Saturday, 13 August 2016

(Not So Much) Cycling in Provence: Relaxing in Vaison-la-Romaine (Part 2)

One of the aspects of cyclo-touring that can make or break your enjoyment is getting your clothes washed and dried so you have the right kit at the right time. 

In case we thought we were the only cyclists staying in le Beffroi, spotting this from the street swiftly proved otherwise: 

Our own system was rather more discreet: 

Day 2 dawned hot and sunny yet again. Time to find out what this town is really famous for. 

Personally, it's the Upper Town that grabbed my heart. But it's very few towns that can boast the Gallo-Roman ruins that Vaison-la-Romaine has, much less to this extent and with this degree of preservation. 

In the first century, a semi-rural community was sited on the plains alongside the river, below the fortified oppidum. Barely a century later, this had evolved into the City of Vasio, a thriving Gallo-Roman town, on which the modern Lower Town now rests.

From the same source as in my last post (about the Upper Town with its history from the Bronze Age through the Celtic Iron Age right through fortifications built by the medieval Counts of Provence), the main identified/excavated features of Vasio are:

The gallo-roman bridge

The semi circular arch (9 m. wide, with a span of 17 m. ) is made up of five arcades. It was built in large course masonry, resting directly upon the rock. Until a footbridge was built in 1858, the Roman bridge was the only link between the two banks. We can have a good idea of what the traffic was on the bridge because when the causeway had to be repaired, after the 2nd World War (the bridge was hit by a German bomb but resisted it and was only superficially damaged), grooves meant to guide carts and chariots in narrow and dangerous passages appeared. In the ancient days, the bridge spanned over wharves on piles now no longer visible. The river was well kept, which allowed a dense commercial traffic held by guilds of watermen : these utricularii carried goods on rafts borne up by air-filled goatskins, whereas the nautae used barges hauled by towing. Thus commodities travelled downstream to the Rhône.

Great families and their houses

Rich dwellings endowed with reception rooms and private apartments are also to be found in Vasio: 
La Maison à l’Apollon Lauré (House of the Laurelled Apollo) (partially excavated) covers 2000 square metres;
La Maison à la Tonnelle (House of the Arbour) covers 3000 square metres);
La Maison du Buste en Argent (House of the Silver Bust) covers 5000 square metres;
La Maison au Dauphin (Dolphin House) covers 2700 square metres after numerous extensions;
* Villa du Paon (Peacock villa) covers about 1000 square metres.

These houses belonged to families of great wealth from the Voconce aristocracy whose income was the product of their lands. The elite local noblemen used to share the cost of public buildings (theatre, public baths, temple …) or their upkeeping and to organize entertainment games. This contributed to improve and enlarge the town.

The theatre

The discovery of the monument began in 1907 when the young student Joseph Sautel started to work on a thesis about Vasio and started to dig. A holy dedication to Claudius and his head prove that in the middle of the 1st. c. A. D. the theatre was already built.

The theatre was located at the North part of the gallo-roman town. Today, some remains of a Temple podium, a craftsmen's district and the Peacock Villa are to be found close to it (Eastern side), as well as the traces of the aqueduct that came down from the north, ran under the theatre, and joined the water-tower situated on the South-East of the hill.

The cavea, the part of the theatre reserved for the audience, was built against the hill (the diameter measured 96 m), a circulating gallery and a surrounding wall. To enter the cavea, spectators could use stairways, “vomitories”, and side-passages. The lower tiers were separated from the orchestra (diameter of 30 m) by a circular gang-way and the balteus: a small stone barrier.


My favourite of these is the bridge spanning L'Ouvèze, linking the modern city (which is both the newest and the oldest in the city's history, as you'll soon see) with the mostly-16th century Upper Town. It's amazing to think this bridge is 1,000 years old and had been in more or less continuous use right up to the present day, surviving sieges and WWII bombings.

We spent the morning absorbed in the details of the Puymin Roman Site, with its paved streets, shopping district, irrigation system, large colonnade garden, artisan quarter and several large houses including the House of the Laurelled Apollo (which stretches across much of the whole western half of the Puymin site) and the Arbour House (further up the hill to the east in trees closer to the theatre).

