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Orange and the Dentelles de Montmirail

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Wide view of the theatre in Orange Picture of a dance rehearsal at the theatre in Orange Picture of a ruined column at the theater in Orange
Photograph of Caesar's niche through a passageway Detail of stage wall showing Caesar's niche
Column at the excavated temple near the Orange theatre Picture of ruins of Arausio temple complex
View of Orange from the theatre antique

Like most Roman cities in Provence, Arausio was settled by military veterans. Land grants in Rome’s far-flung provinces were the standard incentive reward for legionnaires who survived campaigns of conquest. The colonia— a first-class city outside Italy— was founded around 35 BCE by members of Legio II Augusta, the Second Gallic Legion. The site was originally a Gaulish (Celtic) settlement named for Arausio, the local deity of a sacred spring. Centuries of language change transformed Arausio into Orange. (The connection is somewhat clearer in the French pronunciation, “oh-rahnzh.”)

The colonia enjoyed all the amenities of Roman civilization, including a forum, temples, baths, and a theatre according to the standard Roman model. The theatre’s cavea (tiered amphitheatre seating) was built into a hill now called colline Saint-Eutrope. Taking advantage of the topography not only saved money for the original builders, but contributed to the theatre’s survival.

In Roman times the theatre was a popular gathering place, as well as a venue for plays and elaborate spectacles offered to all, free of charge, by officials seeking popularity with the populace. After Rome fell it was a foundation for medieval hovels, and later a refuge during the 16th-century Wars of Religion. Because of its nearly continuous use, it is the best preserved of all Roman theatres. After restoration in the 19th century, it became the site of the Chorégies d’Orange, a major summer festival of music, dance and opera.

Now called the Théâtre antique d’Orange, the theatre has the only complete surviving example of a stage wall, lacking only the original roof and mosaics. The stage had trap doors under its wooden floor, and elaborate machinery for moving scenery and effects underground and backstage. The acoustic design included hollow doors built into the wall. An actor making a speech stood next to the door, which amplified his voice like the body of a guitar or violin.

Presiding over all this technology, in a special niche, was an imperial statue of Augustus Caesar. The theatre was built during his reign, in the 1st century CE. Removed after Augustus’ reign, the statue was restored to its place of honor in 1951.

Adjoining the theatre is the excavated temple complex, built around a spring sacred to the god Arausio. It was probably built after the theatre, during the reign of Hadrian in the second century CE.

Picture of the Dentelles de Montmirail Photograph of the Dentelles de Montmirail Picture of Rue des Boutiques in Vaison-la-Romaine Picture of vineyards and farmland surrounding the Dentelles de Montmirail
Photograph of view from Seguret Picture of garlic in the window, Seguret
Photo of a shed in a meadow Picture of a vineyard in the Dentelles de Montmirail Photograph of a vineyard in the Dentelles de Montmirail

Orange is a good base for exploring the Dentelles de Montmirail region. The Dentelles are a chain of partially-eroded limestone hills, formed from the uplifted sediment of a 200-million-year-old sea bed. The highest point of the Dentelles is 734 meters above the Rhône Valley, which makes the hills just the right size for rock climbing.

“Dentelles” sounds like it has something to do with teeth, perhaps inspired by the shape of the hills. But dentelle actually means “lace,” though the word indeed (inexplicably) derives from dent, meaning “tooth.” From a distance, the rocky ridges of the Dentelles (perhaps) look like lace. Montmirail is a time-polished version of mons mirabilis, Latin for “wonderful mountain.”

If you’re not interested in rock climbing, the Michelin “Green Guide” to Provence includes a scenic half-day “round tour” through some of the vineyards, farmland, meadows, and villages surrounding the “wonderful mountains.” The tour begins and ends in Vaison-la-Romaine, where over 15 hectares of the Roman city of Vasio have been excavated. (Vasio was another former Gaulish settlement named for a Celtic deity).

A high point of the tour is the village of Séguret, to which the bankrupt word “quaint” might legitimately apply. Among its charms is its hillside location, which is literally a high point that offers some very fine views.

But the most memorable parts of this tour aren’t the stops listed in the guidebook. Between those places are innumerable countryside scenes, in locations not marked on the map, that suddenly burst into view as you round a curve in the road— or possibly when you make a wrong turn. All but three of these pictures derive from such “uncharted” discoveries, which is why I can provide only vague descriptions of where I took them.

Exploring the Dentelles region will often remind you that Provence is about serendipity and discovery rather than itineraries and schedules.

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