Hidden Gems of the Italian Alps  — Susa, Novalesa and Aosta

Hidden Gems of the Italian Alps — Susa, Novalesa and Aosta

Long before Savoy, the alpine region between what is now France and Italy, was to become an independent state in the center of Western Europe in the 11th century (for the next 700 years), the Romans had already identified its high mountain passes as a strategic route northward for its conquering armies and traders. While the region is now mainly popular with skiers, hikers and mountain climbers, it also offers visitors a surprising number of well-preserved Roman sites, and the timeless little mountain towns that grew from them.

Strategic Susa

The Arch of Augustus celebrates a peace treaty between Rome and the Gauls.

About 30 minutes after road signs indicate that we have crossed the border from France into Italy, we reach Susa. Originally established by the Celts in 500 BC, at the confluence of two mountain streams, it has been a crossroads of many transalpine itineraries between Italy and France ever since. And it is still known for its considerable Roman and medieval heritage.



The Porta Savoia is the point of entry to the Medieval town.

Its most important Roman ruins are the remarkably well preserved Arch of Augustus, built in 8 BC to celebrate a peace treaty between Rome and the Gauls, parts of the adjacent Roman baths, the nearby the amphitheater and aqueduct. The restored 2nd century amphitheater is now used for live performances. The imposing Porta Savoia, also with its origins in Roman times, was substantially rebuilt in the Middle Ages, and remains the point of entry to the Medieval part of the town.



Medieval Memories

The Cathedral of San Giusto has retained outside frescoes,

The Middle Ages also contributed several monuments of note. Joined to the Porta Savoia, the 11th  century Cathedral of San Giusto, the Romanesque church which was once part of an abbey complex, has retained some frescoes on its outside walls, and its remarkable bell tower with six levels of mullioned windows. Inside, it also holds a few artworks from the 14th and 15th centuries and a baptismal font that predates the current church.

The Castle of the Countess Adelaide dominates the old town.

Perched on a rock spur on the west side of town, the 11th century Castle of the Countess Adelaide memorializes the most emblematic figure in the city. Her marriage in 1046 to Oddone (Count of Maurienne and Savoy) marked the beginning of the Savoy dynasty in Italy. Today the castle houses the local Historical Archives and the Civic Museum.




Novalesa Abbey

The Novalesa Abbey remains a working monastic community.

The Saint Eldrado chapel contains a unique cycle of Byzantine-style frescoes.

A short drive north from Susa, the Benedictine Novalesa Abbey was founded in the 8th century on the road commanding the Mont Denis Pass, which had become a major pilgrimage route from Canterbury to Rome. By the 11th century, it was one of the most important abbeys in Europe. 

The complex endured varying fortunes over the next millennium, but it remains an active religious community to this day. It includes a monastic building proper, the abbey church and four medieval chapels scattered on the surrounding grounds. Two of these chapels are open to visitors: the 8th century (restored in the 11th century)  Santa Maria Magdalena chapel with a painting of Mary with the Holy Grail, and the Saint Eldrado chapel.  

The interior of the latter is covered with a unique cycle of late 11th century Byzantine-style frescoes representing the lives of Saint Eldrado and Saint Nicholas. These are among the oldest surviving  images of St. Nicholas. It is considered one the most significant historic and artistic religious works of the Western Alps. 



Roman Aosta

We continue on to  Aosta, the northwestern most city in Italy and the principal city of the Aosta Valley, at the junction of the Great and Little St Bernard Pass routes.

The Roman walls of Aoasta have remained mainly intact.

While most widely known these days for its proximity to the Italian entrance of the Mont Blanc Tunnel (opened in 1965), Aosta has been settled since prehistoric times, and subsequently taken over by the Romans in the 1st century BC.  By 11 BC it was established as the capital of the Grey Alps province of the Empire.

The Porta Praetoria is a double gate flanked by towers.

Its massive defensive walls are preserved almost in their entirety, enclosing a rectangle of 724 by 572 meters (2,375 by 1,877 feet). They are 6.4 meters (21 feet) high, built of concrete faced with small blocks of stone.

Towers stand at the angles of the fortifications and others are positioned at intervals, with two at each of the four gates, for a total of twenty towers. Two of the city gates have remained intact, the most remarkable of which is the eastern gate, known as Porta Praetoria (1st  century AD). It  consists of a double gate flanked by two towers. Of its three arches, the large central one accommodated carriages, with on either side, smaller ones were for pedestrians.

Within the Walls

Roman towers still punctuate the skyline of Aosta.

The Medieval cloister of Santa Caterina.

