The Arena in the centre of Nîmes (formally Nemausus) is one of those places that is both beautiful and terrifying. Built in 70 AD, the Arena is one of the first things you come face to face with when arriving in Nîmes. Despite being destroyed in 737 by angry Franks, the completely round building with windows and doors all intact, is beautiful today thanks to a refurbishment in 1863. Once upon a time, the amphitheatre was fortified by the Visgoths, then the viscounts of Nîmes actually built a fortified castle inside its walls, and then a small neighbourhood was built inside the half-ruined building (complete with two chapels and 100 inhabitants!) – talk about reuse and recycle! But since the mid 1800’s when the ‘neighbourhood’ was removed and the amphitheatre restored, the beautiful Arena has sadly been used for bullfighting, with two fights held every year. Despite this unfortunate choice in repurposing (bull fighting, though a closely-held cultural tradition in southwestern France and throughout Spain, is a cruel game that is unjust to the animals forced to participate), the Arena is still one of the most beautiful examples of the Roman reach in what was once the region of Gaul, of the Roman Empire, more 2,000 years ago. While in the region, don’t miss out on the nearby Pont du Gard, an aqueduct bridge part of the Nîmes aqueduct, a 50-kilometre (31 mile) structure to carry water from Uzes to Nîmes (built 1st century AD).
Masters of art, of culture, of language, of theatre, of architecture, of engineering–we can all agree that the Romans were impressive people. While much of their constructions dies with the fall of the Roman Empire, we can still catch a glimpse of Roman ingenuity from time to time. The Roman Colosseum, the Pont du Gard, the Pantheon, the Spa of Bath, the ruins of Aosta, the Fourvière Amphitheatre in Lyon…Roman ruins exist all over Europe, Northern Africa, and the M.E. However, one of the most impressive and most accessible exemplars is found in Segovia, Spain. Though the exact date of construction is a mystery, it is thought to date from the reign of Emperor Domitian (AD 81-96), and runs for roughly 32 km on a 1% grade to the city centre. While most of it is still authentic, there is a hefty part (36 arches to be exact) that date from only the 15th century, rebuilt after it was destroyed by the Moors. However, this doesn’t affect the beauty or impressiveness of the ruins. The arches of the aqueduct march right through the town centre, traversing plazas and streets, cafes and buildings. The people milling about the ancient structure seem small in comparison to the enormous arches. When you finally approach the giant feet of the structure, and slowly make your way up the stairs to take you to the top, you feel the goosebumps on your arms as you realise just however impressive is that they constructed this magnificent engineering feat long before the age of machines.
Tucked away in a quiet corner of Italy is the beautiful Aosta Valley, known for its snug villages, magnificent castles and rich red wine. Aosta the town (above) is an ancient Roman stronghold, built as a station on the way to Roman Gaul (modern-day France), and the vestiges of the site’s original inhabitants crop up all over the town from the theatre to the forum to the victory arch. The Medieval era left its mark on the town by way of several magnificent churches, and the more recent times (ie the 17-18oos) have seen the village grow into a burgeoning town. Aosta is both a town and a region seeped in history and lost in time. The 30-31 January they practice the “Sant‘Orsa Fair” festival–with origins so old that no one remembers the actual starting point! Experts age it to about 1000 years old, and today it is an arts and crafts festival, attracting artists, tradesmen and artisans from near and far. And of course, there is the annual Christmas market in December and January, a place to buy all sorts of traditional and handmade gifts, including delicious wine from the region! Aosta makes a great starting point to discover the valley–and for any history/castle buffs out there, it is a valley that needs to be discovered! Dozens upon dozens of castle reign over high heights in one of the most castle-rich part of Italy. For nature buffs, it’s a lovely place to hike, canoe, or kayak. Summer or winter, for leisure or active travel, Roman history or medieval times, little-known Aosta is a your gem.
