Meanderings through France ~ Arles, a blend of ancient and modern
Located in Provence between Nimes and Marseille, crossed by the Rhone, Arles is the Northern gateway to Camargue and has been a city since 2500 years created by Greek explorers and merchants. The Camargue is a vast and beautiful area formed by the Rhone delta and is a nature reserve dedicated to horses, bulls and paddy fields. The golden age came with the Roman occupation when Arles became a prosperous town with its antique theatre, its arenas, its Alyscamps (the pagan and Christian necropolis), its Roman amphitheatre… To the sailors coming down the river Rhone from Northern Europe it was meant to show the power and wealth of Rome to the “barbarians”!
Visiting Arles is easy. Most of the monuments are gathered in the city centre and you can see them all walking through the narrow streets lined with beautiful houses. Thanks to successive restorations the arenas and the amphitheatre almost look as they were 2000 years ago and are still the place to go to see many different shows. Don’t miss the “Crypto-porticos”, the foundations of the Roman forum. To get there you’ll have to go to the City Hall and go down a stiff staircase to reach a maze of vaulted galleries that were used as goods stocks. An unusual and mysterious place!
Back in the open air leave the classical antiquity to get to the Middle Ages: the Saint- Trophime Cathedral was built during the 12th century and is one of the largest in Provence. Three sarcophagus made by early Christians during the 4th century are shown in the nave. Next to the church is the most famous cloister in Provence built during the 12th and 14th century with remarkable columns and their sculpted stone capitals.
After 3 years of restoration works and 11 millions of euros spent a 15th century mansion house has been turned into a museum dedicated to Vincent Van Gogh. This great artist lived in Arles from February 20th 1888 till May 8th 1889. During these 444 days he made 200 paintings, 100 drawings and watercolours and wrote 200 letters. During this frenzied creation period he achieved the best part of his artistic work. Amazingly there was no museum in Arles to remind us of this period. The “Fondation Van Gogh “puts an end to that mistake and the opening exhibition gathers 9 major paintings lent by international museums. Lets hope it is only a beginning!
From the Van Gogh Museum go to the picturesque Forum Square “Place du Forum” to enjoy a nice lunch on one of the restaurant terraces. “Mezza Luna” serves homemade local specialities perfect for a quick snack: bruschettas, salads, salted tarts…
For a gourmet diner you could taste Jean-Luc Rabanel ‘s cooking, the 2-star Michelin chef, in his restaurant called “L’Atelier” or in his annexe “Bistrot A Coté” where you can have a more affordable menu in a relaxed atmosphere. Made with organic vegetables grown in his own garden and local products his cooking is a genuine one.
Since 2004 archaeological submarine searches conducted to the discovery of major Roman sculptures such as a true to life bust of Julius Caesar, a 2 yards high statue of god Neptune, amphoras… In 2010 an amazing barge built 50 years AD was taken out of the waters. It is a whole Roman ship and the only one in the world being in such a good state of preservation: 31 meters long, 3 meters wide, weighing 50 tonnes it carried 27 tonnes of stones when it sank. The Musée Antique d’Arles has especially been extended to shelter this unique boat and the 450 artefacts that were found in it: ropes, dishes, a brazier, coins… This tremendous exhibition is inescapable if you have a keen interest in history.
Arles is also a place to be entertained. Every summer Arles is the place to be for photography lovers. Sine 45 years the “Rencontres d’Arles” are the opportunity for major photographers to show their work in different art galleries and museums. This year François Hebel for his last year as head of this event gathers together internationally renowned artist such as Nadav Kander, David Bailey, Vik Muniz, Christian Lacroix…Next year a new director will be in charge: Sam Stourdzé who previously was in charge of “L’Elysée” museum in Lausanne.
Twice a year Arles is dedicated to the world of bulls. The Easter Feria in spring and the Rice Feria in September draw 500 000 visitors to Arles. 50 000 “afficionados” come to see the bullfight twice a day in the arenas. But the Ferias are not only about bullfight. Above all it’s about having fun. “Bodegas” are open every day from late afternoon till late in the night serving tapas, light meals and drinks while “Penas” (music bands) go from one bodega to the other to make people sing and dance. Don’t miss the “encierros” when bulls are released through the streets led by the famous “guardians” the local cowboys!
There are of course many hotels in Arles. For an affordable and pleasant choice you may go to one of these two hotels. The “Hotel de l’Amphitheatre” is a quiet and lovely one. Each bedroom has its own personality with a decoration mixing an 18th century Provençal style with a touch of oriental atmosphere. The bedroom called “Belvedere” is like a small penthouse with a 360° view over Arles’roofs! It is only a five minutes walk from the main points of interest in town.
Located on the lively Forum Square the “Hotel du Forum” is ideally located to visit the city. Its rear garden with a small swimming pool allows you to get a well-deserved rest after a busy day in Arles.
For a city break or on your way to Marseille or to the Côte d’Azur Arles should be on your mind.
Information about Arles: www.arlestourism.com
The Antique Museum: www.arles-antique.cg13.fr
Jean Luc Rabanel’s restaurants: www.rabanel.com
The Fondation Van Gogh: www.fondation-vincentvangogh-arles.org
And also www.hotelduforum.com and www.hotelamphithetre.fr
Text © Annick Dournes
Photos © Frederic de Poligny