The rectangular arrangement of the streets is modeled on the Roman plan dividing the town into 64 blocks. The main road, about 10 meters (33 feet) wide, running from east to west, divides the city into two equal halves. This layout makes it clear that the main purpose of the city was to guard the road..

The Roman theatre, of which only the southern façade remains, is 22 meters (72 feet) tall. The structure, dating from the late reign of Augustus, could accommodate up to 4,000 spectators. It was recently restored and has been used for live performances since 2011. A nearby amphitheater was also constructed within the walls under Claudius. However, its only remains are incorporated into the Medieval cloister of Santa Caterina.






The Cathedral

Renaissance frescoes decorate the portal of the Aosta Cathedral.

The Aosta Cathedral was originally built in the 4th century on the southern part of what was then the sacred area of the Roman Forum. In the 11th century, this Palaeo-Christian structure was replaced by a new one, dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Baptist. Much of the Romanesque building can still be seen, including the basilica plan with nave and two aisles, the crypt, the two bell towers and the remaining part of a Pre-Romanesque set of frescoes on the church ceiling. Various architectural elements were reconstructed throughout the centuries, resulting in a rather interesting sampler of the evolution of religious architecture over the last millenium, to culminate with the Neoclassical facade we see today.

Good to Know

Getting There — While the route of  the alpine passes between Rome and France may not have changed much since Roman times, they are now broad and well paved modern roadways that make visiting the area by car the most effective solution.

Visiting — The Novalesa Abbey, Borgata San Pietro, 4, 10050 Novalesa (TO), is an active ecclesiastic community. Consult their website to schedule a visit, of  contact: Tel. +39 0122653210 , e-mail.

Location, location, location!


Novalesa Abbey


Narbo Via – In Search of Narbonne’s Roman Past

Narbo Via – In Search of Narbonne’s Roman Past

In 125 BC, the major Greek port city of Massalia (now Marseille) in the hellenized region of Southern Gaul, threatened by incursions from the Celto-Ligurian tribes of the Provencal hinterland, called for help from its Roman ally. The Senate sent its armies and within a few years, they had subjugated the local populations from Southern Gaul to the Pyrenees. Rome now controlled the vast area linking Italy to Spain.

Virtual reconstitution of the Narbo Martius waterfront.

To secure these strategic territories and ensure control of their trade routes, in 118 BC, the Senate ordered the construction of a thoroughfare, the Via Domitia, and the foundation of the first Roman colony outside of Italy. Two thousand Roman citizens were settled on a prime location of the lower Aude Valley, in immediate proximity to the Mediterranean coast. Colonia Narbo Martius, the present day Narbonne, was born.


A Turbulent History

Slab of decorated marble(circa early 2nd century AD featuring eagles and a central thunderbolt – symbols of Jupiter.

As the capital of the Narbonnaise Province, Narbo Martius became a major merchant port of the Roman Empire. It experienced its heyday in the first two centuries AD, when it spread across nearly 240 hectares (590 acres) upon which rose the various monuments typical of the large Roman city: forum, temples, amphitheater, thermal baths, market. However, among the many temples that Narbo Martius must have had, only the great sanctuary discovered in the 19th century on the site of Narbonne’s high school is known to us. Located in the heart of the original Roman city and looking over the forum, it is now identified as its Capitol —the  temple dedicated to the three deities Jupiter, Juno and Minerva.

Fragments of the architectural grandor of Narbo Martius can be admired today at Narbo Via.

Unfortunately, the structures of the ancient city almost completely disappeared over the centuries of Narbonne’s turbulent history, starting with the general decline of the empire in the 3rd  century. Then in the 5th century, it fell into the hands of the Visigoths before being conquered by the Arabs in 719 and looted by the Vikings in 859. Through the successive reconstruction efforts, the remains of the Roman past became a convenient stone quarry for centuries of builders. Consequently, although no complete Roman monument has survived, many fragments of architecture that illustrated the splendor of the city have been preserved.

Reviving a Lost City

The lapidary wall is the backbone of the museum.

Now, thanks to the work of archaeologists and virtual reconstitution specialists, it is possible to experience what Narbo Martius looked like in the Narbo Via museum, open in May 2021 at the eastern edge of the city. Upon entering the airy, light-filled reception area, the eye is immediately drawn to the spectacular backbone of the building: a soaring gallery lining the entire back wall, covered by a monumental (76 by 10 meters or 250 by 32 feet) storage device, custom designed to showcase the remarkable lapidary collection of Narbo Via. This unique lapidary wall consists of 760 blocks of carved limestone weighing on average 400 kilograms (900 pounds) each. Originally funerary blocks that evoked the profession or the trade of the deceased, they were ‘harvested’ from Roman necropolises and systematically repurposed throughout the middles ages into the successive fortification walls of the city.

