Uncover the past in Provence - France

Uncover the past in Provence - France

One of the most fascinating things about Europe is how far back the history of many of its present-day cities goes.

France is no exception and Provence, along the country's Mediterranean coast, is a wonderful place to explore the country's ancient Gallic, Greek, Etruscan and Roman roots.

The number of ruins, structures, archeological sites and museums in Provence is staggering, but some of the ones I've found it most rewarding to visit.

 

The best archeological sites, structures, ruins and museums in the Provence:

Entremont

Entremont, the ruins of a Gallic settlement a 10-minute bus ride from Aix-en-Provence (lines 21 or 24 toward Puryicard from the town center). Entremont  was settled from 175 B.C. until roughly 100-90 B.C., and is a great representation of how quickly the Gauls evolved during that time. There are two different settlements at Entremont, the second notably more sophisticated than the first, despite the fact that there were less than three decades between the two. The basic layout of both settlements is still visible, as well as several of the olive presses (pressoirs) used to make oil, which seems to have been one of the area's main enterprises then, as it is today.

 

Arles

You'd be hard-pressed to find a modern town more rich in ancient history that's so well incorporated into daily life. There's the famous arena that's still used for bull fights today and is gradually being restored, the Roman theatre, the Alyscamps cemetery, the Roman baths and the circus, where the city's archaeological museum (le Musée départemental - Arles antique) is located. Visit on a Saturday and you'll be able to experience the best of the ancient and the modern city, exploring both the ruins and the lively Saturday market that fills the streets.

 

Marseille

A major port city for both the Greeks and the Romans, as well as the oldest and second-largest city by population in present-day France, Marseille is jammed with history, much of it ancient. Le Vieux Port (the old port) is the place to start, and to orient yourself. La Vielle Charité (also known as le Musée d'Archéologie Méditerranéenne) is nearby, with vast collections of Greek and Etruscan statuary and ceramics. Also near the port is le Musée d'Histoire, which displays many of the artifacts uncovered in the city, some from wet digs and some from dry. A little further from the port is le Centre Bourse, a mall that happens to have some lovely scenery - le Jardin des Vestiges. When the mall was being built in the late 1960s, artifacts were found and an archaeological survey was conducted, after which the construction of the mall was altered to preserve the history that had been uncovered, namely the entrance to the city used in Greek and Roman times.

 

All three of these sites are in or near cities that are often on tourist itineraries and are well worth at least a morning or an afternoon. If you have to pick one and don't know much of the history, Arles - particularly the Roman arena, theatre and baths - is probably your best bet. It's enjoyable and interesting with or without a guide, regardless of your historical knowledge, and the Roman sites are scattered throughout present-day Arles, a pretty town in its own right and a great representation of Provence.

If you want to delve a little deeper into history, le Jardin des Vestiges in Marseille is not to be missed. Standing in what looks at first glance like a tumble of rocks, staring at what is unmistakably a road, laid with paving stones the Romans placed over the ones the Greeks had used before them, with the cacophony of modern Marseille in your ears, is an incredible feeling.