Friday, 6 August
After spending the morning and midday in Avignon, around 3:00 pm I took the train to Orange. Orange is a town about 25 km (16 miles) south of Avignon (as an aside - for the wine buffs out there, the town and vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape are about halfway in between Avignon and Orange - but there's no train stop there, and since I didn't have a car, I couldn't stop by for a look).
Orange would probably have faded into obscurity if not for its two major Roman monuments: the best preserved Roman theater in Europe, and the third largest extant Roman triumphal arch. Of the two, the theater is really the main attraction. Most of the year, the theater is open during the day, and tourists can pay to take a tour. However, each summer, they hold a handful of concerts as a part of their Choregies d'Orange series. When I began researching this trip, I learned about the Choregies from one of the many guidebooks I read, and I thought it sounded like an incredible opportunity. I discussed it with the friend with whom I planned the trip, and we decided to attend the symphony on August 6 - so I bought 2 tickets. When he decided he was no longer coming on the trip, I was in touch with a few other friends in the area to see if they would be interested in attending - and my good friend from college, Justine, who was in Switzerland for the summer, took me up on my offer. So the evening of August 6, I met up with Justine in Orange for this concert.
It was a beautiful day - sunny, hot but dry, and very windy. I mean really, really windy. The surroundings were just beautiful:
When I arrived in Orange, I took a stroll across town to the tourist office to pick up a map. It's a small town, but a very pretty one with its stone architecture, red tile roofs, and plenty of open places.
After getting my map, I headed over to the theater to pick up my tickets for the concert that night. With my student id, the tickets were only 10E each, which was pretty incredible for the venue and the performance they offered. The theater is an impressive sight:
The large, tall structure to the left is the wall behind the stage. The seats are in a large semi-circle on the right of this image, sloping upward along the diagonal line. It was built during the reign of Augustus - so around 2000 years ago - it's incredible that it is still in such good shape after so much time!
After getting my tickets, I explored the town a little. There isn't much to explore - a few hours in the city was definitely plenty to feel I had seen all there was to see.
To the North of town is the triumphal arch:
Much of the sculpture and decoration has fallen off or become eroded at this point, but it's still a pretty impressive monument - see the people standing at the base for a sense of scale.
But even well-preserved Roman monuments can't hold me for too long when there is food to be discovered! Provençal flavors are fresh and a perfect fit for August: tomato, eggplant, bell pepper, fennel, olives, herbs, fresh seafood from the Mediterranean. The cuisine in Provence definitely shares some links with Italian cuisine - not a surprise given their close proximity! The produce in the ubiquitous markets is enough to make your mouth start watering. I didn't see any markets in Orange, but even the grocery store fare looked pretty gorgeous:
If only I had a kitchen to make some bruschetta with the tomatoes, basil, and garlic!
But this is not a trip for cooking food I already know, this is a trip for eating new foods - so what's a girl to do? After meeting Justine at the train station when she got in around 6:30, we went out to dinner at Chez Daniel. I chose the restaurant for their nice selection of Provençal dishes and it's proximity to the theater. I ordered the filets de rougets à la sauce de pistou à tomates:
Rouget is a wonderful small Mediterannean fish, which was in this case meaty and firm, with a nice hint of the sea. Pistou is essentially the French equivalent of pesto: a cold sauce of basil, garlic, and olive oil. I'm not sure how a 'pistou à tomates' relates; in any case, I didn't get much of a basil flavor at all. In any case, the sauce was cream based and was a nice pairing to the fish. The plate was sprinkled with fresh, flavorful ground cumin which added a nice smokiness to the dish. It also came with rice, which was a nice accompaniment but forgettable. To go with our meal, we had drank a Côtes du Rhône, a local appellation. It was a nice, light red wine
Our waiter was slow in bringing the check, so we didn't get out of the restaurant until about 9:25 pm, and our concert started at 9:30. Luckily, the theater was just across the street. Since we arrived so late, we were told to sit down as quickly as possible, anywhere we liked - so we ended up sitting much closer than our tickets indicated originally.
The concert was pretty magical. To be watching a concert in a Roman theater, and to think about the performances that had been held here for the past two millennia and the people who had come to attend them... It was amazing. What an amazing venue! The acoustics were wonderful, and the music beautiful. The first half of the concert was a Tchaikovsky piano concerto. The pianist left during the intermission, and the second half was purely orchestral.
Standing in the niche in the wall behind the stage is a sculpture of Augustus, the emperor during the time when the theater was built. During the concert, he was lit up in different colors (or sometimes not at all - perhaps for dramatic effect?)
There was a large audience for the concert, but there was also still plenty of space available. I'm not sure how many the theater could seat, but it was quite large:
During intermission, the lights got turned on again, and it was a little easier to see around the interior of the theater:
As I wandered around during intermission to get the best vantage point for my pictures, I walked up to the top of the theater and through one of the arches to find this vaulted corridor:
As cool as the theater was, it was seeing this simple stone corridor that really made me stop and think, "Wow. This is a Roman theater!!!" It was surreal.
One final view into the theater, taken from the vaulted entrance to the corridor:
It's hard for me to describe what an incredible experience the concert was, so you'll just have to take my word for it. It ended around 11:30, and since there were no trains running at that hour, Justine and I took a cab back to Avignon for the night. What a wonderful evening.
--- I got back to Michigan on Monday; I am optimistic that now I will be better able to write and publish posts more regularly. It was an incredible trip, and I am so glad to be able to tell you all about it - thanks for your patience as I slowly work my way through writing this all up! ---
Coming soon: Marseille, city of bouillabaisse and navettes