Detail of a funerary stele honoring a local personality.

Past the wall, almost 2,800 square meters (29,000 square feet) of exhibit space bring together the collections of two previous local museums as well as recently discovered finds from various excavation projects around the city. With over 580 artifacts, the overall exhibition itinerary helps revive the lost city of Narbo Martius. One part focuses on elements of former monuments and statuary, another features individual funerary steles, sarcophagi and monuments that honored local personalities.


Narbo Martius Revisited

A virtual reconstitution of the original Roman Capitol.

Another high point of the visit is the spectacular 3D, virtual reality stroll through the Roman city, which brings into vivid focus the various themed collections presented throughout the museum. Thanks to the evocative power of three-dimensional reconstitution, visitors can experience the various emblematic landmarks of Narbo Martius: the city and its Capitol, the domus of the Clos de la Lombarde, the thermal baths, the amphitheater. At the center of the route, an immersive projection room with a 180 degree  panoramic screen takes viewers to the key places of the Narbonnaise capital, from the port of Narbo Martius to the heart of the city and along by the Via Domitia.

The Horreum

The tunnels of the Horreum illustrate the architectural expertise of the ancient Romans.

Now five meters below ground level in the heart of the modern city, the Horreum (or warehouse in Latin) is a network of galleries leading to a series of small storage rooms built in the 1st century BC. Used for storing grain, wine and oil, it constituted the foundations of a building, most likely a market hall that has since disappeared. The Horreum remained in partial use as private cellars until it was declared an historic monument in 1961. It was finally open to visitors in 1975. Its well preserved walls are evidence of the architectural expertise and know-how of the ancient Romans. 


The Clos de la Lombarde

The Clos de la Lombarde was a Late Antiquity urban neighborhood.

Along with Horreum, the archaeological remains of the Clos de la Lombarde are one of the only visible – and visitable – Roman sites in Narbonne. Located in the northwestern area of the contemporary city center, the site was revealed in 1910 with the fortuitous discovery of a sarcophagus in a privately owned urban garden plot. However, active excavations didn’t begin until1973, when they then promptly offered a wealth of information about an aristocratic urban neighborhood in the Late Antiquity. Archaeologists discovered the foundations of houses, workshops, and a bathhouse.

A number of mosaic floors have been uncovered.

Archaeological research has shown that the area was occupied from the end of the Roman Republic (circa 27 BC) until the 5th century. It consisted of a large residential quarter along parallel streets, some flanked by porticos (covered colonnades), which were wide enough to conduct business and build small shops. The artisans must have done their work in the adjacent houses. Remains of water conduits and drains have also been found. 



An Opulent Neighborhood

The House with the Large Triclinium featured a marble floor.

Among the many remarkable finds, the ‘House with the Large Triclinium’ with a surface of 705 square meters (7,600 square feet) and  consisting of several units is a typical aristocratic mansion of the 2nd century AD. Three units had access to the garden, one had direct access to the street, and a spacious 90 square meters (970 square feet) room has been identified as the triclinium (dining hall) Remarkable wall paintings and a floor covered with multicolored marble were found here.


The magnificent frescos of the House of the Genius can now be experienced in virtual reality at Narbo Via.

The House of the Genius dates back to the 1st century BC and has a surface of 975 square meters (10,500 square feet). It features an atrium and a peristyle and is comparable to the houses found in Pompeii. Here the living quarters were open to a garden surrounded by porticos, while the atrium, entrance hall and triclinium played a public function. Many rooms in this luxurious mansion had fine floor mosaics of black and white stones. The walls were decorated with equally splendid frescos. Among these were representations of a winged Victoria, of a genius carrying a cornucopia and pouring a libation, and of an Apollo with a laurel wreath (the protective deity of the emperor Augustus). 

Sarcophagi were found in the crypt of the basilica,

The mansions were abandoned in the course of the 3rd century, and a church was built on top of them in the 4th century. This Paleo-Christian basilica, the first known christian church in Narbonne, covered part of the House of the Genius. Underneath, the crypt and traces of a baptistery have been found, together with several sarcophagi. After the 5th  century, the religious building was abandoned and the area went into decline.

A visit of the site is especially meaningful after seeing the mosaics and paintings originally found here at the Narbo Via museum.

Panoramic view of Narbo Martius created in vrtual reality at Narbo Via.

