The difference between the countryside around Les Baux des Provence and Arles couldn’t be more of a contrast. Not only is Arles a river city, it is a coastal city that has been an important trading port of the Mediterranean for almost 3000 years. During that time it has competed with Marseille down the coast for traders looking for access to markets in the rest of France. The Rhone River breaks into two branches just before Arles spreading out to feed the largest wetlands in France, the Camargue. It is Western Europe’s largest river delta and is home to more than 400 species of birds. So Arles is a city with long memories of key events in the Mediterranean Sea’s long history. It was a Phoenician trading port before the Romans took it over in 123 BCE and it played a significant role in the political events of the formation of the Roman Empire. There is plenty to see and experience during a visit to Arles, particularly of its physical reminders of the Roman presence here. We only had an afternoon to check out Arles but to do the city justice, the visitor needs to settle in for a few days, particularly if you also want to spend some time in the Camargue.
The difference between the countryside around Les Baux des Provence and Arles couldn’t be more of a contrast. Not only is Arles a river city, it is a coastal city that has been an important trading port of the Mediterranean for almost 3000 years. During that time it has competed with Marseille down the coast for traders looking for access to markets in the rest of France. The Rhone River breaks into two branches just before Arles spreading out to feed the largest wetlands in France, the Camargue. It is Western Europe’s largest river delta and is home to more 400 species of birds. So Arles is a city with long memories of key events in the Mediterranean Sea’s long history. It was a Phoenician trading port before the Romans took it over in 123 BCE and it played a significant role in the political events of the formation of the Roman Empire. There is plenty to see and experience during a visit to Arles, particularly of its physical reminders of the Roman presence here. We only had an afternoon to check out Arles but to do the city justice, the visitor needs to settle in for a few days, particularly if you also want to spend some time in the Camargue.
“Arles is a good example of the adaptation of an ancient city to medieval European civilization. It has some impressive Roman monuments, of which the earliest – the arena, the Roman theatre and the cryptoporticus (subterranean galleries) – date back to the 1st century B.C. During the 4th century Arles experienced a second golden age, as attested by the baths of Constantine and the necropolis of Alyscamps. In the 11th and 12th centuries, Arles once again became one of the most attractive cities in the Mediterranean. Within the city walls, Saint-Trophime, with its cloister, is one of Provence’s major Romanesque monuments.”
The map above shows our trail for our afternoon’s walk around Arles. It is a reasonably extensive itinerary and we certainly needed all our daylight hours. Our first site for examination was located on the other side of Place de la Major was the Roman Amphitheatre and the largest structure remaining from Roman times in the town. It was built in 90 CE for the usual entertainment that Romans and other locals enjoyed spectacles such as combat trials between gladiators and other blood thirsty exhibitions. Like the similar amphitheatre that still remains in Nimes today, this arena is still used today for bull fights. With the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century, the locals could no longer afford using such a major facility for popular entertainment, it had to be used for defensive purposes in the real world as protection from Barbarian raids. Thus a small town was built inside the arena and houses remained here until the late 18th century. The towers (see image left below) that arise above the walls of this complex are remnants from the time the arena was used as part of the defences the city.
We were able to enter the amphitheatre and explore the tunnels built into the external walls that enabled spectators to access their seats from the back of the complex. The photo on the right was taken from one of the top tiers and shows the great view over the city area of Arles and out to the Rhone River bypassing the inner city.
Before we entered the arena, we experienced an unusual incident with a local guitar player who was busking outside the arena. My wife stopped to listened to him for a few minutes before moving on without adding to his money-hat as she didn’t have any coins on her. The guitar player noticed her failure to pay for her short period of guitar entertainment and stopped playing to abuse her for her failure to support the local entertainers. We both will always remember this sensitive guitarist from Arles and trust that he has gained more regular employment since then.
From the Roman Amphitheatre it is just as short walk around the corner to Place Henri de Bornier in front of the next Roman structure that has survived since the time of Caesar Augustus, the Roman Theatre of Arles. On the left below is an image from the Musée de l’Arles Antique, that models what the theatre would have looked like when it was built in the first century CE. (This museum is unfortunately not part of this walk but can be found way over on the Rhone River-bank to the left of the bridge that takes N113 over the river.) The theatre could hold 8000 spectators on its original 33 rows of steps. For visitors to the city of Orange, this theatre will look familiar as it was originally as large as Orange’s amazing Roman theatre but the Arles theatre is not as well preserved. Arles’ Roman theatre was used as a quarry back in the Middle Ages and the only two columns survive from the back of the stage. (See photo on left)
The gem from the Arles theatre that did survive, if only in pieces, was a Roman marble statue called the Venus of Arles. It was recovered from a well in this theatre in pieces in 1651 and 30 years later was given to Louis XIV to add to his collection of statues at Versailles. Of course it was one of the statues seized by the revolutionary government of France and is today to be found in a store room in the Louvre. Louis XIV’s statue restorer did a lot of work on this ancient statue and the image on the right below indicates the areas that he adjusted. This restoration is probably the reason that it is not often on display.
