Vaison la Romaine is a must see town when visiting the Northern Provence. The Puymin and La Villasse Archeological sites, right in the middle of the town, are one of the most important Roman heritage sites in France. Other notable sights are the Roman Bridge spanning the river Ouvèze, the medieval town and castle ruins on the cliffs of the left bank of the Ouvèze, Notre Dame de Nazareth Cathedral and St.Quenin Chapel. Let's not forget the summer festival, including the famous "Choralies" international choir competition, held every 3 years here. The Roman theatre and the Cathedral are the main focal points of the festival, but smaller scale performances are held in the medieval churches of Vaison and neighboring villages. The town has one of the best weekly markets in France and a lively restaurant and café scene. No wonder tourists abound here during the summer time. But you can always find a quiet spot in the Cité Médiévale of Vaison or the surrounding villages.
The Vocontii settled here on a more permanent basis in the 4th century BC. Around 20 BC - under Roman influence - the town became known as Vasio Vocontiorum. It was soon granted the much coveted status of " civitas foederate" or allied state by Rome. The Romans liked it here, the climate, the hills and bucolic country life. It became a favorite area for retirees, primarily Roman officers, who were given land here in compensation for their military services. By the 1st century AD Vasio was one of the most important towns in Rome's Provincia Narbonensis (also called Nostra Provincia - hence today's name Provence). It probably had around 10.000 inhabitants. Only a small part of the Roman town has been excavated, the rest - about 120 acres - lies under today's Vaison la Romaine.
Christianity took hold here early on and from the 4th century on until 1790 Vaison was the seat of a bishopric. With the fall of the Roman Empire economic and cultural decline set in, as in most of Europe. The population declined and the town was gradually moved to the left bank of the Ouvèze on a rocky promontory in order to protect the population from the frequent raids of a succession of invaders (Franks, Saracens, Normans) and marauding bands. Vaison became part of the Comtat Venaissin, named after Venasque near Carpentras (not Venice), the former capital. In 1271 Alphonse, Count of Poitiers, bequeathed the Comtat to the Holy See and it formed together with Avignon the Papal Territory in France. Prosperity gradually returned and the population resettled the lower valley again - right on top of the ancient Roman town, covered by sediment and vegetation in the mean time. The French Revolution brought annexation by France in 1791, a fact which was recognized by the Holy See only 25 years later.
The two excavation sites are located right in the center of Vaison la Romaine. Systematic excavations were started by Father Sautel in 1907. Visit the Colline du Puymin excavation site first; the entrance is located Northeast of Avenue Général de Gaulle close to the tourist office. Buy a combined ticket, which gives you access to both the Puymin and La Villasse sites as well as the Archeological Museum (located on the Puymin site) and the Cathedral's cloisters. It is expensive but worth it. You can walk amongst the remnants of Roman houses (called domus) and public baths (balneum). Most impressive is the villa des Messii, the foundations of a sprawling Roman villa, as well as the porticoed garden of Pompejus. The 7000 seat theatre, which is dug into the Northern slope of the hill, was abandoned in the 4th century and was used as a stone quarry for a while. The Archeological Museum, cleverly built into the top of the hill, has an interesting collection of stone objects, altars, mosaics and a room dealing with everyday aspects of life in a Roman town. Impressive are the statues of Emperors Claudius, Domitian and Hadrian and his wife Sabina as well as the large mosaic depicting various birds, a large peacock and sea-panthers at the corners. You will also see a number of headless statues; these were used for local notables and only the heads needed to be changed! Very practical - as they say in the US: "Politicians are like diapers, they have to be changed frequently". Overall the site is very interesting and beautifully landscaped.
Exiting the Puymin Excavations walk 200 m North on Avenue Général de Gaulle to Place Burrus and you find the entrance to the La Villasse excavations on the left side; again many house foundations, some wonderful mosaics, the public baths (thermes) and the paved main shopping street of Vasio.