Good to Know

  • Getting Around — Much of the city centre can be covered on foot. There is also a free shuttle bus (the Citadine – lines 1 and 2) that services the various points of interest every 10 minutes Monday through Saturday  from 7:40 am to 7:20 pm.
  • Narbo Via, 2, avenue André Mècle, 11100 Narbonne, is open Tuesday through Sunday, 10:00 am to 7:00 pm from May 2 through September 30, and 11:00 am to 6:00 pm from October 1 through April 30.  It is closed on Monday and national holidays.  Contact:  tel. +33 (0) 4 68 90 28 90, e-mail..
  • The Horreum,  7 Rue Rouget de Lisle, 11100 Narbonne, is open Tuesday through Sunday, 10:00 am to 1:00 pm and 2:00 pm to 6:00 pm from May 2 through September 30 and 10:00 am to 12:00 noon and 2:00 pm to 5:00 pm from October 1 through April 30. It is closed on Monday and national holidays.
  • The Clos de la Lombarde — 28, rue Chanzy, 11100 Narbonne, is open to visitors for guided visits on Saturday mornings only, at 9:45 am and 10:45 am.  Contact: e-mail.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!


A Languedoc Road Trip – Béziers to Adge

A Languedoc Road Trip – Béziers to Adge

A majestic Romanesque cathedral perched on a bluff, high above the long stretch of arches of a medieval bridge spanning a tranquil river – this is what most visitors to southwestern France are likely to remember of Beziers. This low-keyed town of 75,000, located just a few kilometers inland from the Mediterranean shore rarely rates more than a passing glance from tourists. Yet, founded in 36 BC as a Roman colony, Beziers quickly developed into an important staging post and trading center along the Via Domitia, the major trade route which traversed the coastal plain of Languedoc on its way from Rome to southern Spain.

From Roman Colony to Cathar Stronghold

Little remains of the original Roman amphitheater.

Unfortunately, with most of the stones from its early amphitheater repurposed as early as the 3rd century AD to construct the city walls, architectural remains of the Roman era are scarce. Nonetheless, an extensive collection of Roman artefacts discovered locally, including statuary, inscribed stones, glassware and amphorae can be seen at the Musée du Bitterois. The museum also traces the history of the city from the middle ages to contemporary times. However, the best way to explore the history of Beziers is to take a couple of hours to wander the cobbled streets of the old town.

The St. Nazaire Cathedral has retained its Romanesque facade.

Perched high above the river Orb in the heart of the medieval town, the St. Nazaire Cathedral is the foremost site of Beziers, both for its panoramic view of the plain below and for the tragic history steeped within its ancient stones. The grand Romanesque cathedral built in the 10th century was badly damaged and its interior completely destroyed in 1209 during the infamous seizure of the city by Catholic crusaders at the behest of Pope Innocent III.

Bezier-Cathedral St Nazaire

The cathedral’s interior was rebuilt iin Gothic style.

At that time, Béziers was a major stronghold of Catharism, a breakaway movement that opposed the entire structure of the Roman Catholic Church and the corruption of the clergy. This alternative, more ascetic Christian religion had become widespread in southwestern France, then under the control of local princes. Unsurprisingly, the Pope called for a crusade to eliminate the Cathars – with the tacit understanding of the French King Phillipe II. On July 21, 1209, an army consisting of knights (mainly from northern France) with their retinue and mercenaries overran the fortified city where some twenty thousand men, women and children, local Catholics and Cathars alike, had taken refuge. The Crusaders indiscriminately slaughtered the population and ransacked the city before setting the cathedral set ablaze.

A Gothic rose window was added at the far end of the nave.

Although most of the exterior walls remained, the interior was entirely destroyed except for the chancel with its Romanesque carved capitals. Repairs began on the remains of the building in 1215 and continued until the 15th century, giving the interior a Gothic appearance, including a 10-meter (33 foot) rose window at the far end of the nave. A few notable frescoes of the same period remain, protected for posterity by having been whitewashed after the Wars of Religion in the late 16th century.

A Mural Chronicle

A mural memorializes the Vintners Revolt of 1907.

More recently, following the lead of Lyon and other French cities, Beziers has turned 14 of its blank walls into building-size murals that chronicle major milestones of its history. Most notable is the Vintners Revolt of 1907, ignited when government regulators allowed the import of low quality (and low-priced) wines from North Africa, driving local growers into penury. The National Assembly sent a military force to suppress the rebellion. But confronted by over 160 000 protesters, this time the solders refused to draw their weapons on the crowd. Thus prompting law-makers to reverse their import decision.  Another mural memorializes a local engineer, Jean Marie Cordier, who in 1827 developed a steam device to pump water from the River Orb to supply the residents of the old town.

A Masterpiece of 17th Century Engineering

The terraced concourse offers panoramic views of the countryside and the Fonseranes Locks.

