Toujours Provence

27th September 1996 at 01:00
Bernard Adams explores the rich and rewarding history of Vaison-la-Romaine. Vaison-la-Romaine is in northern Provence, half way between Lyon and the Med and a bit north of Peter Mayle's Luberon. Surrounded by vineyards and wooded hills and the looming mass of Mont Ventoux, the town and the Vaucluse region offer huge possibilities for school trips.

There's the Romans, of course, and a lot more history, but there's also geography, architecture, environmental studies, natural history and Provencal-style French language and culture. When the Romans arrived in 12BC Vaison was already a prosperous Celtic establishment, built at the foot of a rocky hill. Eventually Vaison became a Roman federated city and influential Romans retired there. They built luxurious hou-ses, a market and a fine theatre. For them Provence was the place to live.

Vaison, once the richest of cities, fell into decline and in the Middle Ages the Vaisonites preferred the safety of a fortified town up the hill, leaving the Roman buildings below to decay quietly for centuries.

But then, as the inhabitants began to feel more secure, they moved down the hill again and by the 19th century building was going on all over the Roman site. It wasn't until 1907 that archaeological priest Father Sautel got to grips with the task of excavation and the Roman glories of Vaison were revealed.

There are sites on both sides of the broad Avenue de General de Gaulle and both give a very strong sense of daily life in a Roman town. The Puymin quarter has a restored open-air theatre which offers a wonderful setting for plays, opera, ballet and concerts on summer evenings.

On the Vilasse site the remains of a modest, paved shopping street with a village-like feel contrast neatly with the rather grand house beside it. There are no large, perfectly preserved buildings among them, but they nevertheless manage to convey very directly the experience of living in a prosperous Roman town. The excavations stretch right up to the edge of the bustling streets of the modern town before disappearing under it, so underneath those pavements may lie even more exciting finds.

Running through Vaison is the Ouveze, a river with a dramatic history of floods.

Over the Roman bridge the medieval town lies perched below the ruined castle of the Counts of Toulouse. There's a Romanesque cathedral with an 11th-century cloister and the strange chapel of Saint-Quenin with its triangular apse and bits of Roman decoration which the 12th-century builders evidently included along with the new stones they were using.

In many villages around Vaison there are reminders of the savagery of the 16th-century wars of religion. For 50 years Roman Catholics and Protestants attacked and massacred each other and destroyed each other's churches. Protestantism is still strong in the area around Vaison and not far away there's a simple and rather touching Museum of Protestantism at Poet Laval.

Visiting Vaison in July and August can get very, very hot, although if you do what the Provencals do and restrict activity to morning and evening, it is possible to mix sightseeing with relaxation by a river or the swimming pool. The advantages of the summer, however, are the exciting annual arts festival in the Roman theatre, and the fact that every third year there is a huge international choral festival.

Natural beauty abounds. Mont Ventoux is 6,000 feet high, with Arctic flowers near the summit in June; oak, beech and conifer woods further down, and the lavender fields and peach orchards below that. The excruciating climb to the top has made it one of most feared stages of the Tour de France - the place where British cyclist Tommy Simpson died in 1967. There's a small monument to his memory on the cool airy summit, from where, on a very clear day, you can see Mont Blanc and the Mediterranean.

To supplement the live experience of the local flora and fauna (lizards, scorpions and chamois deer, for example), you can see a slightly eccentric but delightful natural history museum at Serignan-le-Comtat, near the Rhone valley. In a house at the edge of this village Jean-Henri Fabre, biologist, botanist and entomologist lived for the last 36 years of his long life.

Fabre was an extraordinary polymath. From a poor family he taught himself biology; wrote school science manuals to support his wife and seven children; published a 10-volume study of insects; composed poetry in the Provencal language and used to play his own musical compositions on the dining room harmonium. Harmas, his house in Serignan, has been turned into a museum, a jam-packed testimony to methodical collection and lifelong scientific inquiry. But best of all are his subtle watercolours of the 700 different species of mushrooms which he found for himself in the Vaucluse region.

In spring or autumn you can walk the jagged Dentelles de Montmirail or on the grandes randonnes, France's fine network of well-marked long-distance paths. And although there's some Provencal twang in the French, the natives are friendly, particularly out of season.

Spring is a good time to visit Vaison, but French schoolteachers also like to bring their pupils then. Summer is possible, but probably the best option is September or October. There may be some rain but the temperatures are still warm and group accommodation is easier to come by.

Museum: Harmas de J-H Fabre, Serignan du Comtat (near Orange), open daily except Tuesdays. Tel: 00 33 90 70 00 44 Group accommodation in Vaison: Centre a Coeur Joie, Avenue Cesar Geoffray. Tel: 00 33 90 36 00 78. Fax: 00 33 90 36 09 89 24 rooms (70 single beds) Village Vacances Leo Lagrange, Quartier Saumelongue. Tel: 00 33 90 36 23 91 85 rooms (260 beds) For further details of similar accommodation near to Vaison contact Maison de Tourisme, Vaison-la-Romaine. Tel: 00 33 90 36 02 11, Fax: 00 33 90 28 76 04

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