We are taking you to the beautiful city of Arles, in Provence in the south of France.
Arles is most famous for its Roman amphitheater, still intact, and its connections with Van Gogh, who spent one of his final years here painting 200 canvases. Its real appeal, however, is found in the lovely pedestrian promenades, the historic landmarks, museums and tranquil plazas, all of which make Arles one of the most charming places in Europe.
There are a lot of narrow streets in the pedestrian zone, and various squares with cafés around them, and historic sites. We will be showing you those highlights coming up right now as we take a walk through Arles. The old town of Arles is comfortably small. It's about a square mile. So it's very easy to see the whole thing on foot in one day, but you might consider spending a couple of days here to amsorb the lovely atmosphere and many sights.
Or you could visit as a daytrip for example from Avignon which is just 20 miles away and only takes 20 minutes by train to get here. Here we will show you how you can do everything in one day but certainly if you want to spend more time you decide for yourself. To help you plan your visit we will also present more detailed suggestions about how you could spend a night or two here and still find lots to do. It's one of those delicious travel dilemmas: do you take one place and stay there is a home base and travel out on day trips to nearby towns and attractions, or do you pack your bags and relocate every couple of days in order to spend more time in each of these lovely places?
With Arles we've done it both ways, visiting as a day trip from Avignon on one occasion and the next visit we spent a couple of nights in Arles. Either way, you can have a good visit. A compromise would be to arrive in Arles first thing in the morning by leaving your Avignon hotel right after breakfast and spend a full day and evening, walk around all over Arles, enjoy the morning market, especially if here on a Saturday. One big day would give you a chance to see everything we’re including in today's itinerary.
This is part of a series we’re presenting showing how Avignon makes a very good home base for visiting out to other destinations like Pont du Gard, and St Remy and Nimes along with Aix and Marseille, and especially Arles, the wonderful city of van Gogh and the ancient Romans, with narrow pedestrian lanes weaving throughout the center
The main attractions are the arena, the pedestrian zone and a historic museum. We will show you a good walking route on the map. Of course you can walk anywhere you want, it’s small enough, but this route will take you right through the center and then back to the train station, a route just over 2 miles, or about 3 kilometers, you can do in several hours. But you should also see the history museum while you're here, with its fine collection from the ancient Roman days, an easy detour. So let's assume you're coming in from Avignon on a day trip and you want to see everything.
Fortunately, the train station is quite close to the old town, making rail a great way to get here. . It's about a 400-meter walk in pretty much a straight line, so you don't need a taxi or bus, just walk on your own two feet, through the gates in the old wall that goes around Arles. Five minutes after leaving the train station you've already arrived at a major site.
Start off at the most prominent landmark, the Roman amphitheater, or arena, called the Arènes d’Arles, one of seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites in town. With a capacity of 25,000 people, it is a smaller version of Rome’s Colosseum, completed about ten years earlier. During the Middle Ages the amphitheater was actually used for housing.
From the Arena, walk two blocks down the Rue de la Calade to the center of the Old Town, the main square, called the Place de la République, which contains all the principle structures: city hall, ancient church, obelisk centerpiece with fountain, flanked by shopping lanes. Later we’ll bring you inside the church and have a tour of its famous cloister.
A few blocks over we get to the other main square of town, the Place du Forum. It's the site of the original Roman forum which is still here beneath the pavement. We’ll take you underground later. The main pedestrian shopping lane is just a few blocks over, rue de la République which is perhaps the most exciting location for many visitors. It's the place to watch the locals on parade and spend some money. Well, everybody is out until at least 8 PM.
The other main site that you must have a look at is the Espace Van Gogh. It's a former hospital where van Gogh himself was treated several times while he lived in Arles and now it's an art gallery, it's a garden, there are restaurants here, and special exhibits, just a block off that main pedestrian lane. More about this later.