At the side of the cathedral, a terraced concourse offers magnificent views that include the 13th century Pont-Vieux (Old Bridge), and the amazing 17th century engineering masterpiece of the Écluses de Fonseranes (Fonseranes Locks), a flight of 9 staircase locks marking the eastern end of the Canal du Midi. The 240 kilometer (150 mile) long canal connects the Garonne to the West – and from there city of Bordeaux and the Atlantic Ocean – to the Etang de Thau on the Mediterranean. Although many elements have since been updated, the canal as a whole is considered one of the greatest construction works of its era, and is still in use today.

Underwater Treasures

The late Hellenistic bronze Ephèbe is believe to be Alexander the Great.

It’s midday by the time we leave Beziers and its tumultuous past for Cap d’Adge, some 25 kilometers (15 miles) east on the Mediterranean shore.  Once a settlement at the mouth of the river Hérault, originally founded by the Phoenicians in the 6th century BC, the area is little more than an over-built resort destination today, with one striking exception: it is home to the only underwater archeological museum in France. Open in 1987, the museum consists of a series of modern galleries surrounding a traditional farm house overlooking the harbor. Its collection is a treasure-trove of pieces recovered from the millennia of shipwrecks that clutter the seabed, including a number of important antique bronzes statues.

Ultimately, the museum owes it very existence to one single piece now known as l’Ephèbe d’Adge, a late Hellenistic period bronze of a young man, believed to be Alexander the Great. Recovered in 1964 from in the alluvial sands at the mouth of the Herault, it is the only work of its kind ever found in French waters. It was joined in 2001 by two Early Imperial Roman bronzes, of a royal child and of Eros. From the details of his attire – royal mantle, scepter and jewelry, the child is thought to be one of Cleopatra’s sons, either Caesarion (son of Julius Ceasar) or Ptolemy (son of Mark Anthony).

The collection includes a number of remarkable bronze household objects, from the 1st and 2nd centuries BC.

In addition to other remarkable Hellenic and Roman bronzes objects, the museum also hosts antique marine transport amphorae and household goods, as well a number to cannons and other weapons of the French Royal Navy spanning several centuries. Overall, the rich underwater discoveries of the past 50 years reflect the commercial history of the area through the centuries, and make the Ephèbe Museum well worth a stop in Adge.

From here we continue 150 kilometers (90 miles)  down  the coastal branch of the Via Domitia to Collioure, another Phoenician settlement turned fishing village and 17th century military fortress. The town, however owes its contemporary fame to Fauvist painters Henri Matisse and André Derain. Although the small historic town and waterfront make are exceptionally picturesque, we found the mapped walk through the old town, punctuated by reproductions of the famous Fauvist works, right on the spot where they were painted to be a highpoint of our visit.

The museum hosts a large collection of marine transport amphorae recovered from ancient shipwrecks.


Good to Know

Visiting –Musee du Bitterois, Caserne Saint-Jacques – Rampe du 96° Régiment d’Infanterie, 34500 Béziers. Opening hours vary throughout the week/year. For latest informations, contact: e-mail, or tel: +33 (0) 4 67 36 81 61. Musée de l’Ephèbe, Mas de la Clape, 34300 Le Cap d’Adge. Open from January through June, Monday through Friday from 10:00 am to 12:00 noon and 2:00 pm to 6:00 pm and weekends from 9:00 am to 12:00 noon and 2:00 pm to 5:00 pm. July and August, open every day from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Contact:  e-mail, tel: +33 (0)4 67 94 69 60.


Location, location, location!



A Languedoc road trip – Hidden Treasures Along the Via Domitia

A Languedoc road trip – Hidden Treasures Along the Via Domitia

Leaving behind the monumental Roman vestiges of the southern French city of Nîmes, we head down the coastal plain of the western Mediterranean. Here, with the coastline a string of lagoons and saltmarshes, the main road is some 25 kilometers (15 miles) inland, following the route of the ancient Via Domitia, the first Roman road built in Gaul, to link Rome to its province of Hispania.

The Villa was a large viticuture facility for over six centuries.

Although a modern roadway now covers the original works in many places, sections of the original paved roadbed, mileposts and bridges have survived. They can occasionally be spotted close to the highway as we drive through a verdant landscape of agricultural land and vineyards. But more than these passing landmarks, the Via Domitia also left us the remains of Roman Villas. These were both rural residences and large-scale farming domains that benefited from the proximity to the road to export their products. One of them, a mere one-hour drive away from Nîmes, is our first destination of the day.

The Roman Villa of Loupian

Over the past five decades, a three-hectare (eight-acre) excavation site south of the village of Loupian has revealed the ruins of one such villas and told the story of an estate that was active for more than 600 years.

The entire ground floor of the excavated villa is covered with intricately decorated mosaics.

