Thanks to its spectacular Roman theatre, the small town of Orange, west of the Rhône 20km north of Avignon, is famous out of all proportion to its size. Founded as Aurisio in 35 BC, it became associated with the fruit and colour in the eight century, when Charlemagne made it the seat of the counts of Orange, a title that passed to the Dutch crown in the sixteenth century.
The enormous wall of the Théâtre Antique dominates Orange’s medieval centre. Said to be the world’s best-preserved Roman theatre, it’s the only one with its stage wall still standing. Later a fort, slum and prison before its reconstruction in the nineteenth century, the Théâtre now hosts musical performances in summer and is also open as an archeological site. Spreading a colossal 36m high by 103m wide, its outer face resembles a monstrous prison wall, despite the ground-level archways leading into the backstage areas. The enormous stage, originally sheltered by a mighty awning, could accommodate throngs of performers, while the acoustics allowed a full audience to hear every word.
Though missing most of its original decoration, the inner side of the wall above the stage is extremely impressive. Below columned niches, now empty of their statues, a larger-than-life statue of Augustus, raising his arm in imperious fashion, looks down centre stage. Seating was allocated strictly by rank; an inscription “EQ Gradus III” (third row for knights) remains visible near the orchestra pit.
The Roman theatre is the one must-see attraction. Otherwise, with its medieval street plan, fountained squares, ancient porticoes and courtyards, and Thursday-morning market, Orange is attractive to stroll around, and makes a quiet base for exploring the region.