That covers most of the main sites of Arles, briefly, and if you're heading back now to the train station along the way you can stop off at one more historic site, the ancient Roman baths of Constantine, which you can appreciate from the outside, saving time and money. That's free, or you can pay admission and go inside if you're a real fan of Roman antiquities. They were built in the 4th century at the peak of the Roman Empire, during the time of Constantine, and is believed to be part of a much larger Roman palace. One of the reasons the Romans founded Arles in the locationon the Rhône River which was a watery highway for them, and you’ll have the best river view from these baths.
You can see a lot more Roman history in the Arles museum which has one of the best ancient Roman collections anywhere outside of Italy. On the other hand if you've seen enough of Arles and your time is tight, then walk back to the train station and depart. You've seen the highlights of the city. However many more enjoyable experiences are waiting for you in Arles, as we’ll show you right now.
If you can arrange your schedule with some planning, be in Arles on a Saturday morning when the outdoor market is happening. This is one of the largest and most famous markets in all of France.
It is located along two main streets in the downtown, the Boulevard des Lice and Boulevard Clemencaeu, and the market goes for over 2 kilometers. There's a tremendous variety of foods especially, of course, as well as clothing, bric-a-brac, some junk and it’s great for people-watching.
Every sizable town has a street market at certain days of the week. In Arles it happens several days and we are here on a Saturday morning. It's an especially large market.
There's all sorts of foods, cheeses, breads, fruits and vegetables, chicken, everything you can imagine, as well as some clothing, some accessories, some hardware, an outdoor shopping mall.
You might pick up some fresh fruits as a snack. But even if you're not purchasing anything, it's always a delight to wander through local a food market, especially when you're in Provence, in such a beautiful outdoor setting with the open air and lots of locals streaming around. There's flowers for sale, colors everywhere. It's just a great spot to visit and to take a lot of pictures.
Olives are the heart of the Mediterranean cuisine and come in a wide variety of sizes, shapes, colors and textures, and many different kinds of olive oils and tapenade to go with it.
Short note on market etiquette. It's best to not touch the food directly, but instead point to it and the vendor can hand it over to you. Sometimes get a free sample. The French love their cheese and a lot of the cheese is not pasteurized, so it's fresh and retains full flavor. Not so fresh that the goat is making cheese on the spot, but his owner is proud to show him off.
Even if you don't have a kitchen and you are not cooking on vacation it's always a pleasure to look at food in there is some cooked food you can eat on the spot.
If you get tired of just looking at the food, keep on walking along the street, and it turns into a variety market, selling clothing and furniture, hardware. You can get knives, and pots and pans, and all sorts of things down the lane under the trees. So keep walking and looking. You'll see a few pieces of furniture for sale, but if you're looking for the antique market, you've got to come on the first Wednesday of the month, just one day a month, and there's a specialty in regional antiques. So you'll easily find the market, it's on the south edge of the old town, particularly along Boulevard Clemenceau.
One of the great things that you might want to purchase while you're in Provence -- a really characteristic item -- is fabric, the colorful Provencal fabrics. These are all made here, very nice cotton material, and it's printed in the neighborhood, in the area around Arles in Provence, and it has that characteristic, pastel colors, the yellows, the oranges, the greens, the motifs with the olives.
Cross the busy boulevard and plunge back into the historic center. Primary strategy for sightseeing in Arles is simply strolling up and down the main lanes to catch their different moods during the day and night. You're going to see plenty of attractive shops while walking around including Christian Lacroix, (it's his home town) but this is a special branch because he was born and raised here.
One of the great pleasures in visiting a town like Arles is simply walking around enjoying these pedestrian liens and doing some window shopping, do a little browsing. It’s most delightful when the evening settles in and more locals come out for a stroll, and when you've had a light rain shower that clears up, it leaves a glistening surface on the pavement
Today of course things have changed but Arles still has that compact feeling of an ancient settlement which makes it so interesting to walk around because you have this wonderful density of sites. There's buildings, there are shops, there's people everywhere, hardly ever a dull moment, especially when you're walking in the very late afternoon and early twilight
On the other hand if you're walking in midday, say after lunch at about 2 o'clock 3 o'clock, you might find the streets are a lot less interesting. There’ll be a lot of shops closed for siesta. We’re in the south of France, after all, and many of the small shops do close down for a few hours for the afternoon break, and so you'll find a lot less people on the street, less interesting. That might be a good time for you to go to the archaeology Museum as . We will show you a little bit later on. In the evening the pace is a little bit more relaxed and you're going to run into some friendly people.