Originally a hillside farmstead overlooking the Bassin de Thau, the largest of the area’s lagoons, a short distance south of the Via Domitia, the Villa of Loupian rapidly prospered. By the time of the High Empire (1st and 2nd centuries A.D.) it had become a large patrician residence with its own thermal springs and an abundance of Gallo-Roman mosaics. Its main agricultural activity was viticulture, for which a vast storage facility capable of holding 1500 hectoliters (40, 000 U.S. gallons) of wine was constructed. This period also marked the development of pottery workshops producing amphorae for the transportation of wine, and the creation of a small shipping port on the north side of the Bassin de Thau.

Pottery workshops produced amphorae used to transport wine,

In the 5th century, the villa was completely rebuilt. The owner’s home became a small mansion, the floor of the thirteen ground floor rooms covered with highly decorated mosaics. Relatively well preserved, these are particularly intriguing in that they show influences of two geographically separated and culturally diverse countries as Gaul and Syria. There is no other known villa anywhere in which the such remarkable combination of styles has been found.

The Abbey of Valmagne

The chapter house opens onto a cloister with a tall fountain nestled within a domed pergola.

It’s a mere ten-minute drive through a countryside streaked with vineyards from Loupian to the Abbey of Valmagne. Founded in the 12th century, and built of peach-colored local limestone, this grand Cistercian abbey is one of the loveliest in the country, as well as one of the oldest vineyards in Languedoc. The church, begun in 1257 and inspired by the great gothic cathedrals of northern France, is an imposing 83-meter (272-foot) long and 24-meter (79-foot) high. Its adjoining chapter house opens onto a vast square cloister surrounding a light-filled garden and a remarkable octagonal fountain enclosed within a domed pergola.

The abbey has retained its medieval atmosphere.

In its heydays, it was one of the richest abbeys in southern France, before it suffered the effects of the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453), followed by the Religious Wars (1559-1598). But it was the French Revolution (1789) that finally sealed its demise as a religious institution. Rebellious peasants ransacked the abbey and destroyed all its stain-glass windows.




The Cathedral of the Vineyards

The nave became a wine cellar during the French Revolution.

It did escape further destruction, however, by being confiscated as a national property and subsequently sold to a local vintner in 1791. The new owner converted the magnificent gothic church into a wine cellar. He installed the huge storage casks that still sit in the apse and side chapels, earning the church its moniker of “Cathedral of the Vineyards.” Upon this original owner’s death in 1838, Valmagne and its vineyards were acquired by Count Henri-Amédée-Mercure de Turenne. It has remained in possession of his descendants ever since, each generation consistently working to restore the abbey to its original splendor.


The Vigneron Restaurant

The restaurant sits at the edge of the vineyards.

One of the old farm buildings adjoining the abbey is also getting a new life as an attractive rustic restaurant offering authentic local cuisine based on the vegetables and aromatic plants from the abbey’s organic kitchen gardens, complemented by meats and cheeses from nearby producers.

Our meal is paired with some of the elegant wines of the estate (also certified as organic since 1999). These can likewise be sampled and purchased in the stately tasting room with its soaring vaulted ceiling and grand medieval fireplace. The modern estate consists of 70 hectares of vineyard, more than half of it was classified since 1985 with the coveted “Appellation d’Origine Controlée” (a.k.a, AOC). With one more destination on our itinerary for the day, we regretfully forgo  the wine tasting.

A Medieval Gem – Pezenas

Pézénas is an exceptionally well preserved medieval town.

Twenty minutes later, we reach Pézénas, a lively small town of about 9,000 that was the seat of of the Governors of Languedoc in the 16th and 17th centuries. Here, visitors have a rare opportunity to experience a complete city as it was in the middles ages. Many of the Renaissance buildings along its narrow alleys remain intact, as does its ancient ghetto complete with walls and gates. This small medieval gem is one of the first cities in France to have been declared a secteur sauvegardé (protected area) in 1965 by the Ministry of Culture, with more than 30 of its buildings classified as historical monuments.

The Hôtel de Lacoste has maintained its superb Gothic galleries.

A number of artists and craftsmen have made it their home, often with a workshop or gallery open to the street, adding a creative flair to the rough cobbled streets lined with notable mansions. Among those, the Hôtel de Lacoste, built in the early 16th century, stand out for its central courtyard surrounded by a grand square staircase and exceptional second floor Gothic arched galleries. Another magnificent 17th century residence is the Hôtel d’Alfonce. Over time, it was home to a succession of town notables who contributed their own additions to the property. Behind an unassuming façade, four wings are distributed around two courtyards and a garden. In the covered loggia gallery of the entrance courtyard, five monolithic twisted columns support the sloping roof. The rear wing features three levels of arched galleries opening onto the second courtyard and the garden.