La Maison à l’Apollon Lauré

La Maison à l’Apollon Lauré

La Maison à l’Apollon Lauré

La Maison à l’Apollon Lauré

part of the kitchens, La Maison à l’Apollon Lauré

part of the kitchens, La Maison à l’Apollon Lauré

the Colonnaded Garden

the Colonnaded Garden

the Colonnaded Garden

a wreathed Apollo in the Colonnaded Garden

the Artisans Quarter

the Artisans Quarter

the restored Roman Theatre

Blurry view of the Count's Castle (in the Upper Town) from the Puymin site

La Maison à la Tonnelle (House of the Arbour)

La Maison à la Tonnelle (House of the Arbour)

La Maison à la Tonnelle (House of the Arbour)

Wandering around an archeological site is a very hot business. Of course, this is the south of France so hot weather is to be expected, but sightseeing amongst the ruins necessarily means moving amongst hot stones, dust and gravel with very little in the way of shade from trees or structures more than waist high!

We spent the morning at Puymin, then our thoughts turned to finding shade and cold drinks, perhaps lunch.

We returned to our bicycles, to find they had made lots of new friends, including two old shoppers.

The central square of Vaison-la-Romaine is La Place Montfort, a huge plaza with nothing but restaurants down the eastern side. 

We perused all the menus and decided to go a little more 'downmarket' than we had been so far, partly as we were more hot and thirsty than truly hungry, partly to give our budget a break and mostly because, well, we were feeling a little overwhelmed with just how delicious the local food was (and how different from English fare) and actually wanted food a little more "normal"! 

Even so, the ingredients were fresh and local and not a "compromise" of any kind!

Each of the restaurants had its own awning arrangement to control the sun and shade. It became obvious as we enjoyed our lunch that the ability to also shield diners from the wind very much depended on the quality (and presumably the expense) of the awning system!

And every restaurant had to plan around the trees that lined the plaza, around which all the outdoor seating was arranged.

After lunch, we headed to the north side of the town centre, to La Villasse excavations. Here, there was a colonnaded street lined with shops, public baths and a number of exceptionally large houses owned by very rich people -- not much changes, eh?

Drains around the baths

public baths

We took our time, moving slowly and steadily and sipping water regularly. Fortunately, the site is not enormous so after an hour or so, we left La Villasse for the shady streets of the main town. Eventually, we made our way back to our hotel to freshen up and then returned to the town centre for dinner.

I have to say, Vaison la Romaine is very photogenic!

View of Mount Ventoux from the Gallo-Roman bridge

Two huge areas of Vaison-la-Romaine have been excavated (the Puymin and La Villasse sites) and there are a number of individual buildings dating back to Gallo-Roman times that still stand elsewhere in the town. But pursuing excavations means carving out land from the town. Renovations to the town centre in 2010 revealed more of Vasio lying beneath Place Montfort, the main town square/plaza. But so far no decision has been taken to excavate this area. When one considers that to pursue explorations into the whole ancient history of this area would effectively mean the destruction of the entire modern town of Vaison-la-Romaine, the implications are obviously enormous.

Place Montfort
Place Montfort
Note the way the awnings are designed around the trees.

Again, we choose a 'simple' dinner in what turned out to be the most popular restaurant on the plaza. 


After dinner, we strolled through the town centre, very quiet on a Monday evening -- a contrast we would mark well in our minds when we re-visited the next morning on market day!

Have I said how beautiful this place is?  One of the most remarkable places I've ever visited in my life.

Day 2 had been a most satisfying day in every way. I felt sad to know our time here was coming to an end, thinking that -- if only I had known something of Vaison-la-Romaine history and geography beforehand -- I should have arranged our itinerary differently, to spend at least 4 days here.

But we had not quite seen everything Vaison-la-Romaine has to offer the 21st-century visitor. The next morning would reveal what this historically rich city is famous for in modern times!

1 comment:

  1. Your photos bring such wonderful memories flooding into my head. I visited the Roman ruins in 2014, during my Paris-Nice ride. Only had half a day though, because I stopped enroute to Malaucene. It is high on my list of places to return. Thanks for this lovely armchair chance to get back there.


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