Not to be confused with “Vienna, Austria” (despite both having the same name in French), is this little town in central France, lost somewhere along the route from Lyon to Marseille. Vienne would be a typical, mildly-attractive French town if not for a few distinct features…namely, the gigantic Roman temple located in the main town square, not to mention the Roman amphitheater and a “pyramid” (though not at all what you are currently picturing). It’s a strange sensation, wandering through a maze of streets, streets one finds in most French towns and cities, and then rounding a corner and–suddenly–coming upon this ancient, free-standing temple that seems as if it tumbled off a page in book on the Roman Empire. The Temple d’Auguste et de Livie was designed in the Corinthian style and was erected by the emperor Claudius around 20 BC. The main reason why it survived when so many of its sisters were destroyed was its conversion to a church and renaming to match the rise in Christianity, “Notre Dame de Vie.” Additionally, it was briefly converted during the Reign of Terror to celebrate the new god, the “Supreme Being,” and the new “order of Reason” created by the infamous Robespierre during the dechristianisation of France. Today, it resides in this sleepy French town, unconcerned about change or modernity or the passage of time, content merely to exist.
We all know that Romans were some of the most advanced builders of all time. Things they constructed not only still exist today, but are often still in use. Here in Aosta, a “bilingual” city in northern Italy (not far from the French border), one sees many Roman vestiges. Why? Well, around 25 BC, Marcus Terentius Varro conquered the local people and “founded” the Roman colony, Augusta Praetoria Salassorum, and a few years later, it became the capital of the ‘Alpes Graies’ (“Grey Alps” if you couldn’t guess!) region of the Roman Empire because of its strategic location on the crossroads from Rome to modern-day France and Germany. Of course, everything is aligned on a grid, all is divided equally, centered around the main road–these are the Romans we’re talking about! As for the theatre itself, it dates back to the reign of Claudius, and held up to 4000 people. It’s no longer in use today…but just next door is the marketplace, which is still regularly used! The city itself sits on a impressive backdrop of the Alps. Along with the rest of the castle-filled Aosta Valley, the city is also well-known for wine. With the Roman ruins, the magnificent Alps, the surrounding landscape of flowers and villages, the happy Italians, the lovely blend of French and Italian, and the delicious wine (and pizza…this is Italy after all!), Aosta is the place to be!
Castles abound in this Italian region bordering both France and Switzerland. The borders and rulers of this region have changed too many times to recount, giving the region a severe case of identity crisis. Even today, though a part of Italy for a long time, the region still seems relatively bilingual in both Italian and French. The city of Aosta is often the destination—but the train ride to the Roman city is one of those times when Emerson’s expression “life is a journey, not a destination” comes to light. Keep your eyes glued to the train windows because all those times the valley changed hands have created a need for limitless castles and fortresses—therefore, it is rather like playing “Where’s Waldo?” (if Waldo was a castle!) every five minutes! Mostly built in the typical Italian style (see Milan), the castles not only add a romantic flair to the valley, but also serve to remind us of our brutal feudal history—and the reason why we built castles in the first place.
Climbing up the ancient Roman roadway of Via Augusta in the small Spanish town of Xàtiva, the weary traveller beholds the ancient castle of Xàtiva. Clinging to the top of a mountain that overlooks rooftops, orange groves and cactus fields is this castle, a rambling stone structure over a kilometre long. The castle is over a 1,000 years old, yet, visitors are permitted the freedoms of exploring every inch of the castle without the guards, warnings or barriers installed at other such monuments. For a time, the castle was held by the Almoravid dynasty – and for almost 150 years, Moors occupied the fortress. Then King James I of Aragon charged the castle in 1239, in a desperate crusade to recapture Xàtiva – which, after 5 months, he did. The Moors gave him the small castle while keeping the larger, though eventually, the Christian residents pushed them out. It is amazing that in Spain, when tour guides speak of war and destruction damaging the architecture and the local heritage, they often refer to wars 800 years old, the complete opposite of ancient ruins in Poland or other Soviet-held nations.