Vaison La Romaine – Ancient Rome in Provence

Photo of Vaison la Romaine Provence old town from the old Roman bridge by French Travel guide book author

Please enjoy my Travel books – LINK TO YOUR COUNTRY :

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My French Travel Book series and New book Off the Autoroute

Vaison La Romaine

Photo of Vaison la Romaine Provence old town from the old Roman bridge by French Travel guide book author
Vaison la Romaine – view of the old town

This excerpt is taken from my French Travel Book THYME for PROVENCE

Our first stop on our travels by car into Provence from the north, our entrance to the sun, has nearly always been the town of Vaison la Romaine. It is for that reason a location that is important to us in telling our story of travels in Provence. It is simply the gateway to Provence. We have always found the restaurants of Vaison provide a perfect lunch stop after a journey that has usually resumed in Burgundy following an overnight stop at a hotel in the heart of French wine country. On top of the fact that Vaison does provide some excellent food for the weary traveller it is a spectacularly atmospheric, beautiful ancient Roman town to visit. The clue is very much in the name of course. The Romans loved it here too, but I suspect they had to cook their own food.

Vaison is one of the very best preserved of Roman built French towns. The town is a place where you can spend many hours and still not have scratched the surface of the interest it has to offer. I do love my history. Let me first of all tell a tale of one of our first visits, a lunch stop as we entered Provence at the beginning of our holiday: Despite a fairly torturous autoroute journey from Lyon, all stop start traffic on the way, it was still only around noon when we parked the car in the large square in the modern part of Vaison. I say modern because the ‘old town’ is across the river, but today’s more modern part is where most of the Roman ruins are to be found. We were more than happy to have made such good time on the journey to get down as far as Vaison considering that we were travelling at the height of the tourist season. This location was to be our refreshment stop and it was already extremely busy.

A roman street still intact in the Provence town of Vaison la Romaine
The well preserved Roman ruins at Vaison la Romaine

We walked down past the shops and restaurants towards the ancient Roman bridge that connects the two parts of the town over the Ouveze river. This bridge was built in the first century AD and it appears on first impressions to be a simple arch construction but that does not disguise that this bridge is a truly astonishing architectural achievement. It has stayed firm even though it is in constant use right down to our day despite weathering the many dramatic floods that have swept down this valley throughout the centuries. We crossed over the bridge and of course lingered to admire the view up and down the valley from the centre of the structure, waiting our turn as people moved slowly away. The finest view of this historic bridge and its situation spanning the river and joining both sides of Vaison is to drive or walk a few hundred yards north. From this point you can take in the scene looking back towards the town. It is a spectacular sight. As you cross to the other side it is worth stopping to look at the towering war memorial now in front of you. This is extremely impressive in that it almost appears to have been carved from the solid rock face.

Walking slowly up the ancient cobbled narrow streets of the old town we searched up and down the maze of narrow passageways for a small restaurant where we had previously enjoyed a fine lunch but found it shuttered up, unusually closed at this busy time of year. It was at this tiny unnamed restaurant serving diners at just three metal tables spread out across the stone cobbles of an opening in the passageway that we had a surreal encounter with a group of American tourists the previous year. On that occasion it was peaceful and cool in this lovely, shaded spot, quiet and secluded.

A sleepy cat waits for diners around a courtyard cafe in Provence
Secluded peaceful cafe in the old town of Vaison la Romaine

We were just starting to enjoy a simple lunch of Niçoise salad, and a dish of lamb cutlets placed in front of me. We tried to eat this very pleasant lunch and drink our carafe of chilled local rosé wine but the heavy conversation from our fellow diners was preventing any possible enjoyment. Despite all of them heartily tucking into their lunch, a couple of them ironically enjoying a very rare steak, one of the party of Californians was recounting at great length and in precise gory detail the full technicolour facets of her recent stomach operation. I assumed that as she had initially recalled to all in earshot that it extended to a 5-hour operation she would just give the edited highlights. I also assumed that she must have been asleep during the procedure – maybe she had it videoed. She did not leave out any detail. I also assumed that the others in the party gazing at their juicy red steak would eventually change the subject. They did not. I was under no illusions that if they continued this subject any farther then I would throw up. Niamh was going ever greener as our food seemed to be looking at us like an enemy taunting us rather than a plate of tempting beauty and pleasure.

