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).
Not many architects can say that their construction will lest centuries, let alone millennia, though many Romans can. Not many tourists can say that they have beheld constructions that are more than a millennia old, though those who have visited the magnificent Pont du Gard can. This ‘pont’ (‘bridge’ in French) over the Gard (also called the Gardon) River in the south of the Hexagon is one of the the most country’s most spectacular ancient sites, left over from the days when the Roman-dominated territory was called Gaul, and Lyon (or ‘Lugdnumum‘) was still the capital. Built around 40-60 AD spanning 275m at its longest point, the aqueduct in entirety descends only 17 m over the course of it’s length, while the Pont du Gard has a mere 2.5 centimetres slant, which makes you marvel at the ingenuity and intelligence of the Romans without computers, machinery, calculators or any other aspects of modern technology. The Pont is impressive enough when viewed from land, but the best way to truly experience such a structure is the way it was meant to be seen – by water. So, jump in a canoe or kayak, grab your paddle, splash through the Gard River and don’t be afraid to get wet!
Typically known to be a place of vibrant colors, here is another perspective of the famed Italian city. Known as the scene of Shakespeare’s immortal Romeo & Juliet, Verona is more than a city of doomed lovers. (It is also the namesake of “Two Gentlemen in Verona,” and the setting for “The Taming of the Shrew.” Ha!) Verona is a city of architecture, a city of color, of history. It is a city that has ties to the Romans, to Dante, to Shakespeare. Nestled along the Adige River, the cobbled streets of Verona twist and turn along the river’s banks. In fact, it was this convergence at the river’s bend and intersection with several main roads that led to Verona’s growth during the Roman Empire. Over the next 2,000 years, it changed hands too many times to count (some of the most important were the Romans, Ostrogoths, Lombards, Bavarians, the counts of San Bonifacio, the della Scala family – who seems to have turned on each other several times with treason, betrayal and fratricide – Venetians, Napoleon, Austrians, the Nazis, and finally, present-day Italy). It is a city steeped in history, a city that, though you would not know it from its appearance, has maintained a strong military presence due to its strategic position for most of its existence.
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.
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!
It’s hard to imagine that in 12 days (twelve!), I will be back in Spain – and for the whole summer! Spain is certainly one of those countries that is so…flavourful, so memorable. Memories of Spain do not get jumbled into a pile of “vaguely-European memories;” instead, they stand out, just like this bright orange house in the adorable village of Sagunto, not far from Valencia. Spanish cities are great for the nightlife, but Spanish villages are where you go if you like to eat, drink, take beautiful photos, see ancient buildings, and watch the magnificent sunsets. Sagunto, an ancient Roman city, may not be huge and sprawling, but it creates its own miniature “bustling” world. The people are nice, the weather is great, the beach is close (6km), the beer is cheap, and the views are fantastic – what more could you want?
Ah, Florence, city of art and fine dining. City of Dante and his Divine Comedy, of Michelangelo and his David, Leonardo, Botticelli, Donatello, and Brunelleschi. How has one place produced so many great artists? And don’t forget the architecture–museums, palaces, churches, the Duomo. Bridge after bridge cross the Arno River—though of course the most famous is Ponte Vecchio, the beautiful covered bridge in the centre of Florence. The bridge dates back to medieval times. It was once common for bridges to be enclosed and lined with shops and stands, but few such bridges like this remain. Once the site of a Roman bridge, the Ponte Vecchio connects the two banks of the Arno at its narrowest point. Over the course of time, it has been weakened or swept away by floods and other disasters but has always been rebuilt. A common legend proposes that the Ponte Vecchio created both the term and phenomenon of bankruptcy, as any merchant on the bridge who could not pay his bills had his table or “banco” broken (“rotto”) by the authorities to render any further sales impossible (hence, “bancorotto.”) Oh, did I mention that, along with Pulteney Bridge in Bath and the Rialto Bridge in Venice, the Ponte Vecchio is the only other remaining bridge with shops on it in Europe (all of which I’ve visited…)? Pretty cool!
Republic Square, or Prokurative as it is known locally, is Split’s magnificent (and largest) of public squares. Because of its Neo-Renaissance style and usage of Venice as a model, walking through Trg Republike is like stepping into Venice. And it’s not only this square that one has the feeling of being in Italy—Croatia and Italy share a long history dating back thousands of years. Located just across the Adriatic Sea from Italy, Croatia was geographically located at the centre of the Roman Empire. This proximity bound the Dalmatians to the Venetians—who were regarded as the Mistresses of the Adriatic—as they shared both culture and language. Today, though Croatia and Italy are two separate countries speaking languages from two separate language families, the pair have much in common: architecture, food, weather, lifestyle, landscape. Yet still, even with all of these superficial similarities, the people still hold onto their own traditions, their own uniqueness, their own culture—and Croatia is a country worth getting to know.
Nope, not Greece, not Italy, not even Cyprus. It’s actually France! Yes, it’s a little surprising to find such stereotypically Roman architecture so far from home, but there’s actually a decent amount of Roman remnants here in France. The temple was erected by emperor Claudius and survived the fall of the Romans as well as everything since then mostly because the citizens had the foresight to convert it to a church (“Notre Dame de Vie”). It dates back to 10-20 BC – needless to say, it’s very old. And very unexpected. While Vienne is an attractive town, it’s not terribly distinctive at first. One walks through small streets ducking old women with shopping carts and old men with berets and baguettes (I might be playing up the stereotypes a little). One turns the corner, and suddenly, wham. An open square lined with cafes and little shops, all facing this magnificent Roman temple dedicated to a long-dead-but-never-forgotten emperor. C’est magnifique, ne c’est pas?
This cactus-embraced castle presides over the small and very ancient town of Sagunto, Spain. Founded by the Romans in 219 BC, over time this town has been home to the Romans, the Arian Visigoths, the Muslims from Northern Africa, the Castilians, James I of Aragon, the French (oh Napoleon) and is now a Spanish town in the province of Valencia. The castle itself, while somewhat ruinous, is an interesting mix of Roman and Moorish design and is in a decent state for its age. And of course it’s always a great photo-op! As this was very close to my former home in Spain, I was a repeat visitor to this place. I used it as a place to relax, siesta, read books, paint, draw, picnic, or simply enjoy the view.
Welcome to the tiny village of Fiesole. Occasionally visited by writers and artists, there isn’t much here beyond your typical Italian village buildings. Well, except for the Etruscan tomb, that it. The Etruscans are an ancient Italian civilization in central/northern Italy (still used today as the modern name, “Tuscany”). They existed until the 4th century but the Romans conquered this city in 90BC, meaning that this small tomb is over 2000 years old! This tomb is one of the six Via Bargellino tombs in the city. Made of square slabs, it also included urns, bronze artifacts, and terracotta unguent containers.