ARLES was originally inhabited by Celts, then it was a Phoenician slave trading centre. Then, from the 8th century BC onwards, a Greek colony, before Julius Caesar settled veterans of his Roman legions here in 46 BC.
Arles later became an important religious center during the earliest years of Christianity. From the 5th century to the 10th, the city was subject to repeated barbarian invasions and internal turmoil.
A lot of physical and economic destruction followed during the early Middle Ages, but the city recovered, although it never regained the importance of earlier times. Today the old city has a variety of historical monuments (including 7 designated as World Heritage Monuments by UNESCO).
* FACT: Modern day Arles covers an area of 177100 acres, including 60% of The Carmargue, making it the largest township in France.
The first stop was a visit to the tourist office on Boulevard Des Lices to equip ourselves of maps, guides etc. Suitably stocked with all the information to facilitate easy and comprehensive exploration of the city, we proceeded to wander around aimlessly in a haphazardly random fashion.
The city has various walking tours:
* The Monument Tour – A route taking in all the Roman monuments.
* The Van Gogh Tour – Following some of the best known sites connected with the artist.
* The Antique Tour – Connecting the museums and other historic buildings.
All these routes are indicated by different coloured markers on the footpaths. Naturally we totally ignored these and walked wherever the notion took us. It’s a great method – it means that you walk 5 miles instead of 1; pass the same points endlessly and miss others completely; get lost (even though you have a map somewhere in your pocket), and get a good night’s sleep because you are completely knackered! It keeps you fit though.
I’m not kidding, almost every time we passed one of these markers it was pointing in the opposite direction. When we did eventually see one pointing in the direction we were walking, we had to sit down as we both came over all giddy.
* ATTRACTIONS *
THE ARENA is probably the best known monument in the city. It’s well preserved and is 136m long by 107m wide. It was built between the 1st and 2nd centuries AD and could seat 20-30,000 spectators. The arena was fortified during the barbarian invasions and has suffered a lot of damage since. More than 200 houses were built inside the arena but these were cleared away in 1830.
Today only the two lower tiers of 60 arches remain, the upper tier having disappeared as a lot of the stone was used in building the town. It is still in use nowadays for festivals, corridas and bull fights.
There’s a great view over the rooftops of the old town from a tower.
THE ROMAN THEATRE stands at the top of a hill, is semicircular and faces west. It’s the oldest monument in Arles having been started during the reign of Augustus but has suffered a great deal over the centuries.
It was originally surrounded by three rows of arches of which only one section still remains.
THE ALYSCAMPS burial ground was created by the Greeks and Romans and later used by the Christians. It gradually grew to become as large as the town itself, stretching over the southern plain to the edge of the marshes and containing 19 churches and chapels.
Residents upstream on the shores of the Rhone floated their dead down the river to be collected and buried here. These days all that remains is the wide tree-lined alley of tombs leading to St. Honorat church.
CONSTANTINE THERMES was built around the end of the 3rd century and is a well preserved example of Roman baths.
THE CRYPTOPORTICUS is a series of 3 underground galleries forming a u-shape and dating from the earliest days of the Roman colony. It was built to support the forum while correcting the slope in the ground.
THE RAMPARTS, or town walls, date back to the beginning of the Augustian period. The east wall, following the boulevard Emile Combs, is still pretty much intact from that time and is very impressive.
A lot of the walls have been destroyed and re-built many times over the years, with sections being constructed in medieval times.
THE MUSEUM OF ANTIQUE ARLES is housed in a contemporary building on the site of the Roman circus whose foundations are still partly visible.
The museum has a series of archaeological collections from the Neolithic period to the Roman and Christian periods. There are exhibits of Augustian and Constantine pagan art featuring mosaics, statues, busts, friezes and altars which give a good idea of the size and grandeur of the town during this period.
REPUBLIC SQUARE is the hub of the city. It is bordered by St. Anne church, the Town hall and St. Trophime church with it’s fantastic 12th century doorway based on the theme of the Last Judgement. In the centre of the square is a 10.5m high Egyptian-type obelisk which was discovered on the site of the Roman circus. The church is well worth a visit if only for the cloister. It’s very richly decorated and is an oasis of peace and calm in the middle of the city.
Here’s a list of some of the other sites and attractions in Arles:
* The Espace Van Gogh – the hospital where Van Gogh was a patient.
* Langlois Bridge – located to the south of the city, this is the bridge painted by Van Gogh in 1888. (It’s not really, it’s a copy!)
* The Reattu Museum – museum of fine arts featuring over 70 Picasso drawings from his visits to Arles
* The Arlaten Museum – folklore museum illustrating the Provencial traditions
* The Carmargue Museum – is located a few miles outside town and has information on the Carmargue way of life.
Here’s a tip….
Most of these sights cost 3-4 euros, so if you plan on seeing more than a couple of them, you will save money with a pass:
The pass for all these sights cost 12 euros and we easily visited most of them in a full day.