Using Aigues-Mortes as our home base, we drove northeast, arriving in the small city of Arles in less than an hour. It was a brilliantly sunny day, the air cooled by the Mistral’s breezes.
Arles is, of course, home to the world-famous annual photography festival, “Rencontres de la Photographie,” (it runs this year from 6 July to 20 September), and one could easily spend a day or two visiting the different original photo exhibits. And it is also home to Roman and Romanesque monuments, listed on the UNESCO World Heritage list, and strewn throughout the city center. On such a beautiful day, it was a pleasure to stroll and discover them.
The Arles Tourist Information Center, open 24/7, is centrally located on the Boulevard des Lices. We bought a “Pass Avantage,” that allowed us to visit all of the monuments on our list, with the exception of the Fondation Vincent Van Gogh, which is a private institution.
It was interesting to discover that some of the ancient Roman monuments have been restored so that they can be used again today. Thus, the Amphitheater built at the end of the first century AD, where over 20,000 spectators came to see fights and games, today holds some 12, 500 persons who come to attend bull fights and games. The nearby Roman theater, built a century earlier, was looted over the centuries by people looking for building materials, until it was rediscovered at the end of the 17th century. It has been returned to its original function today, being used as a theater.
The baths of Constantine provides a fascinating glimpse of life during the Roman Empire. A place to meet and socialize, the baths also gave people the opportunity to bathe and exercise. Although the baths are only partially restored, the information at the site allowed us to imagine life some 2,000 years ago.
Nearby the Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall) are the ruins of the Forum’s underground foundations. In the cryptoportico, built during the first century BC, the Romans created a system of subterranean vaulted corridors. It had rained a few days earlier, and the occasional puddles added to a slight feeling of angoisse as we made our way along the frequently deserted corridors.
Vincent Van Gogh lived in Arles from 1888 to 1889, producing over 300 paintings and drawings. If we had more time, we would have taken the Van Gogh themed walking tour, but had to be satisfied with a visit to the Vincent Van Gogh Foundation. The Foundation’s goal is to demonstrate the master’s influence on contemporary artists, through temporary exhibitions. The permanent collection presents above all Van Gogh’s drawings, showing what a very talented draftsman he was.
Another museum, this one included in the “Pass Avantage,” was the Réattu Museum: the Arles Fine Arts Museum. Jacques Réattu was a 19th century neo-classical painter. The building, located on the banks of the Rhône River, is the former Grand Priory of the Knights of Malta. There are 57 paintings and drawings donated by Pablo Picasso in 1971. The couturier Christian Lacroix is a native of Arles, and we admired an exhibition of his very colorful designs and fashion drawings. It is definitely worthwhile to spend some time in this museum.
No trip to Arles can be complete without a visit to the Alyscamps, the Roman and medieval graveyard, not too far from the Tourist Office. Set outside the city walls, this site is the most famous Roman cemetery in Arles. Meaning Champs Elysées or Elysian Fields, this was one of the most famous necropolises of the ancient world. You walk down a long tree-shaded path lined with sarcophagi from Roman times. The cemetery was subsequently transformed as Christianity developed, and during the 12th century the Romanesque church dedicated to Saint Honorat was added. Both Gaugin and Van Gogh did paintings inspired by the Alyscamps.
We found that Arles was a well-documented, well-organized city. And, although we were of course not the only visitors, we did not feel overwhelmed by the crowds. When we return, we’ll book a hotel room and plan to spend two days.