Quiz time – if you were planning a bike tour based around UNESCO World Heritage sites, where would you go?
Put your atlases away, the answer is Provence.
How so? I was updating our Provence itinerary on The Chain Gang website today when I realised that I kept coming across references to UNESCO. I thought I’d do a little count-up, and to my surprise I found there are no fewer than 4 World Heritage Sites on our Provence bike tour.
Well, that’s not quite true – one of them is Arles, and we visit Arles only rarely, but it’s always an option on the day we cycle from Beaucaire to St Rémy!
Four UNESCO sites on one bike trip is really quite something, the whole of London only has three! There’s an interactive map of all the Sites , but be careful, you could easily lose a day if you get started looking at this lot. I thought I’d just mention the four Provence sites, while I’m excited about them:
1. The Pont du Gard .
Roman aquaduct in the Languedoc.
Who could argue with this entry? The extraordinary acquaduct built by the Romans to take water across the river Gardon to the city of Nimes is 275 metres long and 48 metres high. It’s enormous, it’s beautiful, it’s 2,000 years old, what’s not to love?
2. Orange .
Roman Theatre and Triumphal Arch.
An unremarkable city, close to Chateauneuf du Pape, but with two very remarkable Roman ruins. The first, and most spectacular, is the theatre. It’s still used for Orange’s open-air opera festival every year, seating 8,000 people. Imagine that – a theatre built 2,000 years ago which can still seat 8,000 people for performances in 2009? Almost unbelievable, except I’ve seen it and it’s true.
Literally down the road is a huge Triumphal Arch, which gets included in UNESCO’s list with the Theatre. It is pretty amazing, but my guess is that without the Theatre the Arch wouldn’t have made the list.
The Palais des Papes and the area surrounding it.
Back in the 14th Century Pope Urban V fled the chaotic violence of Rome and moved the Papacy in Avignon. The next six Popes were all based in Avignon, and built an increasingly large and spectacular palace culminating in the huge gothic edifice finished by Pope Benedict XII.
The Popes returned to Rome in 1378, but Avignon continued to appoint Popes in defiance of Rome. These Popes are referred to as the ‘anti-popes’, and they add an additional layer of interest to this period of Avignon’s history.
The scale of the Palace alone almost justifies its inclusion. I love sitting in the main square of Avignon, I wouldn’t argue with UNESCO on this one – and I’ll bet they’re relieved to learn that!
4. Arles .
Roman theatre and arena.
Theatres were where the Romans put on plays. Arenas were where they staged their gladiatorial displays and other bloody nonesense. Arles has one of each.
The Theatre isn’t as good as the one in Orange, but the Arena is very special. Unlike the Theatres, with a large stage as the focus of a semi-circle of terraced seats, the arena is circular, with the battleground surrounded by tiers of seats.
Like the Theatre in Orange, Arles’ Arena is still used today – for bull fighting! They stage ‘bull-running’ as well. Bull-running and bull-fighting are exactly the same, except in bull-running the bulls don’t get killed.
If you want to think badly of the French, guess which type of event you can easily get tickets for on the day? Here’s a clue, it ain’t the bull fighting.
One final piece of shameless promotion. Last year I compiled a collection of ten photographs to explain why people should visit Provence. Compare my list with UNESCO’s here.