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We won’t be using the metro in this field trip of ours. Instead, we’ll hop on the time machine for a change. Destination: the pre-Roman era, 1st century AD. A time of gladiatorial combats, athletic competitions and the tragedies of Plautus. Please fasten your seatbelts, as travelling through time might be bumpy and could take a while…
Paris is so rich in history we are sometimes likely to forget that beyond the severity of Haussmannian buildings, the lavishness of Renaissance palaces and the grimness of Gothic cathedrals sleeps another Paris – lesser known and frequently overlooked.
For those willing to open the door to this mystery closet, Les Arènes de Lutèce are the perfect occasion! Join me in this archeological stroll and we’ll do some digging into the city’s Roman heritage.
Beautifully hidden in the 5th arrondisement, Les Arènes (or the Lutetia Arenas, as they are alternatively called) are one of the most important and rare remnants of the Gallo-Roman era in Paris. Nowadays, they are also a really agreeable place to take a Roman break from the traffic of the 21st century busy streets.
Built in the 1st to 2nd century A.D. on the slopes of the Sainte-Geneviève mountain, just outside the town of Lutèce (today’s Paris), the Arenas were used as a theater, sporting arena and circus. The amphitheater – reportedly one of the largest of its kind ever built by the Romans – seated up to 15 000 spectators. From its slant, the arenas benefitted from an outstanding view of the Seine and Bièvre rivers, the latter of which is today underground.
The place endured as an amphitheater for a few centuries, but was ruined around the end of the 3rd century and ultimately became a cemetery. By the year 1210, it was completely filled in. Centuries later, despite the fact that the surrounding quarter had kept the name Les Arènes, no one really knew where the exact whereabouts of the ancient arenas had been.
Curiously, the site was rediscovered in the 1860s during the building of a tramway depot on Rue Monge. Writer Victor Hugo and a couple of other intellectuals embarked on a campaign to save what was left of this archaeological treasure.
If you dare to go down to the center of the arenas today, you will still be able to see a number of remnants of the once imposing amphitheater – some parts of the stage, the barred animal cages and the niches under the bleachers are still there.
Nowadays, the Arenas are no longer a site for gory gladiator matches. You are more likely to encounter students enjoying an outdoor break, couples having a picnic, kids playing ball or elderly men engaged in the ever so popular French game of pétanque.
The amphitheater is backed by an enjoyable little park (Square Capitan), where you can sit with a book or – even better – explore a handful of the biosphere inside the mini “garden of the world”.
This small green square displays different natural landscapes (the forest, the jungle, the marsh, the desert, the pond) and the flowers typically flourishing in those natural habitats.
So when you get an adequate amount of History and yellow Roman sands, you can opt for this rewarding and green change of scenery instead.
How to get there:
Metro line: 7, station Place Monge
Hours: 8 am – 5.30 pm, in winter
The Arenas are accessible by 3 public entrances:
– a passageway through the building at 47, rue Monge (look out for the gladiator’s helmet over the doorway)
– a long open corridor reached by Rue Navarre
– from the garden of square Capitan at 10, rue des Arènes