In my travels in Provence I have never missed a stop in Arles, it is a small ancient Rome in the south of France. Bright, full of history and where you can enjoy the landscapes painted by Vincent Van Gogh.
Visiting Arles in Provence, I had at first sight the sensation of being in the centre of a city of ancient Rome to admire the remains of the Caesars’ empire. I cannot help but think of the adventures of Asterix and Obelix that took place in this land of Gaul.
The Romans were like this: they conquered populations first with weapons but then through civilization, monuments and entertainment (Panem et Circenses). In this city in the South of France, there are so many Roman monuments that make Arles Provence the place that, after Rome, has the most vestiges of that remote time. Its amphitheatre is the largest after the colosseum, still used for events and bullfighting or better bloodless bullfighting shows.
The atmosphere one breathes in Provence always gives me positive sensations: the sun, the cicadas singing, the lavender, the wheat and the light that contributes to amplify these bucolic sensations. A context that in the second half of the 19th century inspired one of my favourite painters, that Vincent Van Gogh who spent over a year in Arles producing more than 300 canvases of an undisputed liveliness after the dark colours and contexts of his Dutch period.
Arles and the Camargue
We have also used the town of Arles as a starting point to visit the nearby Camargue, of which it is a kind of gateway. The Camargue, a wild territory that still preserves intact, a completely natural environment where the fauna has found an ideal habitat in the wild.
If you are planning an interesting journey combining history, art, culture and nature, Arles is the destination to offer you all this and more. It is a base for stimulating explorations by discovering many picturesque Provencal villages such as Les Baux de Provence, Saint-Rémy, Paradou e others like Aix en Provence the hometown of Cézanne or Saintes Maries de la Mer.
It was founded by the Romans due to the proximity of the Rhone river and considered a strategic destination to reach Spain after passing Nimes (another town that preserves evidence of that time).
The preciousness of the monuments dating back to the empire of Rome has resulted in Arles being listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Museum of Arles in its almost eight thousand square metres of exhibition space tells the history of the city since 2500 B.C. through archaeological finds from everyday life which are divided into different thematic segments.
Arles offers a particularly charming atmosphere that still today resembles the one that struck Vincent Van Gogh who decided to live for 14 months before moving to the psychiatric hospital of Saint Remy en Provence. The small colourful bistros you can see are the same ones that animated the artistic genius of Van Gogh who, inspired by these places, painted them in famous canvases. Although there are no original paintings by Van Gogh in Provence, the city and the surrounding area have allowed us to immerse ourselves in the settings of the Dutch painter’s paintings.
Arles what to see
What to see in Arles so as not to leave anything out, I have created a list of things to see to avoid losing all those points that stimulate your interest according to their characteristics. Below I make an analytical list of what there is to visit in Arles, with the aim that you may have an idea of what you want to explore once you arrive in this town.
Arles arena – Les Arènes
Even if you are used to our Colosseum, I can guarantee you that this Roman amphitheatre right in the centre of the city will arouse a wave of Italian pride. You shouldn’t be surprised if, after seeing gladiator fights and chariot races, nowadays it is still used as a venue for bullfights that take place in the city during the year and which can accommodate about twelve thousand visitors.
It is one of the most imposing amphitheatres outside Italy, perhaps the largest. With its typical oval shape, it has 34 rows of steps for the public and is one of the 112 monuments dating back to ancient Rome that constitute the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Roman Theatre of Arles
Unfortunately, what was the ancient theatre of the Romans has seen over the centuries a continuous pillage, until it became a sort of quarry for all the buildings in Arles. What remains of it is now used as a location for an open-air cinema during the summer season.
Les Alyscamps – The Elysian Fields of Arles
It is a two kilometre long avenue leading to the ruins of an ancient church. Its peculiarity is that it is framed on both sides by a row of cypresses where hundreds of Roman burials are located and which was the inspiration for some paintings by Gauguin and Van Gogh.
Arles – Baths of Constantine
Even in this case, of what were the Emperor’s splendid private baths, only a few ruins remain that are mixed with the buildings of the city.
Just below the square where the Cathedral stands, there is an extensive underground colonnade that fills a quadrilateral and which was used in antiquity as a warehouse. The parts that housed workshops, water pipes and sewers are still visible.
Church of Saint-Trophime Arles
In pure Romanesque style, characterised by the white stone with which it was built, the magnificent portal, where a scene from an episode from the Bible is engraved, does not go unnoticed. In this church Frederick Barbarossa was crowned as King of Arles. Its Cloister is also interesting because of two showy Gothic-style galleries.
Museum Réattu Arles
Housed in a space that was once the seat of a convent, it is possible to admire not only about fifty of his sketches, but also two paintings by Pablo Picasso.
Van Gogh Arles
The city in the department of Bouche du Rhone is inextricably linked to Van Gogh who moved there in early 1888, captured by the particular sunlight of Provence, by renting a small flat on Place Lamartine. Since then, the building has been called Casa Gialla and is portrayed in some paintings.
