World-beating wine and UNESCO-listed Roman ruins are on the menu in the small city of Orange in Vaucluse.
The Theatre is one of Europe’s most spectacular Roman monuments, and you’ll be amazed by how much of this building is still in situ.
There’s an informative little museum next door, and a short walk from the centre of the town is a Triumphal Arch, noted for its three-arched design.
If you love wine you’ll have the pleasure of discovering the many domaines, caves and wineries of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape region, one of the strictest and most revered labels in the world.
Avignon, the Luberon and yet more Roman monuments are also within your grasp in Orange.
Lets explore the best things to do in Orange:
1. Roman Theatre
Orange’s Roman Theatre is one the great ancient sites in Europe.
There isn’t a better-preserved Roman theatre in France, or possibly the rest of the continent, and is rare because it retains its scaenae frons – the 37-metre-high stone backdrop to the stage, with niches, columns and a statue of Augustus.
The exterior facade is stunning too, an imposing stone wall with corbels at the top, and three wooden doors leading to the stage.
To this day the theatre can seat 9,000 spectators and has an expansive stage, 61 metres across.
Even now it is the atmospheric venue for the Chorégies d’Orange, an opera festival held every August since the theatre was restored in 1969.
2. Triumphal Arch
About half a kilometre north of the theatre, on the N7, is Orange’s other fabulous piece of Roman heritage, dating to the rule of Augustus in the 1st century.
It is dedicated to the members of the Gaulish Legion that founded Orange and was later updated to include the military successes of Germanicus and Tiberius over the German tribes.
One of the things that makes it so noteworthy is that it has three arches, and is the oldest one with this design still intact.
Spend a few minutes inspecting the arch’s reliefs, which have stood the test of time, despite the arch being a gateway in Orange’s medieval fortifications.
3. Le Musée d’Art et d’Histoire d’Orange
Right opposite the theatre is an attraction where you can get your head around Orange’s ancient and medieval history.
Entry is included with your ticket for the theatre.
The museum is in a 17th-century “hôtel particulier” built for a Dutch nobleman.
The Gallo-Roman section is the most enthralling, with three Roman cadastres engraved in large marble slabs, dating to 77AD when Emperor Vespasian conducted a review of land ownership.
There are also reliefs and sculptures found during excavations at the theatre, and a marvellous 3rd-century mosaic, titled “Aux Amphorettes”.
4. Orange Cathedral
The Diocese of Orange was suppressed after the Revolution, so for more than two hundred years Orange Cathedral hasn’t strictly been a cathedral.
That detail does nothing to detract from the subtle beauty of this 12th-century romanesque building, which has a few neo-classical updates on the facade.
The church has had a difficult history, having suffered damage during the French Wars of Religion, and for a time during the conflict it was a Huguenot protestant church.
Inside there’s a painting commemorating Orange’s 32 nuns who were martyred during the Reign of Terror in 1794. The bell-tower is from the 1300s and has four bells, the oldest of which dates to 1338, while the newest, cast in 1871, weighs more than a ton.
5. Colline Saint-Eutrope
The highest point in Orange is the 105-metre hill into which Orange’s Roman theatre is built.
The hill has an intriguing history of its own, as it was the site of the Château of the Princes of Nassau, a massive fortress with 11 bastions, claimed to have been one of the most beautiful in Europe.
Up to 1672 the city had been a fiefdom of the Dutch House of Orange-Nassau and so was protestant: This ended following a siege by the Count of Grignan under Louis XIV, during which gunpowder was used to demolish the walls.
There isn’t much left but you can still see evocative pieces of the fortifications, while the hill also has four panoramic lookouts with views of the city, Mont Ventoux and the Rhône.
There are 21 estates and châteaux to visit in the Orange area alone! Orange falls within two of the world of wine’s preeminent AOCs.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape came about in the 1300s when the Avignon Pope John XXII developed this vineyard, and the name had been fiercely protected long before appellations were introduced in the 1930s.
Even now the grapes have to be hand-picked and sorted for a wine to qualify.
The soil in the terroir is recognised by its large round pebbles on red clay, which radiate the day’s heat overnight and so allow the grapes like Grenache, Syrah and Cinsault to reach an exceptional degree of maturity.
Orange is also in the much larger Côtes-du-Rhône AOC, with vineyards that mostly grow Grenache because of the Mediterranean climate.
7. Musée de la BA 115
The French air force has had a base five kilometres east of Orange since 1939 and is Orange’s main employer, providing business for some 200 companies.
The base’s museum is open only on Tuesdays and has several rooms relating the general history of the French Air Force as well as the specific background of this base and the part it played in the Second World War, the War in Algeria, the Cold War and in conflict today.
You can see vintage uniforms and photography, medals and official documents from the base’s archives.