We’re on the main downtown shopping street once again, the rue de la République. It's a true pedestrian zone, no cars on this particular stretch. And keep your eyes open. You are going to always see some interesting and quirky things going on with the people around here, and with the dogs
It feels like you're in a small town when you're walking around in central Arles. Many people are locals, they know each other, they stop and say hello. Population is about 50,000, big enough for the people who live here to keep it interesting without creating a crowded effect and it always seems to be a safe place.
Most of the shops in town are individually owned rather than being part of a large chain. It's all in a human scale with a personalized feeling, and some of the shop interiors are centuries old. We photographed this during the month of November, which as it turns out, is a great time to visit the south of France. The weather was cool but not cold, and the towns and sites were never crowded, but everything was open so you can fit in like a local.
It's always a good idea to get with the rhythm and timing of a local schedule when you're traveling. For example, don't sit down to have dinner early if you can avoid it, because it's a great time to be out walking around. Shops are open and the locals are out walking, lighting is perfect, you’ve got that mix of the soft streetlighting and the evening skylight, so postpone your dinner until about 8 o'clock if you can. And when you pick a little restaurant on a side lane it probably won't get too crowded, but that depends on the season and the day of the week.
In our case it was November and we were eating on a weeknight so we had our pick of restaurants, no problem getting a table and excellent service, and of course, delicious foods, sometimes with interiors dating back several centuries with that authentic original barrel vaulting. Look for restaurants on the quiet side lanes rather than the busy plazas because you'll get lower prices, less crowding, better food and friendly service.
Called Place du Forum because it's the area where the ancient Romans had their forum. It is the most famous plaza in town, but the beauty of this square attracts the tourists to the restaurants and cafés, so if you sit down to enjoy a meal, you're paying for the location in your food bill which might well be worth it to you anyway for this setting.
In the center stands a statue of Frederick Mistral, who was the Nobel prize-winning poet, a native of Arles. Behind him is one of the only four-star hotels in town, the Grand Hotel Nord-Pinus.
It's truly one of the most beautiful spots in town, with a very recognizable café that was immortalized by van Gogh in one of his most well-known paintings, which is commonly but incorrectly called the Night Café. The real name of the painting is Café Terrace At Night.
It's a beautiful spot to have a look at, especially at twilight. You might want to sit down and have a drink, pretend you’re inside the painting. Van Gogh lived in Arles and nearby St Remy during the final 2 1/2 years of his life and nearly all of the works in his distinctive style were created during that time period when he produced over 150 paintings, and yet none of his original work is on view in Arles. So visiting the van Gogh Café is a nice way to absorb some of that feeling, and you can also do a self-guided walk through town, looking at 10 reproductions of his work, displayed outdoors at the sites where they were created. These little lanes are just a couple of blocks away from the shopping streets, and are especially enjoyable at twilight. Walk along enjoy the peace and quiet.
Then take a turn into the busier part of town at the main square, Place de la République, with plenty of shops nearby, bars and cafés and restaurants everywhere in this center of town. And there are boutiques selling santons, the small figurines of Provence with their native folk costumes. It's a very collectible item, vividly depicting various aspects of life in Provence.
Just a few blocks over is the Boulevard des Lice, the main busy street of town and there are usually lots of people out. There are buses and cars, pedestrians out, and terrace restaurants where it would be a very nice local kind of place to have a meal.
The Tourist Information Office is also located on the boulevard, open generally from 9 to 4: 30, a good place to stop in if you want some brochures about the attractions, the walking tours, hotels and restaurants. And then back into the more pedestrian part of the old town a few blocks over.
A few blocks away, we come upon the Hotel de Dieux, which is also called the Espace van Gogh. It was a hospital 100 years ago, and this is where van Gogh was brought after he sliced his ear, along with other visits regarding his mental health. And now the building is a cultural center and a little shopping mall.
Arles is perhaps most famous as the home to Vincent van Gogh in the final couple years of his life. But unfortunately very little is left of any buildings or associations. There are no paintings by Van Gogh here, but the one significant building is Espace van Gogh, which was a hospital that he was treated at several times. It continued operating as a hospital right up until the 1970s, and it was empty for a while, but after much work and discussion and reconstruction, it was turned into this vast cultural space. Around some of the ground floor you've got shops, and there are cafés and restaurants.
There is a major history museum in Arles that is really worth walking to. It takes about 15 or 20 minutes to walk here from the center of town, and it displays a lot of the treasures from the ancient Roman period of Arles. And they have got a lot of the original glass works, the tools, the gold jewelry, the statues, all on display here at the Archaeological Museum, and some earlier pieces that date back to the Stone Age. There are statues of the various emperors, and a large 3-D model of Arles in the time of ancient Rome showing how sophisticated the buildings were.
There is very little left of the ancient Roman theater, and the theater as we see it today is really a reconstruction. Only the columns in the foreground are original. But the townfolks have actually rebuilt the theater, and they have performances. So it is built in the style of the old theater, and typically the Romans would even build a roof across the theater to protect it from the weather. It's really the best-preserved amphitheater from ancient Rome to be found anywhere in Europe today. Another view of the scale model of the town itself.
You can take a walk under the ancient Roman forum. The forum was the center of social life in ancient Arles and miraculously, a large part of it is still preserved underground. These barrel-vaulted arcades used to be street level, but now they are slightly underground and beautifully preserved for you to walk through today.
The function of these barrel-vaulted spaces is a little bit uncertain, but it's believed they were used for storage. They were like warehouses, and also provided the foundation for the main structure of the forum up above. It's a little spooky down there. You walk down below, and they keep it kind of dark, and it's a little dank down in the basement, but definitely quite fascinating and worth a visit.
The covered gallery consists of three tunnels connected in a U-shape and it was apparently underneath the main building of the Roman forum, as you see in this model from the museum, a semi-subterranean gallery whose vaulting supports the portico structure above. This kind of covered passageway was typical in the large Roman palaces and public buildings and yet there's some belief that this Cryptoporticus may have been originally built by the ancient Greeks who preceded the Romans, in the first century BC.
The rest of the buildings of the ancient forum up above are long gone and yet this is still the center of town with the City Hall up above and the Chapel of the Jesuit College, with its Baroque altar and otherwise plain interior. The U-shaped Cryptoporticus is located between the modern Place du Forum on one side and the Place de la République on the other. The City Hall or Hotel du Ville on the Place de la République, is the ticket office and entrance for the Cryptoporticus where you purchase your tickets.
Enter the vaulted lobby of the old City Hall built in 1675 according to plans by the famous architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart who left his mark all over Paris and Versailles with many famous buildings. Step in and enjoy the public lobby with the neoclassical architecture and statues such as in the stairway alcove. It is right on the main square in the heart of town, the Place de la République.
When you emerge from City Hall onto this large plaza you will be facing the most important church in the city, St Trophime. The setting on this place is quite wonderful with the fountain and obelisk in the center and the traditional buildings all around it. We are right in the middle of downtown Arles, night and day it's an attractive location. The façade of this church is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It's from the Romanesque period, dating back to the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and what we see depicted are various scenes from the Bible.
In particular, there is the Last Judgment, with Christ in the top center, and on the left side we have the good souls who are being sent to heaven, and on the right side, not so lucky. The bad folks on their way down to hell.
Along with that, we've got the apostles. You see, along the row, right below the Christ, we have the apostles. Alongside Christ are the evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. And there's just a lot going on. There's St. Stephen here. You'll see the gargoyles, the devils bringing the tormented souls down into hell.
So it's just really a remarkable structure all in all. It's a mix of Romanesque and Gothic, and then later Gothic, high Gothic, so it's twelfth century right up through the fifteenth century on the interior. There was an earlier church on the same site dating back to the fifth century, and even as far back as the year 250. It's believed that the apse and transept of the church were built in the late 11th century, and the nave and bell tower were added later, completed in the second quarter of the 12th century.