The rear courtyard of the Hôtel d’Alfonce opens onto a garden.

We end up on the town square dominated by the consular house where the States of Languedoc held their meetings.  Behind an 18th century façade enhanced with remarkable ironworks, the body of the building dates back to the mid-16th century. Today it houses the House of Crafts, a venue for temporary exhibitions by local artists.

While there are a number of welcoming boutique hotels and guest houses in Pézénas, we opt to continue on to the nearby city Beziers for the night, to be on site for the next morning ‘s visit on our itinerary.


In the Villa of Loupian, some of the mosaics designs show intriguing Syrian influences,

Good to Know

  • VisitingThe Loupian Roman Villa is open daily from 10:am to 12 noon and 2:00 pm to 5:00 pm, with variable extended closing time during the summer season. It is closed through December and January, on May 1st, May 8th  and November 1st. The site is enclosed into a 1,000 square meter (10,750 square foot) building that protects the remains of the villa and its mosaics. It includes a small museum that shows artifacts found by the excavations and traces the history of the site. Contact:  tel.  +33 4 67 18 68 18. The Valmagne Abbey, Route de Montagnac, 34560 Villeveyrac, is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 am to 7:00 pm, from April 15th to September 30th , and 2:00 pm to 6:00 pm for the remainder of the year. It is closed on Monday, except July through September. The restaurant is open daily for lunch April 15th through September 30th and weekends only for the remainder of the year. Contact: tel. +33 (0) 4 67 78 06 09. The Pézénas Tourist Office, Place des Etats du Languedoc, 34120, Pézénas, offers a complimentary map for a walking tour of the most notable sites of the city. Contact:  tel.  +33 (0) 4 67 98 36 40.

Location, location, location!

Loupian Roman Villa

Abbey of Valmagne


A Languedoc Road Trip – Nîmes, France

A Languedoc Road Trip – Nîmes, France

To most would-be travelers, the mere mention of “the South of France” conjures up images of Provence with its much photographed back-country hilltop villages, lavender fields and colorful weekly markets. Then there are the sundrenched beaches of the Côte d’Azur (a.k.a. French Riviera) that reach all the way to the Italian border. But this wildly popular, traffic-clogged southeastern corner the country is only half of the South of France story. West of the Rhone Valley, from Nîmes to the Spanish border, the ancient province of  Languedoc  with its rugged landscapes dotted with prehistoric sites, Romanesque abbeys and medieval villages beckons to an exciting road trip back in time.

Follow the Via Domitia

The Roman Tour Magne (Great Tower) is built on the site of an earlier Celtic lookout.

Some 25 kilometers (15 miles) inland from the western Mediterranean coast, the modern A-9 highway follows the route the ancient Via Domitia, the first Roman road built in Gaul, to link Rome to Hispania. Actually, by the time proconsul Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus came around to pave it and give it his name, the road was already ancient. Old enough that it may have been followed by Hannibal and his famous elephants on their way to the Alps in 218 B.C..

The Amphitheater in now a venue for bullfights.

While the legendary Carthaginian conqueror left no concrete signs of his passage, the Roman left us spectacular proofs of theirs. Starting with Nîmes, often hailed as the most Roman city outside of Italy for its spectacular and remarkably well preserved monuments dating back to the Roman Empire. Although the hill that overlooks the city had been the site of the Celtic settlement of Nemausus since the 2nd or 3rd century B.C., it didn’t develop into Nîmes until it became a Roman colony sometimes around 28 B.C., and Augustus made it a regional capital. Before long the city was home to some 50,000 people and the usual Roman construction boom was underway.

The Amphitheater

The vast interior passages of the Amphitheater are designed to accommodate crowds of spectators.

Built in the latter part of the 1st century A.D. the Nîmes Amphitheater is a remarkable example of the level of sophistication achieved by Roman engineers in the design and construction of this type of complex monumental buildings. Started shortly after the colossal Rome Coliseum, the Amphitheater is a perfectly symmetrical oval with a footprint of 133 meters (436 feet) by 101 meters (331 feet) and an exterior height of 21 meters (69 feet). The façade consists of two levels of 60 superimposed arches topped by a cornice. In Roman times, it could hold 24,000 spectators spread over 34 rows of terraces divided into four separate areas. Each was accessed via a web of short stairwells and passages designed leading to a main gallery. This alleviated the risk of bottlenecks as the crowds flowed in and out. While massive, this amphitheater is far from the largest of the ones that remain of the Roman world, but it is the best preserved of them all.