8. Musée Aéronautique d’ Orange
After your visit to the base you may be itching to see some hardware, and this museum obliges, with a big set of fighters, bombers, helicopters and other aircraft a short way south of the base.
It is run by “Les Amis de la 5eme Escadre”, an association for former members and patrons of a former fighter unit that lasted from 1945 to 1995. It’s a bit of a wonderland for fans of 20th-century jets, with a large collection of French-made Dassault Mirages and Mystères.
There are also foreign aircraft such as de Havilland Vampires and Hawker Hunters, as well as interesting navy planes like the Breguet Alizé and F-8 Crusader with “variable incidence” wings.
9. Orange Market
Every Thursday 300 regular stall holders take over the streets and squares in the centre of the city, for one of Provence’s favourite outdoor markets.
Flowers and other plants, local delicacies, handicrafts and all sorts of fresh produce are sold here.
One of the most rewarding things is to browse the stalls offering regional fruit and vegetables: Depending on the time of year you can get hold of superb grapes, aubergine, green beans and apricots, all fresh from the nearby countryside.
To take home, Orange’s olive oil belongs to the “huile d’Olive de Provence AOC”, or you get a bottle of Orange’s famed sweet muscat wine.
10. Bike Rides
The terrain around Orange is dream bike-riding country, with landscapes that show the Provence at its most idyllic.
There are vineyards, the banks of the Rhône, sunflower fields, orchards and farms growing wheat.
The routes are all marked, so there’s little danger of getting lost.
You could try the 15.7-kilometre circular trip from Orange to Carderousse and back, with views of Mont Ventoux to keep you company.
A longer looped trail ” De la Pierre aux Galets” meanders through the Orange and Châteauneuf du Pape vineyards and to the east you’ll be able to make out the limestone cliffs of the Dentelles de Montmirail.
11. Châteauneuf du Pape
At the top of this world-renowned wine village are the shard-like ruins of the Château des Papes.
The castle was built in the 1300s for Pope John XXII, who also founded the vineyards, as a summer residence.
Perhaps the structure has seen better days, with only two walls from the Donjon still standing, but you can see bits of the gothic vaulting and it’s an interesting fragment of the Avignon Papacy.
What brings most visitors though are the village’s caves, vineyards and châteaux, where they can savour one of France’s most beloved wine labels.
For more background, the Musée du vin Brotte has a display of presses and old farming tools going all the way back to the 1300s.
The local history is so entwined with the Avignon Papacy that there’s no reason not to make the half-hour trip to the city.
In the 14th-century this was the seat of Western Christianity, and Palace of the Popes where they ruled and lived is a landmark of bewildering scale and beauty.
It’s the largest gothic building in the world and there’s a wealth of things to see inside, like the gorgeous frescoes in Clément VI’s private study and the Saint-Martial chapel.
The older part of the city is loaded with renaissance architecture as a reflection of the city’s standing in the 15th and 16th century.
And you can’t miss out Pont Saint-Bénézet, Avignon’s feted 12th-century bridge, a staggering piece of medieval design wrecked by the Rhône in the 17th century.
If the sight of mountains to the distant east of Orange captures your imagination then you won’t have far to travel.
Orange is only around 35 kilometres from the edge of the Luberon Regional Park, which is known the world over for its cute medieval villages, rugged limestone hills, ochre-tinted rocks, fields of lavender and olive groves.
For itinerary ideas you could just drive from one picturesque hilltop village to another: Bonnieux, Gordes, Roussillon and Isle-sur-Sorgue could all be done in a single day.
There isn’t a large monument to pick out in this city, but you won’t regret making the undemanding drive west from Orange just to experience its old streets.
They’re brimming with history because Uzès was a bishopric up to the 18th century so has an ordinate amount of listed buildings for such a small place (40 in total). This classes Uzès as a French “ville d’art et d’histoire”: Amble along the serpentine cobblestone streets armed with a map from the tourism office to point out the renaissance and 17th-century mansions.
Don’t leave without getting an eyeful of the Le Duché, where the Dukes of Uzès lived in renaissance luxury.
15. Regional Roman Heritage
Orange’s Roman monuments may have tickled your fancy for Gallo-Roman history, and if so you’ll be pleased that there’s much more to see in Arles and Nîmes, both achievable inside an hour.
In Nîmes is a marvellous amphitheatre, wonderfully preserved and still in use for bullfights and concerts.
The Maison Carrée here is a temple dedicated to Lucius Caesar and Gaius Caesar; but for some weathering on its columns, it looks like it could have built decades ago.
In Arles there’s another supreme amphitheatre, so large that it was actually converted into an entire town with more than 200 houses in medieval times.
Finally, and one of the best, is the storied Pont du Gard, a stunning 48-metre-high stretch of the Nîmes aqueduct where it crosses the steep valley of the Gardon River.