
What do popes, an ancient stone bridge and a Roman arena have in common? There are many possible answers—such as Rome—but after my recent trip to the Provence region of France, what comes to my mind are the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the historic city centers of Arles and Avignon.
Arles: City of the Romans
Winding my way around the charming city center of Arles, famously known as creative inspiration for Vincent Van Gogh, I saw intriguing medieval buildings and other historic sites in every square and on every street. But among the most stunning scenes were those of the ancient Roman ruins, dating back to the 1st century B.C., which have earned Arles a UNESCO World Heritage Site inscription in recognition of its Roman and Romanesque monuments.
I was surprised to see this striking view (above) of the 1st-century-B.C. Roman arena and amphitheater from the window of my room at Hotel and Spa Calendal in Arles.
The juxtaposition of the arena with the old, yet much newer, architecture creates a dramatic effect, especially at night.
Gladiators fought to the death and chariots raced before crowds of 20,000 spectators in the arena. The impressive architecture of the arched passageways where people entered gave me an eerie feeling knowing the violence they would have been cheering inside.
Did you know that there is bullfighting in France? During my Provence visit, I learned about the strong Spanish ties of the region, clearly illustrated in the bullfights (some to the death) still held at the Roman arena from late spring to early fall.
The Roman theater (above) also dates back to the 1st century B.C. Much of the theater’s original stone was removed and used for other construction in Arles over the centuries, but two columns, spectators’ benches and marble flooring remain. Many excavated relics from the theater are in the Arles Archaeological Museum, and the most famous piece, the Venus d’Arles, is in the Louvre.
I also went underground in the U-shaped Cryptoporticos, underground galleries built in 30-20 B.C. that formed the foundation of the ancient forum.
Parts of the forum’s columns can still be seen on the facade of a building (below left) on the Place du Forum. Other sections (some pictured above at the end of the corridor) are in the Cryptoporticos . Today, City Hall (which provides the entry to the Cryptoporticos) and the Chapel of the Jesuit College are located above the foundation.
Arles thrived for centuries after the Romans, as evidenced by other historic sites also acknowledged by UNESCO designation. The Church of St. Trophime and its cloister (shown below) were built in the 12th century and are considered to be masterpieces of Romanesque architecture. Today, the cloister is used for special events such as the international santon-makers fair which showcases the art and craft of santons, important elements of Christmas traditions in Provence.
Other sites contributing to Arles’s UNESCO designation are the ramparts, the Roman baths and the graveyard of Les Alyscamps (outside the city center), depicted in paintings by Van Gogh and Gaugin.
The Romans loved the city of Arles so much that they continued to build, growing Arles into the second largest city after Rome. So prolific was their building that ruins and evidence of early Roman civilization are still being discovered, often delaying new construction as archaeologists examine the new findings.
Avignon: City of the Popes
Most people associate popes with Rome. But a very important part of papal history lies in Avignon. I’d heard references to popes and Avignon, but I’d never really understood the significance. During my visit, I learned the fascinating story, which is key to Avignon’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In the 13th century, the King of France had a bitter feud with Pope Boniface VIII. On the death of Pope Boniface and, months later, the death of his successor, a Frenchman (Clement V) was elected and he chose to stay in France rather than move to Rome. During the 14th century (1309 to 1377), seven popes lived not in Rome but in the Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes) in Avignon. As the city then became a major capital of the world, the population rose from about 5,000 to well over 30,000.
The largest Gothic palace (15,000 square meters) in Europe (surrounded by 4.5-km ramparts), the palace took 20 years to build during the papacies of Benedict XII and Clement VI. The 25 rooms open to the public include the private apartments of the pope and grand rooms for formal ceremonies and banquets. The adjacent Romanesque Cathedral of Notre Dame des Doms is also included in the UNESCO World Heritage inscription.
Many artists came to Avignon during Pope Clement VI’s papacy and some of the art they produced is still visible in the palace, such as the frescoes in the papal apartments.
Below is one of my favorite scenes from inside the palace, in which I could imagine the popes sitting and gazing through the window at the Provençal countryside.
Completing the trio of sites included in the Avignon UNESCO World Heritage Site designation is Pont Saint-Bénézet, known as Pont d’Avignon. It was originally built with wood in the 12th century and rebuilt in stone in the 13th century. Repetitive flooding of the Rhône River continued to damage the bridge and now only four of the original 22 arches remain.
Although I hadn’t heard of it before this trip, there is a 15th century children’s song about dancing on the Pont d’Avignon that adds to the allure of the old bridge.
There are many reasons to visit the cities of Arles and Avignon, but the UNESCO sites are their crown jewels.
For more information about visiting Provence: