Arles: Mostly Roman, Not So Much Van Gogh

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When you think of Arles, do you think of Van Gogh? In 1888 he came to Arles and stayed for over a year. In this time he produced more than 200 paintings including The Starry Night, Café de Nuit and The Sunflowers. Unfortunately many of the places that Van Gogh had visited and painted were destroyed during bombing raids in World War II. And if you want to see those paintings, you need to go to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven CT, and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

We had just enjoyed a multimedia celebration of Van Gogh’s work at Les Carrières de Lumière, which is about 20 minutes outside Arles. After visiting Les Carrières, we stayed the night in Arles, expecting Van Gogh scenery and a charming Provençal town. We found the charming town, but instead of Van Gogh, it was the Romans who captured us.

(There are walking tours that visit some of the places where Van Gogh painted, but we will have to enjoy those on another visit.)

Arles’ origins predate the Romans:

The first recorded inhabitation in Arles was by Greek-Phoenicians in the 6th century BC – the town was originally called Theline. In the 1st century BC the region came under the legislation of the Romans. And it was in 102 BC, that Gaius Marius started to construct the Fossae Marianae, a canal that ran parallel to the river Rhône from Arelate (Roman Arles) to the sea. During this period Arles became one of the most prosperous towns in France through its trade as a commercial port.¹

The main square of Arles is named La Place du Forum, because it sits on the site of the ancient Roman Forum. Today, the square is full of cafés and restaurants, and locals and visitors like us enjoying a warm summer day in the shade of the trees.


Nonetheless, you can find two subtle indicators of the Roman history. Along one of the façades of La Place du Forum, a fragment of the original architecture remains.


A few blocks away, you can descend beneath the city, into the Criptoporticus of Arles. This is an arcaded set of foundations, originally lying beneath three of the sides of the Forum.


In this photo of a model of Roman Arles, you can see the Amphitheater (full oval), the Theater (half circle), and the Forum (the rectangular courtyards in the middle, at the end of the main central boulevard.

(Source 2)

From La Place du Forum, we sought out the Theater. Along the way, we passed through the Place de la République. The obelisk dates from the time of Constantine II, when it sat in the middle of the Circus of Arles. During the Middle Ages, the obelisk was dismantled. It was rediscovered in the 14th century, and reelected in the 17th century.


At the northeast corner of the Place de la République is a notable Romanesque church: The Cathedral of St. Trophime. We don’t generally go into churches any more. As a friend and fellow traveler said to us, “That’s ABC! Another Bloody Church!” But, since we were in a Roman mood, and this church is Romanesque (after Roman, but before Gothic), we were curious. We enjoyed the carvings, especially the animals and scenes, not just the saints. The heavy austerity of the interior, with wisps of the light of the hot summer outside, cooled us.

As you know if you have followed our blog, we enjoy visiting antiquities. The Roman Theater was built in the time of Augustus (end of first century BC). The theater held 8000 spectators in Roman times. Today, only a few fragments of the stage and its backdrop remain, as well as only two out of three tiers of seats. The theater hosts performances and spectacles today, 2000 years after its inauguration.


This reconstruction gives an idea of what the theater was like in its heyday.

(Source 3)

From the theater we could see the outer arches of the amphitheater, or L’Arène d’Arles. The amphitheater was built a bit after the theater. It could accommodate 20,000 spectators. Even so, there were 20 larger amphitheaters in the Roman world.


This model gives an idea of what the amphitheater was like in Roman times. Note the system of aerial cables; they supported large fabric sunshades that protected the audience.

(Source 4)


During the Middle Ages, the amphitheater became a fortress and a residential neighborhood of Arles. This illustration gives a sense of its transformation from site of spectacles in an open prosperous Roman world to an inward-looking protective enclave 1000 years later.

(Source 5)
Remnant of one of the medieval fortress towers above the amphitheater

While we were visiting, amphitheater staff smoothed out the sand of the arena, and hosed it down, presumably to reduce wind-blown dust. Scheduled that evening was a traditional Camargue bull and horse show, which is more like a rodeo than a Spanish bull fight.


View from the top of the amphitheater over Arles to the countryside

Between our Roman destinations, we enjoyed the picturesque streets and neighborhoods of today’s Arles. Tourists, like us, obviously enjoy visiting this Provençal town. The streets are full of boutiques and art galleries. Since 1970, Arles has hosted what has become a celebrated annual summer photography festival; there were photography exhibitions everywhere.

This is France, after all, and wine and the good life always find a way in:

“Learn the actions that save the winemakers”

We must schedule a follow-up visit to Arles. All those Van Gogh vantages need visiting.




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