Ultimately, we had had enough.

I asked very politely if they might just possibly, please, consider changing the subject until we had eaten. I explained that we English once anesthetised are more than happy not to be informed of what occurred. As long as all goes well on the surgeon’s table there is nothing more we need to know but I appreciated they had a different take on the fascinations of surgery.  They kindly agreed but I had put them out of their or should I say her stride and they spoke not a further word until I paid the bill and wandered off down the lane.

So then, back to our visit a year later.

Looking down the river under the old Roman bridge to the old town of Vaison La Romaine in Provence France in French Travel guide book
Old Roman bridge in Vaison la Romaine Provence

As we were not particularly pressed for time, we carried on strolling around the narrow streets threading through the old town. After a while we came to a large, terraced courtyard on the route back down to the ancient bridge and this turned out to be the Hostellerie Bellfroi. It gave the impression from the ambiance at the tables to be too good to walk past. We would in any case rather eat in the old town with its extra atmosphere and views. One snag today that countered this argument was that the mistral wind was blowing hard, very hard. It turned out to be a bracing lunch on the exposed terrace. Even the wine bottle had to be ‘grounded’ such was the strength of the wind. I selfishly kept it by my foot.

The food that the restaurant served was excellent and I enjoyed the plat du jour of roast chicken with Provencal courgettes accompanied by a side dish of boulangère potatoes. Niamh had a large salad of couscous, prawns, and raisins with plenty of ‘greens’. The splendid local Vaucluse rosé was the finest of accompaniments once I could steady it to pour. Clafoutis is always one of our favourite French desserts and we cook it often at home from a Normandy recipe. So, we both decided on the apricot version that was on offer to finish a very pleasant lunch. Niamh insisted that hers was strangely ‘chicken’ flavoured. Maybe they had carried ‘Plat du jour’ a little too far with that one. Mine was absolutely the finest example of apricot flavour so we swapped over, I had the full chicken lunch. Niamh was indeed correct, it did taste of chicken, presumably warmed up TOO close to the next main course to be served. The hotel restaurant waiting staff were quite young and seemed a little diffident. I observed that on a couple of occasions they lost lunchtime custom simply because of turning parties of six or so awa. This continued until one large party took it into their own hands and showed them how easy it was to put tables together. After that they seemed to warm to their task and were pleasant and friendly, if a little inattentive.

Mountains of Provence and dramatic sky from the old walls of the Roman town of Vaison
View from the old town of Vaison la Romaine from our restaurant

As with most restaurants in France and particularly ones with a large terrace there is always scope for some excellent people watching, a skill you start to perfect after a few visits. This place certainly does not disappoint on that score. At the next table under an old gnarled shady tree, I observe a scene that is replayed so many times as you eat your way around France. It is the ageing well preserved Frenchman, greying hair still luxurious, worn long and swept back. His skin textured by the sun and Gitanes over the years but still retaining a certain Gallic attractive elegance and dressed in the finest clothes, new ones of course, complemented by a large expensive watch on his bronzed wrist. At his side, the young, very attractive girl. From the interplay between them she is definitely not his daughter or granddaughter it must be said. She is hanging onto his every fascinating word and while he expounds his philosophy on life and love, he desires that his iPhone does not offer up a call from his wife.

Overall, it was a fine tasty lunch in a lovely courtyard with a great view from the terrace back over to the other side of the river. It is too early in our trip to make too many superlatives in our admiration regarding views. As the week progresses there will be some stunning ones to come that are truly breath-taking. We will find many of these away from the main tourist ‘must see’ sights. We will eat often over the coming years in Vaison on our driving tours around Provence.

So then, other than food what has Vaison to recommend it to the tourist? Let us see.

A man stands by the church door in the old town of Vaison in Provence France in French travel guide books
A peaceful corner of Vaison la Romaine

The old town offers the most delightful views either back across the river to the old town or looking in both directions up and down the valley. As you gain height in the old town to the very top the views increase in splendour. The actual top is quite rocky and a bit of a disappointment but at least it has not been turned into a tacky tourist place. As we near the top we hear the strains of an unusual stringed instrument. This zither like instrument is being played by the most bizarre musician, a middle-aged man who has the appearance of a Biblical shepherd, enhanced by his long hair that I cannot imagine is his own. It looks like it started life on the back of a wet sheep. This long-matted hair (wig) is extraordinary. We leave him to his small crowd of admirers and retrace our steps as the piercing high notes fade into the distance.