From the ‘Theatre Antique’ it is a short walk down Rue de Cloitre to the next major square in Arles, the Place de la Republique. This square is considered the heart of Arles given that it houses the Hotel de Ville (Town Hall), the Church of St Anne on one side and the highly significant church of St Trophime on the other side.
Standing a little off centre in the square is the Arles Obelisk which is another gem from the Roman past of Arles, similar in its back story to the Venus of Arles found in the Roman Theatre. Every Roman colony of significance had to have structures that housed vital entertainment for the locals. Along with the Arena and the theatre, Roman colonies usually had a ‘circus’, a long oval structure where chariot races could be held. This was built near the Rhone River near where the Musée d’Arles Antique sits today. The Arles Obelisk was built in the 4th century CE and placed in the centre of the Arles Circus, the Spina. Like the other Roman structures in Arles, the Circus was completely pillaged for building stones. In 1676, the obelisk was dug up from the site of the old circus (broken in two pieces) and transferred to the Place de la Republique where it still stands today.
The other major feature of the Place de la Republique in Arles is the Church of St Trophime, at one point in its history, a basilica. The original church is believed to have housed one of the first Christian communities in France and was built near the original Roman Forum. Today’s church building dates from the 12th century and was a church on the famous pilgrim trail to Compestella. It is considered a major work of Romanesque Architecture and the sculpture of the Last Judgement over the main entrance is also a fine example of Romanesque sculpture. The images below of the front of St Trophime shows a clean façade today and a bedraggled view from a photo dated 1851.
The other aspect of the history of Arles that is a major reason for visitors to flock to Arles is based on a small time period, the fifteen months between February 1818 to May 1819. This was when Vincent Van Gogh arrived in Arles and began the most productive period in his painting career. He produced over 300 works in this time before he headed off to the asylum in St Remy-de-Provence. I suggested earlier in this article that a visit to Arles needs more than the half day we allocated to it. If you are a Van Gogh fan you need far more time; there is a pamphlet you can collect or download from the Arles Tourism office that illustrates a walk that can be taken around Arles to visit nine sites associated with Van Gogh.
The first site on the Tourism Office’s pamphlet, ‘Dans les pas de Vincent’ (Following Vincent’s Footsteps) is the old Hospital of Arles built in the 16th century that is today called Espace Van Gogh and it is our next destination after finishing in Le Place de la Republique. This was where Van Gogh was taken to have his ear stitched up and to be looked after while recovering. He worked on two paintings here, one called the ‘Garden of the Hospital of Arles’ which is the image on the left above. The same garden is well maintained today to reflect the picture painted by Vincent in December 1888.
From Espace Van Gogh, our afternoon trail took us back in the direction of St Trophime to a curious architectural site that tells us a lot about the building talents of the administrators of the Arles Roman colony in the first century CE. It is called the Cryptoportiques, a series of three double, parallel tunnels supported by fifty piers that once supported the level platform on which the original local Roman forum was built. Mason marks on the stonework indicate it was built by Greeks from Marseille. It is interesting to ponder that the original Roman forum has disappeared under the Hotel de Ville and parts of the Jesuit College but we know where it once stood due to its amazing footprint preserved underground.
After examining the Cryptoportiques, our guide map suggests we head towards our last site of the afternoon, the Thermes de Constantin, via Rue de Palais. The good thing about this road is that it takes us past the Place de Forum, another central square of Arles. It is also the number two spot on the Van Gogh tour of Arles mentioned earlier in this article. It was mid September of 1888 before his stint in the Arles hospital that Vincent set up his easel in this square and produced one of his most famous paintings from his Arles period, “Terrasse de café sur la place du Forum“. Even one of the local papers reported on Vincent’s nocturnal painting habits at the time… “Mr Vincent, an impressionist painter, works, we are told, in the evening, by the light of the gas lamps, in one of our squares.” (This reporter from ‘L’Homme de Bronze’ is very fond of commas.)
We continued on from the Place de Forum down Rue du Sauvage to the Thermes de Constantin
Every Roman city worth its salt ensured that it had a Spa Bath complex for its important citizens and military personnel. The famous Roman Emperor Constantine I (transferred the Roman Capital from Rome to Constantinople on the Bosphorus) spent time in Arles and the Arles baths are named after him. They were built in the 4th century and survived for two centuries before they became another victim of the decaying Roman Empire. They were originally a significant complex of buildings and the photo on the right is of a model of the Thermes de Constantin developed for the Musée de l’Arles Antique. Only a section of the baths that contains the ‘Caldarium’, the heated pools, survives today and the complex can be entered and inspected by visitors.
It was a long afternoon at Arles but it was a wonderful city to visit with our only regrets that we had to leave before we had seen and enjoyed all Arles had to offer. For those who would like to complete the Vincent Van Gogh walk, a copy of the walk around Arles is available below in Appendix 1.
APPENDIX 1: The Vincent Van Gogh Walk around Arles