You join us in the Provençal village of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, a picturesque little town, at one time home to none other than Vincent Van Gogh, whose insatiable appetite for Provence’s mighty colour palate was more than satisfied by the staggering beauty of these undulating landscapes, peppered with olive trees and cypresses, with fields of golden wheat and others with lavender, and stood in the midst of them all, the towering limestone massif of Les Alpilles, a 24-km chain of mountains between the Rhone and Durance rivers.
Yet while the mighty majesty of the Alpilles mountain range towering above the horizon has the power to hold tourists and artists alike in its all-conquering grip, there is something else set amongst the foothills of this great imposing mountain range which has the power to inspire awe-struck admiration in equal measure: this time a structure built not by nature, but by man, but a structure so ancient and yet still so classically magnificent in all its detail and grandeur that it appears to have defied nature itself. For as it turned out, Van Gogh is far from being Saint-Rémy’s only attraction: For a mere stroll along from Saint Paul de Mausole, where Van Gogh was an inpatient for a year between 1889-1890, are the incredible ancient remains of the Roman town of Glanum, an archeological site which is so comprehensive that it is a rival to Pompeii; an ancient monument so beautiful that it glows like a precious crystal in the midst of the limestone hulk of the Alpilles around it, the vast mountains into which this ancient Roman town appeared to integrate so seamlessly as though nature herself had intended it.
The gateway to the Glanum remains is pretty startling: a triumphal arch built during the reign of Augustus and the Mausoleum of the Julii, said to be one of the most perfectly intact mausoleums remaining from ancient Rome. Both monuments are brilliant in their complexity and incredibly intact – and yet these imposing structures stand innocuously by the main road from Saint-Rémy to Les Baux, with no cordons, no tickets and no guards. The result is a superb opportunity to interact with the indomitable grandeur of Roman architecture, and to do so quite freely with neither impediment nor cost. And yet it worries me – for how long can these incredible structures remain in their current excellent state of preservation, when they are so unguarded from harm?
While this magnificent arch, which once formed the Northern entrance to the town of Glanum, was free to see, the remains of the town were not – but such was to be expected from an archeological museum almost as vast as the great remains of Pompeii and Herculaneum. And what they may have lacked in Pompeian decoration, they surely made up for in scale, in the variety of buildings discovered and on view, and in the magnificent setting of this town which, carved literally into the steep sides of the Alpilles must surely be strong competition for Pompeii’s Vesuvius-backdrop.
Glanum, which today includes monuments aplenty, half-preserved temples, the remains of public baths, the roman forum, and several houses, was built in 27 BC but abandoned in 260 AD when it was overrun and destroyed by the Alamanni. Subsequent floods and weather conditions meant that the abandoned ruins of the town gradually became covered with sediment and mud, and there it lay, undiscovered, until excavations began to rediscover the town in 1921. Now it is one of Provence’s most visited sites, and one can see why. The scale of the find is pretty unique, and the ability to scale the steepsided valley of the Alpilles and see the town from above, with the modern Saint-Rémy in the distance is particularly special.
We adored Glanum, and for us it provided a much unexpected cultural delight on the outskirts of a little town already proving to be so abundant in sensual delights for the earnest visitor. A hearty slice of history in an area so exuding charm; a man-made ancient monument which so artfully augments the beauty of its celestial natural surroundings.
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