For several decades now, following extensive restorations, the venue is once again used for musical events as well as bullfights.

La Maison Carrée

The colonnade of La Maison Carrée borders the vestibule.

A few minutes’ walk from the Amphitheater, the Maison Carrée (Square House) was built between 20 and 12 B.C. Dedicated to Caius and Lucius Caesar, the heirs of Emperor Augustus, its architecture and decoration were inspired by the temple of Apollo and Mars Ultor in Rome. At the time, it dominated the Forum (the administrative and economic heart of the city). The facade is surrounded by Corinthian columns, six in the front and eleven on each side. Inside, the sanctuary would have housed the divinities – in this case Augustus and heirs.

Over the centuries, the building remained in use, serving successively as consular house, ecclesiastic residence, stable, seat of the departmental statehouse and finally the local archive before it was painstakingly restored in 2006-2008. Today its small interior includes a projection room continuously showing a film tracing the evolution of Nîmes from Celtic settlement to Roman city.

Le Jardin de la Fontaine

A formal 18th century French garden sits on the site of an ancient sacred spring.

The Temple of Diana is believed  to have once been a library.

One of the first public parks in Europe, the Jardin de la Fontaine was created in the mid-18th century in the classical French style of the time, at the site of an ancient sacred spring honoring Nimes the Celtic goddess Nemausus. The work carried out to dig the vast pond and construct the monumental stairway uncovered vestiges of a Roman temple devoted to Augustus, with a whole ensemble including baths and a theatre.

Set in the far left corner against a densely wooded backdrop, the garden also holds the remains of a gracefully vaulted Roman edifice known as the Temple of Diana, although nothing indicates that it was ever a temple, nor that it was dedicated to Diana. Rather, while its purpose remains unclear, it is supposed it may have been a library.

The upper part of the garden is dominated by the Tour Magne (or Great Tower). Standing at the highest point in the city, it is the only remnant of the ancient Augustan fortifications. It is a steep climb up the hill, but the reward is a superb view over the city and surrounding countryside.


Le Musée de la Romanité

After holding  pride of place in the city for two millennia, the Amphitheater must now share the limelight with its new neighbor, the spectacular recentely opened Musée de la Romanité

The rear of the Musée de la Romanité opens onto a vast  archeological garden.

Designed by Franco-Brazilian architect Elizabeth de Portzamparc and inaugurated in June 2018, this new Museum of Roman Times bridges the past and the present with its ultra modern design and expansive green spaces. Within its rippling façade made of nearly 7000 shimmering glass tiles intended to evoke the folds of a Roman toga, visitors are immersed into the 25 centuries of history of the city. Of the museum’s rich archeological collection of some 25,000 artefacts, the curators have selected 5,000 pieces to be displayed in their own context for the current “permanent” exhibit, which includes a domus (Roman home), and two exceptionally well preserved room-size mosaics, known as Achilles and Penthus, They were discovered during nearby excavations in 2006-2007, their discovery becoming a major motivating factor in the creation of the museum.

The archeological garden at the rear of the museum is structured in three strata corresponding to the major periods of Nimes: Gallic, Roman and Medieval.

The Roman home features a display of household pottery unhearthed during local excavations.


Good to Know

  • Getting there – Nîmes is located approximately 725 kilometers (450 miles) south of Paris, and 125 kilometers (78 miles) north of Marseille. By train:there are multiple TGV (high speed train) daily connections between Paris and Nîmes (3 hours travel time), and regular intercity links with Marseille and most main cities in southern France. By car: Nîmes is easily accessible through the French highway system, via Autoroutes A9 or A54.
  • Staying –For this first stop of our Languedoc road trip, we stayed at Antichambre 11 Rue Bigot, 30900 Nîmes, a lovely three-bedrooms boutique guesthouse ideally located within easy walking distance for all the sites of interest. The ultra-comfortable, well appointed rooms open onto a private courtyard. Free Wifi and a gargantuan breakfast are included. Caution – do book well ahead as this tiny charmer fills fast. Contact : Tel.+33 (0) 4 66 64 13 43, e-mail.
  • Visiting –  The Amphitheatre, Maison Carrée and Tour Magne are open daily. However, opening hours vary with the seasons. Details can be found on their website.The Jardin de la Fontaine, Avenue Jean Jaures, Nîmes, is open daily from 7:30 am to 10:00 pm from April through August and 7:30 am to 6:30 pm for the remainder of the year. The Musée de la Romanité 16, boulevard des Arènes, Nîmes, is open Wednesday through Monday, 10:00 am to 7:00 pm from April through August and 10:00 am to 6:00 pm for the remainder of the year. Closed Tuesday, December 25th and January 1st.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!