A June 2003 trip
to Arles by artsnletters
Quote: Beloved of visitors as varied as Julius Caesar and Vincent Van Gogh, Arles wears its historic heart on its sleeve more than any other place I’ve been, incorporating its Roman and medieval past into its living, breathing present.
While much of the old town dates to the 17th and 18th centuries, the Romanesque Church of St. Trophime on place de la République was built in the 12th century. The interior isn’t as interesting as the façade, but the cloisters are very attractive and worth a visit.
Vincent Van Gogh lived here for 14 months in 1888 and 1889. None of his art remains in Arles, but you may still recognize eerily familiar views from his paintings. You can also see the work of some thoughtful van Gogh interpreters at Fondation Van Gogh, 24 bis Rond Point des Arènes.
On Wednesdays and Saturdays, Arles hosts an enormous farmers’ market along the ring road around the old town, with as many booths selling sundries as food.
There’s a dandy little self-serve laundromat located just off place Voltaire at 12 rue Portagnel (between the arena and the river), open 7am-9pm. While your clothes are getting clean, you can have a drink at one of the shady cafés on place Voltaire or walk half a block further and catch up on your e-mail at Point Web, 10 rue du 4 Septembre, open 8:30am-12:30pm and 1:30-7:30pm.
The hotel situation can be very tight during the photography festival, usually the first week in July. If you will be coming then, plan ahead and make reservations at least a month in advance.
If you drive, ditch your car as soon as possible, preferably in your hotel’s garage to avoid omnipresent theft problems, and get around on foot. The single-lane streets are scarcely wide enough to be called alleys and are lined with stone buildings; any small miscalculation is likely to result in kissing a building with a bumper or fender. Despite this, the locals drive through at a vigorous pace, causing pedestrians (who seldom have the benefit of a sidewalk) to fling themselves into doorways to save their skins. I consider myself a great driver, but even I scuffed a fender here.
If you arrive by train, exit the station and turn left. A block away is place Lamartine, a large roundabout featuring a Monoprix discount grocery and sundries store. From here you can see the river ahead of you and the city walls to your left.
The Dubreuils, who run Hotel du Musée, proved friendly and helpful. Monsieur took my car off to park it in the enclosed garage, two blocks away and €7 per day extra. When I had trouble dialing home with my purchased phone card, Madame assisted me in the lounge. The hotel also has a notable feature for an insatiable reader such as myself: a bookcase in the front hall where travelers leave books they’re finished and can pick up a left book to take away. I read so quickly that it’s hard for me to keep in English-language books when I’m traveling abroad. I was delighted to drop off a couple books I’d finished and pick up a couple more to finish my trip.
My room, on the second floor up a wide, wood-banistered staircase, was adequate in size if not spacious (it might be a little tight for two people), with ludicrous rusty orange full-length drapes covering a shuttered window, which looked out across the narrow street into a blank wall. It was furnished simply but had wonderfully efficient air-conditioning and a television with an English-language station. The bathroom was positively tiny. The shower, built into a corner, had one of those delightful shower curtains that persistently plasters itself to your legs, making it difficult to keep the floor dry. Nonetheless, there was an ample supply of hot water and good water pressure. Although my room was on the street, I noticed no street noise during the day or at night.
A standard issue continental breakfast is served in the leafy courtyard and costs €7 extra.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on April 12, 2004
Hotel du Musée
11 Rue du Grande Prieuré
Attraction | "Musée de L’Arles Antique (Ancient History Museum)"
One of the first exhibits you’ll encounter are scale models of the city, beginning with the mud huts of the Bronze Age and developing into the full-blown Roman colony with its standard-issue forum, theater, temples, and arena. Many of the landmarks of ancient Arles are the landmarks of modern-day Arles, so the models make immediate sense to the visitor.
The Roman artifacts are spectacular and interesting even to the casual visitor. Everything here was excavated in Arles. There’s a wide variety of both artsy and everyday items. There are clay amphorae, used to store wine, olive oil, and food, and little glass jars used for cosmetics, as well as jewelry, trinkets, and small everyday gadgets, plus of course a collection of classical sculpture. The largest sculpture in the museum is the statue of Caesar Augustus, dating to the first century, which once stood over the royal gate of the theater. Augustus was emperor when the theater was built. He’s missing part of his nose and has some patches, but the dignity of this long-reigning emperor still radiates from the marble.
There is an impressive collection of 2nd century to 5th century sarcophagi, some of marble and some of limestone. These are stone coffins whose sides are decorated with elaborate sculptures, looking a little like oversized square-cornered bathtubs. Among the more noteworthy of these are the limestone Sarcophagus of the Married Couple, rare because it was built for two people rather than one, with reliefs suggesting that the couple held great affection for each other, and the marble Sarcophagus of the Hunt, decorated with vivid scenes of hunting.
Most interesting of all are the mosaic floors displayed at the back of the museum. Walkways above them permit you to get a good look while protecting the mosaics. The art of the mosaic is largely lost to us today. If you ever made one of those trivets in art class in elementary school using little square tiles, you’ve experienced the basic technique. Mortar is laid down, little tiles are laid out in patterns and pictures, and then the spaces between tiles are filled in with mortar. The ancients were masters of mosaics and used them extensively to decorate floors.