According to legend, Trophimus of Arles became the first Bishop of the area. This church was subsequently named after Trophimus. He became St. Trophime, and his relics were installed in the new Cathedral here around the year 1152.
The ambulatory is late Gothic, it’s almost a flamboyant Gothic. The construction went on for about 400 years. And yet the different styles blend beautifully together, it just fits, it's this evolution, progress. Typical of the Romanesque style, the walls are quite thick and solid with small windows high up in the nave, above the level of the aisles.
Of course, during the nearly thousand-year history of this building, there have been many subsequent additions, and there's works of art that were installed during the Renaissance period. And later on, you've got paintings and tapestries and sculptures and various really reliquaries, and side chapels and smaller altars, with magnificent architectural details on the tops of the columns and distributed throughout the church.
Several side chapels are decorated in the Baroque style from the 17th century with large oil paintings and gilded wooden frames with the open pediments on top. There is a sarcophagus, an ancient tomb, and now it's used as a baptismal font.
As you come out of the church have another look at the façade, which is the only element of the church that’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
To the right of the church be sure to find the entrance to the cloister. It's easy to overlook it, but this little courtyard will lead you into one of the great artistic treasures of Europe. It's like an open-air museum with architecture and sculpture that spans a 300-year period. It is really quite a lovely cloister, an interesting mix of architectural styles.
We have the Gothic on one side. You can see the pointed arches. And the other half of the cloister is actually earlier, with the Romanesque barrel-vaulting. It took about 300 years to construct this one cloister. It's a very calm and peaceful place. Beautiful columns with different capitals to the columns, a lot of detail. And there are some lovely statues on the corner columns in the cloister.
Cloisters are always rewarding and peaceful places to visit, there's a meditative and prayerful atmosphere in a cloister like this. Anytime you see a cloister with the columns and the arcade surrounding an open square, you know that this had been at one time a residence of the clergy, perhaps a residence of nuns or priests. Somebody associated with the church generally would be living upstairs, but is rare to find a cloister such as this one that is so intricately decorated.
The top of each column is carved, and some of the columns are really impressive works of art in themselves. Midway along there's a major column and then each of the smaller columns have elaborate capitals.
This cloister is generally considered to be the most important cloister in all of Provence. And it's so easy to overlook it because it has an unmarked doorway. You’d never even know it's here, unless you studied up a little bit in your guidebooks, or watching the video, or heard about it somehow. It's the corner columns that are really the most spectacular of all in the cloister of San Trophime. There is a statue of St. Paul. That's one of the really important art masterpieces in here. There are some other scenes of daily life as well carved into the galleries of the cloisters.
The cloister is open to the public for that slight admission charge but generally you're not allowed to go into any of the adjoining rooms, those are private.
We've just come out of the cloister and church of St Trophime. Place de la Republic is right in front, a few blocks over to Place du Forum, main shopping street rue de la Republic, and then we’re going down to Espace van Gogh, the hospital that artist was treated in several times while living in Arles. Two blocks away you’ll find the Museum Arletan founded by Frederick Mistral with that Nobel Prize money. It features Provençal folk art, furniture, ceramics, costumes, tools and farming implements, depicting life here in the 19th century. It will be reopening in 2019.
You don't need to be overly concerned about historic sites, like museums, ancient Roman remains, or major churches, although we’ve seen that Arles has those as well. Instead look to the charm of the back streets, those little lanes which represent the essence of towns in Provence, as we find everywhere in Arles. You’ve seen a lot of that already here and we have even more walking exploration ready to share with you.
You'll find that most of these buildings are quite similar to each other and yet this lack of architectural diversity lends a beautiful harmony to the overall appearance, and there is plenty of variation in detail as you go past each building, featuring healthy urban mix of residential and retail all in the same location, a delightful combination that modern city planners are still striving to achieve.
