Charming Arles full of history and culture
Trip Start May 30, 2010
60Trip End Ongoing
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When I inquired about the next train to Arles I was told that a TGV was leaving in 10 minutes. Awesome! I noticed though that there was no train in 10 minutes on either the printed schedule I had nor the posted schedule in the station. No wonder I was having trouble! I wasn't going to question my good fortune though so I took the train that didn't exist on paper to see the sights of Arles
The Greeks founded Arles in the 6th century BC and Julius Caesar established a Roman colony here in 46 BC. Arles prospered under Roman rule. Constantine the Great named Arles the second capital in his empire in AD 306. Today, Arles' first-rate museums, ancient Roman ruins, Romanesque churches, excellent restaurants, and summer festivals continue to draw many visitors, including me.
It's so easy to sightsee in Europe by train because often, like in Arles, the station is right in the heart of town. I exited the station, walked through the ramparts and the famous amphitheater was just ahead. Bullfights are conducted in the amphitheater, including Provenšal-style bullfights (courses camarguaises) in which the bull is not killed but rather a team of athletic men attempt to remove a tassel from the bull's horn without getting injured. There were also posters advertising twice weekly bull races. That might be interesting just to see how it works but, even as a cultural event, bullfighting just doesn't interest me.
The amphitheater was been largely restored although it was fairly obvious what parts were original and which parts were restored
Next door to the amphitheater is the ancient theater (they had a lot of culture back in Roman times). It is a small affair in pretty poor condition compared to most I've seen. I wasn't about to pay another 6 euros to see it either when I could look through the gates and see it just fine. The theater is basically some well-worn stone seats in a park-like setting with a modern stage. Performances are still held there and it would be a pleasant outdoor venue. The amphitheater and ancient theater are both UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Close by is the Foundation Vincent Van Gogh which had paintings honoring Van Gogh by artists including Francis Bacon, Lichtenstein and Rauschenburg. Van Gogh had his breakthrough during the 2 years he spent in Arles painting many of his most famous works. It's easy to see why van Gogh painted sunflowers, hay stacks and colorful city scenes because that's what you find in and around Arles. Amazingly not one of van Gogh's works is still in Arles! Towards the end of his 2 years in Arles van Gogh was having more frequent mental issues which included the famous cutting off of his ear.
All over Arles I had seen these huge banners with a purple bull but the text was in French and I couldn't quite figure out what they were promoting
The purple bull building was in one of the most impressive squares I've seen in a long time. It was just stunning! Republic Square is the heart of Arles with city hall on one side, St. Ann's Church on another, St. Thieme's Church with it's incredible facade on the third and then the fourth is just open space. There was a huge fountain in the middle which obviously served as an easy meeting point for the local residents. The setting was very majestic and stately with the ornate old buildings. It definitely gave you the sense that this was a serious town worthy of such a grand square.
Having seen all of the main sights I wandered through town admiring the cute storefronts and narrow alleys. Arles was much more vibrant than Orange with Orange having just a handful of tourists while Arles was more of a destination
Arles lies on the Rhone River so most of the river cruises schedule a stop there. The boats looked nice and I'm sure they would have an interesting itinerary but they have to be so small that I suspect there's a tiny gym and little to do on the boats. There are now 22 dams along the Rhone which has helped greatly reduce flooding issues and increased interest in cruising the river. Arles also has the southernmost bridge crossing the river so it often serves as the beginning or end for the cruises.
Both Orange and Arles were held by German forces in WW2 before being liberated by American troops. In both cities there were nice monuments to the American soldiers who fought for their freedom.
Though small, Arles definitely was a vibrant and rich destination. The cultural opportunities and historical monuments provided much more to see than I could do in just one afternoon. I could easily see why there were so many tourists in town. Definitely a good call to spend an afternoon in Arles but it was too bad that I had such limited time but other places beckoned.