Van Gogh’s production in Provence
Here he lived the period of greatest artistic prolificness, painting hundreds of canvases (but none you can see in Arles!) and suffering the ghosts of his madness that would lead him to suicide, turning him into a myth.
In a year of activity, the Dutch painter painted more than three hundred canvases and his work seems to go hand in hand with his madness which will lead him to be hospitalised in the nearby Saint Rémy de Provence at the local asylum, probably causing the irreversibility of the deep uneasiness that will lead him to suicide.
Vincent Van Gogh’s places in Arles
You can imagine him walking on the pavement of the historic centre of this town, perhaps arguing furiously with his friend Gauguin with whom he shared a flat, and history tells us that it was precisely because of an argument between the two (Gauguin did not love Provence and could not wait to reach the tropics) that Van Gogh cut off his ear.
In the city’s hospital, Vincent Van Gogh had the opportunity to paint canvases depicting certain spaces such as the lane, the courtyard and the despair of the sick who shared with him, the pain. To enter the world of Van Gogh</span, you can’t miss visiting these places.
The Yellow House Arles
Vincent, who arrived in Arles, rented a modest building at no. 2 Place Lamartine, nicknamed “yellow house” for its colour: here he dreamed of bringing together the community of artists linked to the Impressionist movement with the intention of stimulating each other in their artistic production.
Today van Gogh’s “yellow house” no longer exists: after the serious damage suffered by the bombings of the Second World War it was demolished.
“He took me to his house in Piazza Lamartine and I saw wonderful paintings, his masterpieces: Alyschamps boulevard, The coffee at night, The bereuse, The ecluse, Seeing of Saintes-Maries, The starry night and others. Imagine the splendour of those whitewashed walls on which its colours stand out in all their freshness”.
Place Victor Hugo
This central square was the theatre of the quarrel that Van Gogh had with Gauguin to the point of threatening him and before he turned the razor against himself to cut off his right ear.
Vincent Van Gogh Foundation
In the spaces of the foundation you can see works by many contemporary painters such as Botero, Bacon, Hockney and others. The idea to create this institution is due to the will of Van Gogh who wanted to set up his own atelier in Arles.
Chambre de Vincent
In Place Lamartin, was located the flat rented from Van Gogh which, unfortunately, was destroyed during the war. Here you can see a faithful reconstruction of his bedroom.
Espace Van Gogh
This is the former asylum where the artist was forcibly locked up after his neighbours denounced his state of madness. I was enchanted by the splendid flower garden that embellishes the psychiatric hospital from which he took inspiration for numerous paintings such as the Irises.
Il café la Nuit
I must say that one of the most magical experiences lived in Arles was to dine in the painting “Caffè la Nuit”. Even today, the old Café de l’Alcazar is still a bistro where you can eat. The exteriors were painted by Vincent, but masterpieces such as “The Arlesian” were also painted inside.
The Bridge of “Laundresses”
There are many places in the countryside where the painter painted. One of the most suggestive, on the road from Arles to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, is the famous bridge which was immortalised in one of his famous paintings: Pont de Langlois.
Also in this case the current site of the construction is not the original one which is a couple of kilometres away and which saw the bridge moved because of the world conflict. It is not very easy to identify but particularly suggestive.
Circuit Van Gogh
At the tourist information office you can ask to take part in the Van Gogh Circuit: a walk of a couple of hours that will make you appreciate, in addition to the beauty of Arles, all the places that saw the artist stop to paint what he saw.
Arles when walking
The best period is undoubtedly from mid-June to the end of August. Although the heat is considerable, you can admire the Lavender and the many traditional events. Weather permitting, I suggest you dine in one of the delightful little restaurants on the Rhône to enjoy a rare atmosphere, but before you do, check the prices of food and drink. If you plan to visit the area on 1 May, you can attend an event that sees the butteri inside the fête des Guardians held at the Place du Forum.
While on June 23rd you will find yourself living the Feast of St. John dedicated to agriculture where in the square of the Hotel de ville the inhabitants in traditional dress will light bonfires with the branches of the vines pruned the previous year as a propitiatory rite that also kicks off the Lavender harvest period.
Every year from July to September Arles hosts a very important photography festival, I visited it in 2006 and it was really worth it.
Anyway, consider that until September starting from spring, there are many appointments that will arouse your interest with markets, festivals and feasts of all kinds.
How to get to Arles
To get to Arles easily, you have to take the A7, the motorway that goes in the direction of Spain. Provence is not far from Ventimiglia: only two hundred kilometres away but if you want to take a plane, the nearest airport is Marseille where flights from Italy land. If you want to take advantage of the train, there are several that reach Nice from where you can continue by train or bus.
Remember to reserve your hotel accommodation as Arles does not have many hotels and in certain periods, it would be impossible to find a place without having booked it.
Where to sleep in Arles
I have always stayed in Arles on my travels in Provence. There aren’t many hotels in town, but apart from one year, which I stayed in a very nice hotel near the amphitheatre, I have always chosen Chambre d’hotes in villas such as the beautiful… Mas Saint Florentjust outside the city.