The buildings on this side of town are old and well maintained with many bed and breakfast establishments and gites. Other houses are still occupied by local people, and it is this mix that makes it such an interesting place to stroll. The unexpected is around every corner, an elegant hotel with diners on the terrace and then beyond that the washing line of the local lady resident. It is up in the more modern half of Vaison that you will find the Roman ruins. They are ruins of course but are so well preserved that you need to engage very little imagination to visualise the town as it would have been laid out in Roman times. There is an admission charge for entry into the two main sites. Although, particularly with the large section of the Roman town that is near the main square and leading over to the Cathedral, you can walk around the perimeter and get a great free view looking down over the grid of ancient streets.

Some buildings are visually so obvious in their reason for having been constructed, the most amusing one is the large square room with solid stone benches around all the walls. These have circular holes cut into them at regular intervals and it needs no imagination to grasp that these were the Roman equivalent of the toilet pods on today’s French streets. To be honest some of the toilets on the autoroute and in some rural cafes have not progressed very far in technological terms from these splendid practical examples from Roman times. The Romans clearly were a very convivial bunch of people, shame they did not have a newspaper or a book to read. I tend to believe that this was the point where they took conviviality a touch too far. I wonder if they tried this on the English when they crossed the channel – it is cold up north.

Six Roman stone toilets in the ruins at Vaison la Romanine in Provence France
Toilet break in the Roman town of Vaison la Romaine

If you carry on walking around the perimeter of these remarkable ruins, you will come to the 11th Century Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-Nazareth de Vaison. If you look closely at the visible foundations and lower walls of the cathedral you will see the reason as to why the Roman buildings are not as complete as they might have been. Very obviously when the Romans left Provence the local people used large quantities of pre-shaped Roman stone for the cathedral. Market day here in Vaison is on Tuesday morning as stipulated by order of Pope Clement VII in 1532. Vaison market is one of the largest in the region with over four hundred traders setting up stalls and providing the most heady and delightful aromas of Provence. A great market but be warned that it is always very busy, and you may have to abandon your vehicle some distance from the centre of town and walk in. Get there early.

An almost complete stone Roman arch in the ancient town of Vaison la Roman in Provence with blue sky and trees
Roman arch in the ancient Roman ruins at Vaison la Romaine

Yes, initially for us Vaison was merely a lunch stop. Over the years we have come to visit the town for what it can offer the inquisitive visitor who likes his tourism supplied with a long lazy lunch coupled with great historical view.

Please enjoy my Travel books – LINK TO YOUR COUNTRY :

Alt="French travel book series and Collioure harbour photo"
My French Travel Book series and New book Off the Autoroute

Published by Neal Atherton

My passion is writing about travel and particularly French travel. I have traveled extensively in France and wine and food has always featured on my travels and now in my books. My friends always await our return from France with the latest new finds from the vineyards and I was more than happy to keep sampling. I am from Lancashire in the north of England but have now relocated to Somerset (nearer to France) and able to enjoy devoting my time to writing and new discoveries. France came late to me as a destination, in fact so conservative was my travel upbringing that it was a long time before I even ventured to Cornwall. I have more than made up for the slow start and have enjoyed helping many others with their travel plans to France and especially to Paris and Provence. I have written a series of four books on France - Three are now on Amazon:THE FIRST TIME WE SAW PARIS about our first steps in French Travel, THYME FOR PROVENCE our discovery of that glorious region and the people and places we met and discovered, A DREAM OF PARIS a personal memoir of our times in Paris with friends. France has been fun, we have been burgled on our very first arrival, we discovered the best cafe that changed our travel lives on the very next day, we learnt about French wine, we escaped from the most horrendous gite, we found the best of gites, B & B's and people, we laughed and cried with dear friends in Paris, I was hosed down by a crazy owner to cool me down in Provence, our breakfast in a remote village was served by the French army, we stepped totally out of our comfort zone and discovered the best of French culture. The experiences are varied and many and please come with me as I retell the stories and my footsteps are there to follow. I am also writing about ancestry and genealogy and my first book about our incredible family story themed around war and the military is now on Amazon - A BULLET FOR LIFE. I love the English game of cricket, golf, soccer, photography, walking and cooking. Oh, and travel of course.

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