The Colosseum, one of the most iconic monuments from ancient Rome, is also one of the most crowded. Combine its bloody past, renewed interest thanks to the movie Gladiator, and the fact that there is only one entrance gate, and you end up with lines that can stretch hundreds deep and create a frustratingly long wait to get in. Fortunately the city of Rome is not the only place where you can experience the grandeur that was the Roman Empire.
For over a thousand years Rome dominated the lands bordering the Mediterranean, adopting, developing and exporting almost everything that we think of today as Western civilization. As the empire expanded into the 'barbarian lands' they brought the modern world with them, building projects such as roads, baths, aqueducts, theaters and amphitheaters. Vestiges of these public works projects are scattered all around the Mediterranean, from Spain to Tunisia to Syria. Some of the best preserved Roman ruins are in southern France, especially in the region of Provence. Pictured here are the theater at Orange and the aqueduct know as the Pont du Gard.
Orange's theater is the best-preserved in Europe, and is still used regularly for performances. It's one of only two Roman theaters in Europe that still has the original back wall intact, and tourist visits are complimented by an extremely well-done audio guide, included free with your admission. I made several visits to the theater this year, and there were never more than three or four people in line in front of me; there are seldom more than 30 people inside the theater at any one time.
The Pont du Gard, one of the ancient world's most elegant structures, is nothing more than a bridge built to support a water channel crossing a valley. The Romans designed and constructed huge water projects to deliver a constant flow of fresh water to their cities -- dams, reservoirs, water channels, and cisterns. With no modern pumps, they had to rely on gravity, so their water channels had to have a constant, steady slope from the source to the city. If there was a mountain in the way, they dug through it. If there was a valley, they bridged it. Romans were "CAN-DO" people. While the Pont du Gard gets more visitors than the theater at Orange, it seldom feels crowded. There's no admission charge, just a €5 fee for parking.
The ancient Romans are not the only connection Provence has with Rome, though. During the 13th century, for a period of about 70 years, the city of Avignon was home-base for the Roman Catholic church. Pope Clement V, born in France, decided to establish his court in southern France rather than moving to Rome. He owned property in Avignon, and set about building a palace fit to be the home of the world's most powerful leader. Today the palace, in the center of Avignon, is mostly a beautiful shell hiding empty rooms.
Between the city of Avignon and the town of Orange lies Chateauneuf du Pape, literally "the Pope's new castle." Pope Clement V was from the region of Bordeaux, so naturally he wanted some good wine in his new home.
Wine lovers know this is one of the best wine regions in France, producing hearty red wines that are generally a blend of syrah, grenache and cinsault (though 13 grape varieties are officially allowed). Chateauneuf du Pape is a regional designation, like Bordeaux or Champagne, not an actual producer. Today there are over 300 wineries producing wines in the Chateauneuf du Pape region, and the village of Chateauneuf provides plenty of opportunities for tasting their products.
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