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Exploring the Past in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur

In the southeast of France, Provence, or Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, has 900 kilometres of Mediterranean coastline from the Rhône Valley to the border of Italy, that rise up to the southern Alps. A number of the region’s cities, including Avignon, Aix-en-Provence, Marseille and Nice, attest to the area’s rich Roman and Medieval histories. There are five departments in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, they are: Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, Hautes-Alpes, Alpes-Maritimes, Bouches-du-Rhône, Vaucluse.

Best Places to See Lavender Fields in Provence for History Buffs

Provence is well known for its lavender fields, from small patches of cultivated land to vast swathes of purple that stretch into the distance. Some of these are next to some of the region’s most interesting and picturesque historical sites. Thomas shares his tips on where and when to see the best lavender fields in Provence. … Continue Reading >>

Thomas Dowson

Archaeology Travel

The Notre-Dame de Sénanque Abbey with lavender in flower.

Explore ‘Roman Provence’ with Edwin Mullins

The triumphal arch at the archaeological site of Glanum. Provence is a popular tourist destination, an area of striking contrasts that attracts visitors from all over the world. Breathtaking mountains with small and tranquil, hilltop villages could not be more different from the opulence and expanse of some of the bigger cities dotted along the Mediterranean coastline. The area is particularly known for its vast panoramas, wide open skies, and fields of lavender. And it is here that there are some of the best Roman archaeology sites and monuments outside of Rome and Italy. Edwin Mullins has written a fascinating and engaging guide to these amazing Roman attractions. This is not a basic guidebook, each chapter tells the story of Roman colonisation of Provence. How this was achieved and what remains for us to see today … Read a Review of Roman Provence.

Archaeology & History Sites in Provence

Prehistoric Sites in Provence

Entremont Oppidium

A relatively late Iron Age settlement built on top of a plateau covering some 3.5 hectares, parts of which are well preserved today – including fortifications, walls and towers. There are two distinct areas of settlement within the ramparts, one on the summit and one below. Entremont was the capital of the Salyens celtic tribe, originally settled sometime between 180 and 170 BC. In 123 BC the settlement came under attack from the Romans and by 90 BC, it was all but uninhabited.

Glanum Archaeological Site

The ancient town of Glanum started out as an Iron Age oppidum at about 500 years BC. During the 2nd century BC the town became substantially Hellenised as a result of contact with the Greeks settled in Marseilles. After the defeat of the Gauls during the 1st century BC until the 3rd century AD Glanum was an important town with numerous religious and civic monuments being constructed.

Gallo-Roman Sites in Provence

Les Antiques
The Roman triumphal arch at Les Antiques, Provence.

On the other side of the D5 from Glanum archaeological site are two large Roman monuments known as Les Antiques. One is a mausoleum the other a triumphal arch. The cenotaph, is not only a unique example of Roman funerary architecture it is also very well preserved. It was built sometime between 30 and 20 BC for a wealthy Gallo-Roman family. The nearby arch was erected in 20 AD to commemorate Caesar’s conquest of various tribes of Gauls. Two striking examples of monumental Roman architecture.

Flavian Roman Bridge
Le Pont Favien in Provence, southern France.

Despite the rather unassuming setting, le Pont Flavien is said to be one of the most beautiful Roman bridges outside of Italy. Certainly it is unique in France in that it has a pair of ceremonial arches at either end, each with a pair of crouching lions on top. The bridge has suffered much since it was built, but each time it has been painstakingly reconstructed. The parapets are modern, and only one of the lions is original. But still, anyone who is fascinated by Roman engineering should not miss it. It is thought that the bridge was as much a funerary monument as it was functional … Visit Le Pont Flavien.

Pont Julien
Le Pont Julien, on the Via Domitia, Provence.

Up until 2005, nearly two thousand years after its construction, Pont Julien was still used for cars and other light vehicles to cross the River Coulon. Now, it is restricted to motorbikes and people on foot. The bridge was built in 3 BC, without the use of any cement, as part of the Via Domitia; now the only intact Roman bridge along that ancient Road.

Roman Fréjus – Forum Julii
Wonderfully restored Roman amphitheatre in Fréjus, Provence.

Today Fréjus is just inland, but during the Roman occupation of France it was a prosperous port city. The area was initially settled by the Phoenecians, but it was Emperor Julius Caesar who awarded the town to the Roman Army’s 8th Legion, and in so doing created a wealthy city, of which numerous well preserved architectural features have survived. Consequently there is much to see, including a well preserved amphitheatre, theatre, and the town is dotted with the remains of the aqueduct that once supplied the inhabitants with water.

Orange Roman Theatre
The theatre in Orange, Provence is one of the best preserved Roman theatres.

The Roman theatre in the town of Orange is the best preserved such ancient theatre in Europe, and because of this it has been placed on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. Standing at the top of the cavea, looking down onto the stage and the stage building, is a wonderful experience for all those who enjoy Roman archaeology. Built in the reign of Emperor Augustus during the first century A.D, and with a seating capacity of up to 10,000, the theatre was the scene of great shows in Roman times and it still attracts visitors to musical events today. [Website]

Medieval Sites in Provence

Les Baux-de-Provence & Château des Baux
Ruins of the hilltop, Medieval village of Baux in Provence.

Château des Baux is a typical hill-top castle that once protected the Medieval village of Les Baux-de-Provence. Various chapels, houses, dovecots and even a few replica, life-size catapults give an idea of what life was like from the 10th to the 15th century here. Besides the Medieval archaeology, the rocky outcrop provides amazing views over vineyards and olive groves towards the sea. The town gave its name to bauxite, aluminium ore, first discovered here in 1821 by geologist Pierre Berthier.

Saint-Paul de Mausole
The monastery of Saint-Paul, which was an asylum for van Gogh.

For about 1,000 years there has been a monastery near the archaeological site of Glanum. And for much of this time the community of monks has been known for taking in people with mental illness. The convent was nationalised after the French Revolution, and in 1807 it was sold to a doctor who then established a psychiatric asylum. On 8 May in 1889 Vincent Van Gogh was admitted, staying here until 16 May 1890. Besides seeing his room, there is a walking tour of the gardens showing where he made some of his finest paintings. And a Great place to see lavender.

Museums in Provence

Fréjus Archaeological Museum
Double headed bust of Hermès in the Fréjus Archaeological Museum.

With Fréjus’s rich archaeological heritage, particularly from the Roman period, there are a number of ongoing excavations in the city. Many of the finds recovered from these excavations are displayed in the municipal archaeology museum, and are arranged thematically to give an idea of what life was like during the Roman period of the city. In the sculpture gallery there are a number of striking pieces, including a large, very well preserved floor mosaic. Pride of place, however, is given to the double headed bust of Hermès, now the symbol of Fréjus.

Musée Départemental Arles Antique
Bust of Caesar in the Arles Antiquity Museum.

Also known as the Musée de l’Arles Antique, it is situated at the end of what was the Roman circus – parts of which can still be viewed. Although the focus of the museum’s exhibitions date to the Roman period in Arles, there are collections on display from the Neolithic to Late Antiquity (from the 4th to 6th centuries AD). There are some extraordinary artefacts on display, including many exquisite mosaic floors, a bust of Caesar and the recently excavated boat. A great place to visit before exploring Roman Arles. [Website]