The virtual road trip continues! This week, we’re heading to the south of France to a small town called Orange. Yes, there is a town in France called Orange. And yes, it’s okay if you didn’t know that until just now. I certainly had no idea there was a town called Orange in France until I saw a photo of the magnificent Roman theatre that was located there. One look at that photo was all it took for Orange to shoot to the top of my ‘to visit’ list.
A Visit to the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur
Orange is located in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region in the southeast of France. I had actually never been to this part of France prior to my visit last fall. But I certainly knew about it. This is the region that borders Italy and the Mediterranean Sea. This is the location of cities like Cannes, Nice, Marseille, and Montpellier. Famous for its wine, medieval towns, and luxurious film festivals. And somehow, all I wanted to see was a theatre.
Just to give you a bit of context, I love theatre. As in, I grew up backstage at one theatre or another, and I spent the first five years of my professional career working in theatre. It is one of my great passions in life, and I long to visit Greece to see the birthplace of theatre’s western tradition. I also love visiting theatres from any era, whether it’s the Sydney Opera House or The Globe in London. Roman theatres, in particular, have always fascinated me. Theatre in Ancient Rome was an important part of a citizen’s life. Performances were spectacles in the purest sense, and people could spend all day at the theatre watching the festivities. Sounds like heaven to me. Roman theatres survive to this day all over Europe and the Middle East. However, the theatre in Orange is one of the best preserved.
A Roman Town with a Lasting Legacy
You could say that Orange is Roman through and through. It was founded in 35 BCE by veterans of the Imperial Roman Army, and it soon became the capital of the region. It housed a Forum, a temple complex, a monumental arch, and of course, the theatre. Today, however, only the arch and the theatre remain. The town was eventually raised to the Principality of Orange in the 12th century, thereby creating the title of the Prince of Orange. Perhaps you’ve heard of William of Orange? There have been a couple of them. That title comes from this small town in southern France.
Today, Orange is not the capital it once was. It is not a major city within France, and most visitors have never heard of it. But it is absolutely worth a visit. It’s only a 20 minute train ride from the far more well known town of Avignon, so if you have time for a day trip, you will not be disappointed. In addition to the theatre and the triumphal arch, there is also a Museum of Art and History and the Orange Cathedral. There is also an aerospace museum, although I cannot vouch for that museum personally. For me, however, my visit to Orange was all about the theatre.
A Theatre Worth the Journey
The Roman Theatre of Orange is one of the few Roman theatres in the world with a surviving scaenae frons. These elaborately decorated backdrops served as the scenery for shows, as well as being the dividing barrier between the audience and the actors’ dressing rooms backstage. The scaenae frons in Orange is 37m high, and it is protected by a contemporary glass roof that was built in 2006. The back of the scaenae frons creates the exterior facade of the theatre, which Louis XIV once described as “The finest wall in my kingdom.” I can’t say I disagree.
The theatre still hosts performances throughout the year, including the renowned Chorégies festival every summer. But it is also possible to simply visit the theatre outside of performances. There is a virtual reality film that lets you experience Orange as it was during Roman times. And there are audioguides available to give more context to both the theatre and its cultural significance. How theatre was used as a way of spreading Roman culture throughout the lands it conquered. How authorities used theatre as a way of distracting their citizens from political affairs. And how, much like today, the biggest and most outrageous spectacles were often the most popular.
A Day Spent in Orange
If you find yourself in the south of France, please consider taking the time to visit the town of Orange. I know I am biased due to my love of theatre, but that doesn’t make the Roman Theatre any less spectacular. It is history preserved, and it is extraordinary.
Laura Moore is a professional storyteller who loves history and the many stories that make Paris one of the most fascinating cities in the world. Join one of her signature tours to learn the story of a city.