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Footloose in France

Rome Builds Orange a Great Wall

January 31, 1988|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY | Beyer and Rabey are Los Angeles travel writers .

ORANGE, France — Rome's indelible imprint on the sunny region of Provence didn't come lightly, with more than 100,000 of its legionnaires lost to the ferocious Celtic defenders of this then-small town a century before the magnificent Roman arenas of Arles and Nimes came into being.

Being determined battlers, the Romans came back three years later, took the town and promptly built a gigantic theater that is still considered by many to be Europe's most beautiful and best preserved.

Indeed, its 340-foot-long facade, 120 feet high, is so impressive that it is known simply as Le Grande Mur, "the great wall."

Yet, unlike Nimes, Arles, Avignon and other Roman towns of Provence, Orange has only one other major monument of the era, a huge and glorious archway finished in AD 26 and rich with carvings celebrating the power and conquests of Rome.

Today, Orange is a growing provincial town in the Rhone Valley, noted for vineyards producing its noble Cotes du Rhone wines. It's a pretty place of many small squares, parks and esplanades, with traffic that can become horrendous during the midsummer tourist season.

And, like many towns in sun-drenched Provence, it is surrounded by fruit orchards, wildflowers, vineyards and brilliant meadowlands that drew Van Gogh, Renoir, Matisse, Gauguin and other artists to the region.

Here to there: Fly Air France's nonstop to Paris. American, Pan Am and TWA also will get you there without changes. Air France can take you down to Marseilles. From there, or from Paris, take French National Railroads' 165-m.p.h. TGV to Avignon, then a local from there to Orange.

How long/how much: A full day is enough for the city, but another could easily be spent touring the vineyards of Chateauneuf du Pape or the gorgeous Roman hill town of Vaison la Romaine (see below), both nearby. Lodging in smaller French towns is always inexpensive to moderate, dining costs from moderate on up, according to the number of Michelin stars you desire.

A few fast facts: With the dollar's slight recovery, it will now buy 5.5 francs, about 18 cents each. July-August is the season for cultural events in the 8,600-seat Roman theater, mainly opera and symphonies, which draw considerable crowds. Weather is pleasant except during the Rhone Valley's winter mistrals, and summers can be oppressively hot at midday.

Getting settled in: Hotel Arene (Place de Langes; $34-$45 double) is one of the town's best, a member of the Logis de France group. It's at dead center, not far from the theater, on a lovely little square. Very quiet. Decor in rooms all different, many having Provence's famous wood-block paisley on walls. Breakfast in a room with stained-glass window of a Roman-era scene.

Le Glacier (46 Cours A. Briand; $34 double) is another Logis de France member, also with great location. Lobby-lounge area a bit tarted up in a rustic way, rooms medium to small but very comfortable. Not far from sights and tourist office. Breakfast only.

Chateau de Cubieres (outside town on Route d'Avignon; $33-$49) is first class-plus in everything but price. This stately 18th-Century former home of the Marquis de Cubieres is in a gorgeous park surrounded by Cotes du Rhone vineyards and a sea of lavender peonies.

Huge flower arrangements, Persian rugs and a handsome stone staircase set the baronial tone of the chateau. Its kitchen is given high marks by Gault/Millau. You can have breakfast at tables set in the garden terrace out front, other meals in a separate building equally impressive. Bedrooms are 18th-Century huge, with lovely furnishings.

Regional food and drink: Provencal cooking is a happy amalgam of French and Mediterranean, usually leaning heavily on olive oil, garlic and the endless variety of regional herbs. And the sea is close enough to Orange to provide a bountiful selection of fresh seafood, often mixed in the region's heavenly bouillabaisse, with a piquant rouille of red peppers and garlic stirred in.

Bourride is another soup-stew of white fish only, and is given its addictive flavor by numerous herbs and a dollop of Provence's famed aioli , a garlic-mayonnaise sauce created for the gods.

Provencal sausages are prized throughout France. Succulent fresh vegetables spill from the region's colorful cornucopia, often combined into the wondrous casserole and ratatouille, served hot or cold. Locals prefer chevre cheeses of goat's milk, sharp and crusted little mounds that are best accompanied by one of the region's utterly delightful red wines.

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