I feel like I’ve been saving the best for last in this little post-journey exploration of the places that I visited back in September. I know of course that that’s not really true, because nearly all of the places we visited in September were pretty amazing in their own way. But Arles stood out for all of us as a hands-down favorite. So much so that we spent the entire day, from morning cafe au lait and croissants to evening pre-dinner cocktails here. In truth, we were so charmed by Arles that we didn’t want to leave.
What is it about this little city that drew us in and held us? Well, first of all, it was the people. Yes, yes, there’s an actual Roman arena smack dab in the center of it all, with narrow streets filled with galleries and shops and restaurants and colorful shutters on old stone buildings- I’ll get to all that in a moment. But the citizens of Arles were what alerted us first that this place is like no other. Our first encounter of the day with these people who actually seemed so glad to see us was with a gallery owner and artist just off the plaza, Jocelyne. She was thrilled to walk us through her lovely collection of work of many different artists including herself. She was also thrilled to introduce us to the mayor of Arles himself, who happened to pop his head in the door of her gallery to say good morning, who then insisted upon a photograph with us ladies in front of his campaign headquarters right down the street- that made for an interesting photo op for sure. Our second encounter with the friendliness of Arles was in an antiques store closer to the arena, where we got to know Monique, the darling woman who ran the shop where one of my travel companions purchased an antique lace making set, complete with bobbins in mid-wrap, as though someone had been working on a bit of lace and stepped away for just a moment. Moving on, we met the delightful and helpful Didier in the shop next door, which seemed to specialize in old movie posters and vinyl and such. As it turned out, Didier was the husband of the lady in the shop next door, and we all ended up chatting for so long that we decided to pose for a group picture when it was finally necessary to move on towards home.
We’ve been invited for drinks next time we’re in Arles. Naturally.
As for the city itself, perhaps everything looks more beautiful when you’ve been so warmly welcomed, but the city is indeed beautiful in its own right. Situated at the mouth of the Rhone River, just above the place where the Rhone fans out and becomes the salt marshes and coastal plains of the Camargue as it flows into the Mediterranean. You can see the vast expanse of the Rhone from the city’s ramparts, and as you can probably guess the river is crucial to the very existence of the city. The city’s earliest recorded history goes back to around the 6th century BC with the Phoenicians, but the Romans were the ones who really put the place on the map. In fact, it was the capital of Roman Provence beginning in the first century AD. It was during this period that many of Arles’ most famous buildings- the amphitheatre, Les Thermes, and the Theatre Antique- were constructed. Of course, as the Roman empire collapsed, so did Arles, and then its strategic location also became the location of its undoing as it suffered attack after attack by the Visigoths, the Barbarians, and the Saracens. It bounced back in the 12th century as its own kingdom for a while, but by the 1500s it was annexed by Provence and then eventually became part of France itself. In the 1700s and 1800s, it became an entry point for immigrants from Northern Africa, and apparently this is when many of the townhouses that give Arles part of its distinct character were built. Indeed, many of the doors around the city are graced with beautiful and eye-catching hand-shaped door knockers, which apparently have a Muslim heritage. According to various sources, the hands represent the hand of Fatima, who promises protection to a household. A door knocker that will protect my household? That’s WAY more interesting than Ring or Nest! Yes, please!
While I love all the ancient history that is such an integral part of this place, it’s really the history of the late 1800s that intrigues me the most. This is when Vincent Van Gogh took up residence in the city, and this is where Van Gogh painted feverishly and prolifically. Cafe de Nuit, made so famous by the painting of the same name, is still there, looking almost exactly the same as it did in 1888. That is, it looks the same if you catch it in a rare moment that it’s not packed with people. The Van Gogh society will happily escort you around town on guided tours of all the places frequented by and painted by Vincent, though many of those places have since been destroyed, many during the second World War. And sadly, most of his paintings are not on view here in Arles either but are instead back in his native Netherlands. However, you can still get enough of a feel for the city to see what inspired him to paint over 200 paintings while living here.
History aside, contemporary Arles is delightful. Though it’s hard to push history aside- the entire place centers around a Roman amphitheatre, which is still in use today, often for, of all things, bullfighting. When I was living in Provence back in 1998-99, a group of coworkers went to a bullfight. Did I go with them? Nope. No thank you. Can’t even think of it. But, it’s a thing here, like it or not, and it’s pretty clear that it’s a longstanding tradition, what with it being held in a Roman arena and all. I’m slightly more comfortable with the Camargue-style running of the bulls which also happens in Arles, where the objective for the bullfighter is to snatch a small rosette from the head of an irritated bull with a claw-shaped metal instrument, preceded by an actual tournament of young men trying to outrun bulls in the streets… yikes. Have you ever seen up close how big bulls really are? The kids and I used to walk every day past a local farmer’s home when we were living in the Burgundy region of France where there was a bull in pasture. Just seeing that hulking creature behind TWO fences, one of which was electrified, was enough to give us chills! I’ll watch running of the bulls from afar, if at all, thank you very much.
But enough about Roman arenas and bullfighting! Let’s talk about the fun stuff in Arles, which is to say, the galleries and the shops! Galleries and shops abound- I already mentioned the little antiques shops owned by husband and wife, but we also found purveyors of locally made leather goods and jewelry, of artisan-made lavender wands, and galleries galore. We found vintage movie posters, in French and at remarkable prices. We found lace making supplies and fabric stores. And also, we found cheese. To be more specific, we found Les Fromagères, a cheese shop like no other. And in this cheese shop like no other, we found a cheese like no other, or at least no other that I’ve encountered: a lovely spring cheese that had been rolled in wildflowers before being set in its cave to ripen. It was both beautiful AND delicious, with those dried wildflowers forming its rind. Our evening cheese and charcuterie board back at our rented house was particularly delicious that day.
And there is so, so much more to the city of Arles. We allowed an entire day to explore it, but an entire day was not nearly enough. We didn’t even touch on the Frank Gehry tower that is being constructed by Luma Arles. This is a breathtaking project of enormous proportions that seeks to repurpose an old industrial site into artist and artisan galleries and exhibition space, combined with the ultra-modern new construction of the tower itself . And we really didn’t take time to explore the culinary scene of Arles- one can only do so much in a day!
My 12 hour adventure in Arles has left me longing for more. I look forward to spending more time in this exceptional little city in the south of France, because I just can’t seem to get enough of it!