There are two particularly splendid examples of mosaics in the museum. The largest, missing only a few patches, once decorated the triclinium (dining room) floor of a wealthy villa. It depicts Aion holding the wheel of the Zodiac, surrounded by sea nymphs and dolphins. The most impressive, however, is of the Rape of Europa, a woman borne away on a bull, still in pristine condition after two millennia.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on April 12, 2004
Musee de L'Arles Antique (Ancient History Museum)
Chemin de Barriol & Ave de la 1'ere Division Fran.
Attraction | "Eglise St.-Trophime and its cloisters"
The interior of the church is relatively simple. Although the church is not enormous, it may seem deceptively small due to the height of the vaulting. The most interesting feature is a 4th century early Christian sarcophagus (stone coffin), currently used as an altar.
To see the cloisters, exit the church, turn left, and walk about 20 meters. Go through the large gates and head back and to the right. Despite the feeling that you are trespassing, you will eventually find a sign pointing you to the cloisters. The four passages of the cloister open onto a square of sunny grass, ornamented with a few pink-flowering shrubs and a tree. It’s easy to imagine clerics strolling these corridors deep in contemplation. The cloisters are built partly in Romanesque style and partly in Gothic style, distinguishable by the more pronounced point at the top of the Gothic arches. If you wish you can take the stairs up to the second floor, but there’s nothing more to see up there but the cloisters from above and a better view of the church’s bell tower.
The church can be visited for free, but a visit to the cloisters will set you back €3.
Church of St. Trophime and Cloister
Place De La République
Attraction | "Roman Arles"
Amphithéâtre, €3. The Roman arena in Arles, built in the first century AD, is the largest still surviving in France. It still sits at the center of town, a marvel of Roman engineering and design, with two levels of arches still mostly intact, despite the history it has seen. It could seat 20,000 people and was designed to empty out within five minutes. It’s a feat no modern sports stadium can match! Once the Roman Empire had crumbled, Arles suffered under repeated invasions; during the medieval period citizens built homes and shops inside the arena and turned it into a fortress, a testament to the difficulty of the times. Four towers were built onto the structure, only one of which is sufficiently intact and open to the public. Be sure to climb up to the top to enjoy a fine view over the red-tiled rooftops of Arles and the Rhone River. If you want to do as the Romans did, you can see a bullfight here. If the Spanish version (corrida) is too gory for your taste, choose a cocarde, the Camarguaise version of a bullfight where the bull is not harmed.
Théatre Antique, €3. What remains of the Roman theater sits at the top of the hill next to the arena. Much of the stage of the once-glorious theater is in ruins now, with most of the stone carted away over the centuries for use elsewhere. Only two Corinthian-style columns from the former stage wall, known as the Two Widows, still stand. Once the theater seated 10,000; its acoustics ensure that it still sees use for concerts. You can go up in the seats (more of which are modern than ancient) and look at the stage, now rebuilt of wood, or wander around backstage through a veritable garden of stone bits and pieces. If you didn’t buy the monuments pass, you might want to peek through the fence and pass up paying to go in and take a look.
Cryptoportiques du Forum, €3. The Roman forum was built on a slight hill, so a sturdy foundation was required to support the level surface of the forum. To take a look at the underlying structure which supports today’s place du Forum, enter the Baroque-style Jesuit church on rue Balze, between place du Forum and place de la République, and head down the stairs. Wander around the gloomy basement, dodging the puddles. There’s even the odd Roman column left as well as the more pedestrian Roman vaulting.
Circus. The ruins of the circus, the former horseracing track, are free; in fact, they are so rudimentary that you could miss them entirely if you didn’t know where to look. The flat end of the U-shaped track is right in front of the Musée de l’Arles Antique. The museum has a great model that will help you put those few stones into a real picture.
Attraction | "Outdoor Farmers’ and Flea Market"
Arles has perhaps the most comprehensive farmers’ market I visited, running from 7am to 1pm on Wednesdays and Saturdays. It completely takes over boulevard des Lices, which is a part of the ring road that circles the historic quarter of Arles. (Wednesday’s market is on boulevard Emile Combes, a different part of the ring road.) While traffic continues to creep down the street during the market, stall after stall after stall lines the road, offering the entire range of French comestibles. It’s interesting how many foodstuffs are available loose that come in jars at home. Pickles and olives are displayed in bowls; you scoop up what you want and they package it for you on the spot. Even herbs and spices are sold loose.
There’s also the usual array of Provençal goods. These include colorful table linens (mustard yellow, hunter green, chalky sky blue, and maroon predominate), aromatic bars of soap, and anything and everything that can be made from lavender.
In addition to the usual grocery and Provençal craft items, however, Arles’ market is a crazed hodgepodge of everything and anything someone might need. The range of items is astounding. Women’s lingerie sets (lacy bra and matching thong panties) on hangers wave in the breeze, while a few stalls over a man hawks shiny new mattresses wrapped in plastic, followed by stall after stall of items that would fit right in at any dollar store back home – batteries and sunglasses and barrettes and nail polish. On the first Wednesday of the month, I’m told a flea market is included, but it’s hard to figure out what might be added to this surfeit of merchandise!
Incidentally, I noticed a lot more, for lack of a better term, riffraff lurking at this market than at most others. Pay attention to your possessions, particularly if you are making purchases or taking photos, and keep your passport, credit cards and big bills in your moneybelt.
Outdoor Farmers Market & Flea Market
Blvd. Emile Combes (Wed.) or Blvd. des Lices (Sat)