Monday, April 23, 2012

Vaison-la-Romaine, a Town with Amazing Roman Ruins

We head off to the weekly market in Vaison la Romaine every Tuesday morning rain or shine. I am usually patient with Shirley and our guests about getting out of the house at a certain time except on Tuesdays. Like most towns, parking in Vaison on market day is not easy so we try to be there by 8:30 AM so we can park in the small lot near Notre-Dame de Nazareth Cathedral.

Vaison la Romaine is a quick 10 km drive from Sablet along a winding road and cross the Ouvèze River on the Pont Neuf (new bridge); there is a Roman bridge too (more about that in a future post). Vaison la Romaine is divided into two parts by the Ouvèze River; on the right bank is the ancient Roman colony and modern town and on the left bank on top of a rocky spur is the old medieval town.

The market takes place in the center of the modern town. The cathedral near where we park was erected in the 11th century and its walls were reinforced in the 12th century on the site of a Palaeo-Christian church.

The city of Vocontii - southern capital of Vocontii, a Celtic tribe, Vaison (Vasio Vocontiorum) became part of Roman Provence at the end of 2c BC. Very early on it received the status of federated city (not colony) which allowed the town a lot of autonomy. Allied with Ceasar during the Gallic War (58 - 51 BC), the Vocontii lived side by side with the Romans.

Known for centuries simply as Vaison, the town didn't get the second part of its name until the early 20th century when Roman ruins were discovered beneath the streets of the modern town. From beneath the ground emerged the remains of a Roman city that covered 70 hectare/173 acres and had a population of approximately 10,000.

From the church, we walk along the north side of the Cathedral past a very large field of Roman ruins which border the path on the way to the main market area. I am embarrassed to say we hardly give a thought to how extraordinary it is to see these ruins every Tuesday morning.

What makes this site unique is the fact that it is made up of streets with shops and houses, rather than individual ruins like at Arles and Orange, so you get a sense of the overall layout of the town. While little remains of the town, only 15 hectares/37 acres have been excavated (the rest remains under the modern town), it is by far the largest archaeological site in France.

The Roman ruins are spread over two quarters; the Quartier du Puymin adjacent to the Office of Tourism with its Musée Théo Desplans (museum) and Théâtre Antique built in the first century AD (more about this in a future post) and the Quartier de La Villasse which we see on our walk up to the market.

These are ruins of shops along the central street of La Villasse.

This is one room of the Central Thermae (public bath) in La Villasse, most of the ruins of the Central Thermae remain covered by modern buildings, making complete excavation impossible.

A grand house.

More Roman ruins.

Roman ruins against a beautiful Provencal sky.

Amazingly well preserved.

You can buy a ticket which will give you access to wander at will through both quarters. But you can see almost everything without going in.

Roman ruins in a beautiful setting against the backdrop of the beautiful sky.

The La Villasse Thermae and Palaestra is where Romans bathed and exercised.

Roman ruins with a statue in the background.

Another view of the shops along the central street.

Looking down from the market area toward the Cathedral in the distance. At the front is the central street and shops. The Romans were very practical and built one street for chariots in the foreground and just beyond a footpath for pedestrians covered by a portico (many of the columns remain in place) to shelter the stalls and people from the sun and bad weather.

The Musée Théo Desplans (museum) displays artifacts discovered during excavation of the site.

Among the interesting articles found on display in the museum are large marble statues. To the left is a statue of Sabina, wife of emperor Hadrian, the next is emperor Hadrian (117 - 138) and the third is emperor Claudius (41 -54) wearing a crown of oak leaves.

More discoveries uncovered during excavations at the site.

More artifacts on display at Musée Théo Desplans (museum).

Items on display at the Musée Théo Desplans (museum).

Many mosaics have been uncovered in Vaison, some are severely weathered, others have gone to public or private collections. This one now on display in the museum, was found in the Peacock Villa in Quartier du Puymin. It is made up of stone, glass and terracotta to achieve very subtle shading and color.

Bonne journée mes amis et à bientôt.


  1. It amazes me how well preserved some of the Roman remains are here in France. These look fantastic as do the ones quite close to us at Chassenon. The latter get bigger each time I go there. Although some may be covered by buildings, the main part was discovered in farmland which has made excavation much simpler. Great post. Diane

  2. This mornings market was real busy, Michel! And we were a bit late but got lucky with the parking as someone was just leaving my favorite spot! Thank you for these lovely photos of our beautiful town!

  3. The museum looks fantastic! There are still so many places in Provence for me to explore, I think it's going to be a very busy summer :)

  4. Gorgeous pictures and the absolute perfect town for me to visit! Lover of history and roman ruins, yup, that's me! We have plans this summer to be around your area. I want to go to the book fair, Gordes and this town as well. It should make for a fun summer trip!

  5. Hi, I stumbled across your blog and am reading with great interest. We're a Chicago family who has been renting the same house, located between Mirabel-aux-Baronnies and Nyons, in June for the past 20 years. We've been to Sablet/Seguret often and NEVER miss a Tuesday market in Vaison! Thanks for increasing my excitement.

  6. Those Roman ruins are very well-preserved indeed. Vaison la Romaine looks like an excellent day trip, we'll be sure to arrive early during market day, thanks for the tips!

  7. Diane - No doubt that the Romans left a big footprint on France. We marvel all the time about all of the Roman ruins we come across in our corner of Provence.

    Barbara - I think everyone who goes to one market on a regular basis has a favorite parking area. I wish we could have been at the market as well and hooked up for coffee at Festival. I hope your classes are going well.

    Sara - A trip to Vaison is definitely worth while especially if you have never been. Try to come on market day as I think this market is one of the best.

    Ashley - You should try to come up the third weekend of July to our area and hit the Journee des Livres and visit the Roman ruins in Vaison. Its definitely worthwhile.

    Joan - Thanks for checking out my blog and for leaving a comment. You must be in the heart of lavendar if I am clear about where you stay. We went to Nyons for the market for the first time a few weeks back.

    Tuula - Definitely worth the trip to visit Vaison. Besides the Roman ruins, there is also the medieval village, and lots and lots of great wine nearby.