Nîmes, Arles, Béziers: visit the most beautiful arenas in France

In France, there are more than a hundred arenas in which numerous events take place, as well as Camargue races, Landes races and bullfights. Place of spectacles of the amphitheatres under the Roman empire, the arenas accommodated in particular the fights of gladiators. Mainly located in the south of France, in the Basque country and in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, the arenas attract thousands of spectators every year during the summer period. In this article, we will focus on the three largest arenas in France, located in the cities of Arles, Béziers and Nîmes, with a special focus on the magnificent ancient theater of Orange.

The origin of the Roman arenas and amphitheaters

The Roman amphitheaters are public buildings of elliptical shape with tiers around an arena. Amphitheaters appeared as early as the 8th century B.C., during ancient Rome, when Roman and Gallo-Roman theaters were built for live performances. Seating for the spectators is provided in an arc on several floors. In fact, there is no difference between an arena and an amphitheater. Both buildings refer to a place where Roman shows were held. No less than 230 amphitheaters were built on the territory of the Roman Empire. When the latter fell, some of them were used as fortresses in the Middle Ages, others were abandoned and ended up as stone quarries. The etymology of the word “amphitheater” comes from Latin from Greek and means “theater on both sides”, its shape is usually circular or oval, unlike the Roman theaters, such as the ancient theater of Orange, semi-circular. In France, there are about a hundred arenas. The largest arenas in France are Arles, Béziers and Nîmes, which can accommodate 12500, 13100 and 13700 spectators respectively.

The Arles arena can accommodate up to 12500 spectators depending on the show
The Arles arena can accommodate up to 12500 spectators depending on the show

The Arles Arena

The construction of the Arles Arena dates back to 80-90 AD. Located in the Bouches-du-Rhône department, in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, the Arles arenas were built to welcome a large audience around live shows. Built on the hill of L’Hauture, the arena of Arles is inspired by the famous Colosseum of Rome. A central stage surrounded by bleachers and an evacuation system with numerous access corridors allow the 136-meter-long building to accommodate up to 12,500 spectators. In the past, the building could even accommodate up to 25,000 spectators! Classified as a historical monument since 1840, the Arles arenas have been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1981. The amphitheater is composed of 60 bays and rises on 2 levels, each served by a circular gallery allowing access to the terraces. Deteriorated over the centuries, the Arles arenas have been undergoing major restoration work for several years now: consolidation and waterproofing work is being carried out and supervised by the historical monuments. The Arles bullring is also the most visited monument in the city and hosts many bullfighting and Camargue race shows, including the famous “cocarde d’or” which takes place every year on the first Monday of July. Theatrical performances and musical shows combine ancient heritage with the cultural life of today. During the summer period, gladiatorial combat shows are presented twice a week. The Arles bullring has also inspired many painters, such as Van de Gogh or Picasso. In the cinema, several scenes from the film “Happy as Ulysses” were shot in the Arles bullring.

For more information on the Arles bullring, please visit www.arenes-arles.com

The bullring of Béziers was built at the end of the 19th century
The bullring of Béziers was built at the end of the 19th century

The modern arena of Béziers

The construction of the modern bullring in Béziers dates back to 1897. Located in the Hérault department, in the Languedoc-Roussillon region, the modern bullring of Béziers was inspired by the Spanish bullring hosting bullfights and bullfighting shows. Built on old wooden arenas destroyed by fire in 1896, the modern arenas of Béziers are mainly composed of stones, bricks, cement and wood around a circular ring of more than 50 meters in diameter. Listed as a historical monument since December 2015, the modern arena of Béziers can accommodate up to 13100 spectators. Every year, the building is illuminated for many shows such as the famous “Feria de Béziers” or “les nuits de Béziers”, the annual music festival of the city. Recognized for its acoustic qualities, many French and international groups and singers have also stopped in the arenas of Béziers during their tours: Jacques Higelin, Iron Maiden, Téléphone or Johnny Hallyday who went there, 13 times, between 1962 and 1999.

For more information on the Béziers bullring, please visit www.arenes-beziers.com

The Colosseum in Rome was the inspiration for the Nîmes arena
The Colosseum in Rome was the inspiration for the Nîmes arena

The arenas of Nîmes

The arenas of Nimes, formerly called “amphitheatre of Nimes”, were built in 90, after Jesus-Christ. Located in the department of Gard, the arenas of Nimes were formerly built to accommodate entertainments for the inhabitants of Nimes, in particular the famous fights of gladiators, before being transformed into strengthened village during the period of the great invasion. From the Middle Ages to the 19th century, the arena of Nîmes was even a district with its stores. Today, the building hosts about twenty bullfights each year, as well as Camargue races and cultural shows. It is possible to visit the arena of Nîmes outside these events. Composed of 60 arcades spread over 2 levels, this ancient amphitheater remains to this day one of the best preserved in the world. The architecture of the building with its numerous and spacious lanes allows a fast and fluid evacuation of the spectators. Of elliptical form, the amphitheatre of Nimes measures 133 meters long by 101 meters broad. Its central track is 68 meters long and 38 meters wide. The height of the building is 21 meters. At the time, the cavea (the inner part surrounding the arena) was divided into 60 radiating bays and 34 rows of bleachers, which could accommodate up to 24,000 spectators! Today, and following the removal of bleachers, the arenas of Nimes have a capacity of 13700 places. In the past, there were several underground galleries under the track, which in fact served as backstage areas offering direct access to the track during the shows. Today, one of the two remaining galleries allows access to the Cruciform Room, a space that was once used as a backstage area. In terms of architecture, the arenas of Nîmes are very close to those of Arles and the Colosseum of Rome which served as a model, the city of Nîmes wishing at the time to get closer to the Roman civilization. Between the end of the 80’s and the beginning of the 2000’s, the arena of Nîmes was covered in winter with a translucent removable roof, thus allowing the holding of sports events usually played indoors. The exterior facades of the building, as well as the bleachers, have been undergoing restoration work since 2009. Since 1840, the amphitheater of Nîmes has also been classified as a historical monument.

For more information on the Nîmes arena, please visit www.arenes-nimes.com

The ancient theater of Orange and its imposing wall behind the stage
The ancient theater of Orange and its imposing wall behind the stage

The ancient theater of Orange

Even if the latter is not considered an arena, we could not end this article without mentioning the magnificent ancient theater of Orange. Located in the Vaucluse department, in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, this half-arena shaped theater was built during the 1st century BC. It is one of the best preserved Roman theaters in the world, easily recognizable by its impressive original exterior wall and measuring 104 meters long by 35 meters high. Divided into 3 levels, the Orange theater has on the ground floor 3 rectangular doors, the royal door in the center and the 2 guest doors on the sides, separated by a series of arcades. In the past, the cavea could accommodate up to 9,000 spectators spread over 34 tiers separated by walls, so as not to mix the different social classes. The stage of the Orange theater is 61 meters long and 9 meters deep. In 2006, a new roof was added to protect the walls and allow for the hanging of stage lights, using the location of the Roman roof above the stage. Since 2018, the ancient theater of Orange offers visitors a virtual tour, an immersion of the monument as it must have been in 36 BC. Classified as a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1981, the Orange theater hosts many cultural shows each year, such as “the Roman festival” and “the Orange choreography”.

For more information about the Orange antique theater, please visit www.theatre-antique.com


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