Hunting for Roman Remains - Part II

Trip Start May 31, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Sunday, March 4, 2007

Thespians and Warriors

We had less than half a day left in France before we had to fly back to grey, rainy London, so we woke up really early -much too early for a Sunday morning -and checked out of the hotel. Apparently French wine is better on the body than other wines, because I woke up with just a mild headache that vanished in a matter of minutes after getting up.

We sped our way out of Nimes and rushed toward Orange, first to look for a nice French patisserie for breakfast, then for the antique roman theatre of Orange. Since it was so early we drove by various patisseries which were closed, but finally Ed's hawk-eyes spotted a French equivalent of paradise on Earth: croissants, pastries, tarts, rolls, éclairs, doughnuts, muffins, scones, fresh baguettes, and fruit cakes all fresh out of the hot ovens. It was a really hard decision, probably the hardest we've had to make in a while, but we finally settled for petit pan au chocolat, almond and apple pastries, and classic soft-warm croissants.

After breakfast we sped over to Orange in search for one of the best preserved Roman buildings in the world....or so was said. Tourism is just like any other product out there: it's got to have its marketing strategy, so although dubious, I was still excited. When we reached Orange, a lazy Sunday morning town, we found our way easily enough to the Théâtre Antique d'Orange. It was still closed when we got there but since the theater lay on the foot of a small hill, it gave us plenty of time to climb it and enjoy the view.

Once inside the site, we watched a video that explained the history of the theater. How it was built with Roman pomp and pride, how the Romans loved their tragedies and comedies, how male actors portrayed the roles of men and women and how they put emphasis on the emotion of their voices rather than their faces, since the audience was usually too far away to see their facial expressions. The shows were all free of charge including not only plays but also poetry reading, pantomimes and signing.

We learned how the theater was closed down and abandoned, banned as immoral by Christianity which became the official religion of the Empire in the 4th Century. During the middle ages it was used as a fortress, and in the 16th Century it was a refuge for the townspeople during the European wars. During this period the townspeople built their houses inside the theater, making holes and digging into the ancient stone but at the same time preserved it during the centuries.

We learned all this even before even setting eyes on the ancient ruins, but as we walked out from the hallway and into the open air, caught the first glimpse of the stage and its fabulous wall. The pillars and pilasters with its hints of faded marble, the remains of small windows and openings and exits, its broken entablatures and strong roman arches, and the tall proud statue of Caesar in his niche.

Its hard to imagine how all this has survived for so long, how real roman people of which we've heard so much since we were kids, really breathed, laughed, and cried upon these walls and stone seats. The acoustics of the place was amazing: steep tiered rows of seats and benches were built in a perfect semicircle to allow the sound waves to travel to every point of the theater. It was fun to whistle or clap and hear how the sound traveled flawlessly throughout. No wonder it's still used as a musical and theatrical venue

Next to the theater were the ruins of what they seem to think was a peristyle temple decorated with 8 large columns, one of whose Corinthian capital was still pretty much in tact, next to broken parts of friezes and cornices, and small roses and animals carved in the old stones.

It was a place where one could spend hours looking over the different angles and tiny details of eroded wonder, sitting on one of the benches imagining the Roman version of Oedipus Rex being played to a full house on a star-filled summer night. But soon it was time to leave as we still had one more Orange monument to see before we had to leave France.

We started walking down one of the main roads. David walks really fast so we lost him after only a couple of minutes of lagging behind...either that or he was trying to get away from us. We followed the signs and on the way we encountered the tiniest little cobblestone roads with picturesque shops and cafes, balconies and doorways, archways and fountains. We came across a square with the most gorgeous cherry blossom trees ever, and while I was photographing the tiny little pink and red spotted buds, I suddenly understood the Japanese obsession with this little fairytale flower.

The Roman Arc de Triomphe was nestled in the middle of a roundabout surrounded by yellow daisies. It was clearly reconstructed as the engravings seemed to be glued back together to the structure as a broken stone puzzle. All arches of triumph are built to commemorate a victory of some sort, so it wasn't hard to imagine what the depictions were all about. There was amazing detail in some of the swords and horse's bodies together with the armor of some of the roman soldiers on the engravings. The entablatures still had incredible detail, and you could still see the tiny acanthus leaves carved into the architrave.

On the highest level of the arch one could see the mastery of the stone workers who masterfully carved the fierce battle which this arch clearly represented, the final and most important battle which was to stand high and tall for all to see; the sole reason for this victory.

So this is how our swift pass through France ended. We had only enough time left to get back to the car and drive to the airport in Nimes for the dreaded plane ride back to London. It had been a little over 24 hours but we had enjoyed the weather, the food, the sights, the history, the culture and the company. Most of all, I think its safe to say we were all satisfied with our mission: to learn more about the glorious world of provincial Roman architecture. We had gazed upon the old structures which once shone with the worth of pax romana and our imaginations had taken us among the bustling crowds in a hurry to get seats to their favorite gladiator fight or tear-jerking tragedy. And people say time travel is impossible!
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