If you are in Arles during the off-season, from October through April, the atmosphere is extra peaceful. You can enjoy the calm scene without anybody else in the way as the town comes to life with local people. In the summertime, naturally, there will be more tourists in the streets, but, oh, you can get up early anytime of the year and find some tranquility, but in the off-season, it's great night and day.
On Boulevard Emile Combe on Wednesday mornings you'll find another food market. This is different than the big market that we showed you earlier that takes place on Saturday morning, but it seems even more local and authentic, a lovely lively market where you can get fruits and vegetables, and you can have a snack while you're there. They've also got some souvenirs for sale, some T-shirts and clothing. It's a fleamarket with piles of used goods that you can rummage through, pick up a bargain. And it's a place to hang out and watch the locals, a very colorful spot, the morning market in Arles just on the edge of the old town, even if it's a rainy morning as we had today.
Place Voltaire is a charming spot, with its little tree-shaded square in the center surrounded by lovely old buildings. It's more of a local place than a tourist spot, even though there are a couple of hotels nearby.
There are several nice, little two-star hotels located around the plaza in this part of town with reasonable rates, including the Gauguin, the Mirador and the Voltaire.
There are so many others of these small lanes and little plazas with very little traffic and great charm that are fun to explore the you can keep you happily entertained here for a full day or maybe even a couple of days.
Many buildings in the town center were constructed during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, but have been beautifully maintained and function today as apartments and modern shops.
The Romans were here for the duration of the Roman Empire, right up through the fall of Rome. In fact this was one of the last places where the Roman Empire was extinguished, so their power lasted through the 450s, 480s. And during that time period it was a real power center of the Romans because the people in Arles sided with Julius Caesar at the time of the Civil War in Rome, whereas the people of Marseilles, which was a very important harbor town as well in those days, sided with Caesar's rival who was Pompey. Caesar won the Civil War and therefore Marseilles was stripped of all of its power and everything moved to Arles, so the big chief in the army.
Arles was a fortified town ever since its Roman origins nearly 2000 years ago, with a wall around it, and aqueduct that brought water in from the distance. On top of it are the ruins of an old medieval wall that surrounded the town.
Arles became a big retirement center for the Roman army, for the legionnaires. They put in their twenty years, just like today, and then they would have a retirement paid for by the government, and many of them moved from Italy over to his neighborhood, to this region, because it's just so pleasant living here. So this was a real power center.
After the fall of Rome, the Visigoths arrive, followed by the Saracens, who didn't last very long. By about AD 700 the Franks came in, removed the Saracens and took over. It became the capital of Provence, and beyond Provence into parts of Burgundy. So Arles was of the regional capital, most important city in this whole area.
And that continued for several hundred years until about the 1450s, 1500s, and for some reason the power shifted elsewhere and Arles became kind of a backwater, and so nothing much happened. And as a result, throughout the next couple hundred years, there was very little reconstruction, so we have this well-preserved historic town.
And then the next major event of course was van Gogh, the arrival of van Gogh here, the Postimpressionist. So that was the late 1880s or so, and he lived here for a year. He produced two hundred paintings during that one year. That was his peak period of creativity. That was towards the end of his life, and then he went up back up north near Paris, and that's where he later died. His brother Theo was an art dealer in Paris, and even he couldn't sell any. So Theo kept him going with a small allowance. Imagine, his paintings now would go for a hundred million dollars.
Arles is not a big city, fortunately. It's a small town, and most of the hotel choices you'll find here are in small hotels that are really charming and totally European in their ambience and atmosphere. And you'll typically get a breakfast buffet spread included with your room price. And it's great coffee, cold cuts, cheese, maybe you'll have some eggs, breads, cereals. It's a good way to start the day, and there's always, the cozy living room in these hotels, these small European-style hotels in the heart of town.
The train station in Arles is very convenient to the village. It's located less than half a mile from the fortified wall of Arles, so probably your hotel is within a one-mile distance from the train station, which makes it very convenient. You can just walk over here if you're leaving on a daytrip to explore the nearby areas. Or if you're leaving town you might want to taxi to bring your suitcases with you over to the train station. It's a simple train station: just two tracks and a small reception area. And pretty soon you hop on the train and go.