With a muffled thunk, the petanque ball landed in the sand of the arena, landing next to another heavy steel ball. Sheltered from the stress and the noise of Paris, there’s often a group of older gentlemen playing petanque in the sands of the Arènes de Lutèce, a little-known Roman ruin in Paris.
It’s a lot of fun discovering the Arènes de Lutèce, and it feels like your own private quiet space. Wandering off the busy streets of Paris, you first pass the picturesque double arches that lead underground to the Place Monge metro station, and through a short, leafy passage into the Roman arena. I like the way the arena opens up as you enter, with a few Haussmannian buildings towering beside to remind you that this ancient site is still in the centre of Paris.
The long shadows of the adjacent buildings creep over the sand as the sun passes across the sky and the afternoon arrives. It’s always quiet at the Arènes de Lutèce, and a handful of photographers and dog walkers usually mill about, taking in the serene atmosphere. People sunbake on the grassy areas, or sit down with a book to read on the stands, which once held fifteen thousand cheering spectators.
The arena is almost 2000 years old, built in the first century CE in the city of Lutetia (Lutèce). When it was in operation, it was used for shows. There was a stage platform for actors, and gladatorial combats took place in the arena too.
Roman men would take their place at the bottom seating rows, with women, the poor and slaves relegated to the higher rows. A series of linen shades probably covered the seating areas from the sun, and the river Seine would have been visible from the arena. The arena was completely covered over when the city wall of Philippe Auguste was constructed around the city. The location was lost for centuries.
It was rediscovered again during Haussmann’s renovation of Paris, and a preservation committee, the Société des Amis des Arènes, was led by Victor Hugo. Over the next few decades, it was uncovered and excavated until the end of World War I. Today, it is free to visit for anyone who knows about it.
The arena is a lovely reminder of the long history of the city of Paris, built next to modern Haussman buildings, almost on top of each other to heighten the contrast. If you are interested in history, or just fancy seeing a peaceful, interesting, and free treasure out of the way of busy Paris, it’s well worth checking out the Arènes de Lutèce.