This bridge over the Ouvèze is one of five Roman bridges left in the Provence. It was rebuilt various times as the floods of the Ouvèze damaged parts of it, last time the devastating flood of 1992, which killed 42 people in Vaison and destroyed 320 houses. Each time the bridge was lovingly restored. The Roman bridge consists of a single arch, it has a span of 17.2m and is 9.5m wide. Its elliptical vault makes this bridge so special; there are only 3 examples left from Roman times (2 in Rome and the one here). An inscription can be seen on the new parapet; it reads in Latin: "The Roman Bridge, damaged by the overflowing river in 1992, was restored in 1994 thanks to public money."
Cathédrale Notre Dame de Nazareth
Walk outside around the church first and look at the foundation of the apse. Ever wondered where all the Roman stones ended up? They were mostly building material for newer constructions. Given the expense of solid carved stones, no wonder. The cathedral is one of the more important Romanesque churches in the Provence. Its 11th century semi-dome type vaults and stone walls originally supported a wood frame roof. A century later the walls had to be strengthened and reinforced with external buttresses in order to carry an upper stone vault. In the apse a sarcophagus was unearthed in 1950; containing probably the remains of St.Quenin, a 6th century bishop from Vaison. The 11th century high altar is made of white marble. View the altar at the left-hand side chapel; it is adorned with grape-laden boughs (the emblem of Vaison) and on the East side two doves with a chrism. When entering the church you see a column on the left side; it was unearthed in 1951 during renovations. Adjacent to the cathedral is a 12th century cloister - really worthwhile to visit (albeit you will be charged an entrance fee). Worthwhile is also the 11th century St.Quenin Chapel a bit further North, albeit mostly closed for visitors.
Cité Médiévale of Vaison la Romaine
Crossing the Roman Bridge walk up the numerous steps to the medieval town, also called the Haut Village (Upper Village). Lovingly restored by mostly absentee owners it brings you back in time. This part of town was declared a protected site in 1943. On top of the hill are the ruins of the castle of the Counts of Toulouse, who reigned over the Comtat Venaissin, until it was bequeathed to the Holy See in 1271. The castle was pillaged during the French Revolution and fell into disrepair. Notable in the Cité Médiévale are the belfry, the many substantial town houses, the narrow alleys winding their way up the hill and the fountains. Much of the material used in the construction of the houses came from the Roman ruins in the valley. You have wonderful views from the small square in front of the 13th century Cathedral Church; Mt.Ventoux in all its glory to the East and the valleys of Les Baronnies, the historic land between Mt.Ventoux and the Durance Valley, to the North and East.
The Market of Vaison la Romaine
Vaison la Romaine has one of the best weekly markets in the Provence and perhaps in France. Its origin goes back to 1483, when Pope Sixtus IV granted a license. In 1532 Pope Clement VII stipulated that the market be held every Tuesday and this is observed to this day. Let us put it this way: assume you come to the Provence just with a toothbrush, you can get everything (including a new toothbrush) here. It is one gigantic open air department store, offering everything here, from clothes and shoes to furniture, meat, fish, ham and sausages, vegetables, fruits, cheese and wine and while you are doing your shopping you won't need to stay hungry either. This is actually one of the best places to shop for Provençal items, like table linens, earthenware and toilettries. The market is held every Tuesday from 8 AM to around 1 PM in the town proper. Many streets are closed off. Parking is definitely a problem. The trick is to arrive either early (around 8:30 AM) or after 11 PM. If you see a group of Americans expertly shopping for vegetables, fruits, fish and meat, it is probably Patricia Wells and her cooking class.
During the summer festival there are numerous classical performances, especially dance, in the Roman Theatre. The Choralies Festival showing off the best European polyphonic choirs takes place every 3 years (the next time in 2007).
Visiting Vaison La Romaine during the summer time can be a challenge, it is humming with tourists. But the shoulder seasons (spring, autumn) are simply delightful. But with a little bit of planning and timing you can thoroughly enjoy it. Would we stay overnight in Vaison? Yes, but if you want a quiet place choose carefully. The Cité Médiévale is quiet (if you don't mind the church bells) and has a few good accommodation choices. Otherwise try the surrounding countryside, it is wonderful there. Renting a self-catering vacation house or apartment in and around Vaison is a good option if you want to stay for a week or more.