One of the best day-trips from Avignon is to the beautiful city of Arles, easily reached by direct train in just 17 minutes from the convenient Avignon Centre station. The rail station in Arles is also close to the Old Town, about a 400 meter walk to the entrance, and another 400 meters to the first major site, the Roman amphitheater. The old town of Arles is comfortably small, 8 blocks by 6 blocks (1000 meters by 600 meters), so it's easy to see the central area on foot. For a modest-sized community of 50,000, Arles has plenty of attractions yet retains a friendly, small-town atmosphere.
Arles is most famous for its connections with Vincent Van Gogh, who spent one of his final years here creating 200 paintings and 100 drawings, one of the most productive periods in all of art history. Two of the most important historic buildings in the south of France are also here: that ancient Roman arena, 2000 years old, and a medieval 1000-year-old church, St-Trophime. This was an important Roman town founded by Julius Caesar about 2000 years ago and now is one of the most charming places in all of Europe to visit.
Along with the compelling history, a major appeal is found in the lovely pedestrian promenades, landmark buildings, museums and tranquil plazas, all of which make Arles another one of Europe’s must-see destinations.
Much of the town center was constructed during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and has been beautifully maintained, still functioning as apartments and modern shops. Built largely from stone, they seem immortal. Most of the medieval wall around the town is intact, enclosing the space and still protecting it from undue modernization. Nothing much seems to have happened to disturb these old buildings, so the historic center looks as it did centuries ago, except along the noisy, modern face of Arles on the broad Boulevard des Lices, bordering the south edge of the old section, with busy traffic, broad sidewalks, outdoor cafes and a world-class Saturday market.
Primary strategy for sightseeing is simply stroll up and down the main lanes to catch their different moods during the day and night. Theoretically one could cover the entire pedestrian zone in 30 minutes because the actual length of road set aside exclusively for pedestrians is only a half-mile; however there are many other small lanes and plazas with great charm and very little traffic that are fun to explore. You could spend two or three days here and enjoy the different museums, historic sites, the cafés around the squares in the restaurants, but this chapter will assume you are fitting all of the sights into one day, which can be easily done. Arrive after breakfast, walk all day, take in a museum, stay for dinner, and then take a train back to your home base, preferably Avignon.
Upon arrival stroll south a few minutes from the train station to the big traffic circle and continue to the wall of Arles on the other side. Enter the town gateway into Rue de la Cavalerie, which leads in four blocks to Arles’ most spectacular site, the Roman Amphitheater -- total distance about 800 meters from the train station.
On the way in you pass through Place Voltaire, 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, so you really feel like more of a resident rather than a visitor when in Place Voltaire, especially in the morning calm. A couple of cafés and small food shops are open, but nothing much else is happening. There are several nice little two-star hotels located around the plaza in this part of town with reasonable rates, including Gaughin and Mirador.
The arena, called Les Arènes d’Arles, is about 2000 years old, one of seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites in town. With a capacity of 23,000 people, it is a smaller version of Rome’s Colosseum, which was completed about ten years earlier. Amazingly, the Arena is still in use today for concerts, bullfights and other festivities, but no longer for gladiator battles or chariot races. It is built of large blocks of stone without mortar, 136 meters long and 107 wide, surrounded by a double wall 21 meters high, each with two stages of 60 arches, the lower Doric, the upper Corinthian. From around the arena rise 43 levels of stone seats. The external walls are massively, ruggedly complete, and the vaulted corridors seem as solid as the day they were built.
In the 8th century the amphitheater was converted into a fortress, three of whose towers are still standing. Later it was converted into a fortified village with 200 apartments built within, but they were removed in the 1820s and the arena was restored to its original condition. It opens for public visits at 9:00 (10:00 in the winter), but just seeing the outside is quite a thrill. It is the great sight in Arles.
Next to the arena you’ll notice an outdoor theater, which is a modern re-construction of the Roman building created here 2,000 years ago for the Emperor Augustus, originally 105 meters in its greatest diameter. There is little left because from the 5th century onwards it was used as a quarry for the building of churches and the cloister of St-Trophime. On the stage once rose a colonnade, of which two marble columns remain. The grooves for the lowering of the curtain are still visible. The theater was richly decorated, and many works of art found here are now in the local museum. The Venus of Arles, now one of the Louvre’s treasures, was unearthed here in 1651. Only a few broken columns are original but the design is based on authentic Roman plans, and modern performances are presented regularly.
Henry James was impressed: “The Roman theater at Arles seemed to me one of the most charming and touching ruins I had ever beheld; I took a particular fancy to it. It is less than a skeleton…for it consists only of half a dozen bones. The way in which every seat commanded the stage is a lesson to the architects of our epoch, as also the immense size of the place is a proof of extraordinary power of voice on the part of the Roman actors.”
From the Arena, walk two blocks down the Rue de la Calade to the center of the Old Town, the Place de la République, which contains City Hall, the main church, an obelisk centerpiece with fountain, and is flanked by shopping lanes. The monolith obelisk, 49 feet high, was hewn by the Romans from the quarries of Esterel. It stood originally in the Circus at the southwest corner of the town, of which no vestiges remain.
Primary attraction of this Place de la République is the former cathedral, Église St-Trophime, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the richest and most majestic church in all Provence. It has a fantastic series of Byzantine sculptures dating back to the 12th centuries around the door on the façade that have been recently restored to their pristine beauty. Various scenes from the Bible are depicted, in particular, the Last Judgment, with Christ in the top center, on the left, good souls who are being sent to heaven, and on the right side, not so lucky, bad folks pulled to hell by gargoyles. The apostles are along the row below Christ, surrounded by symbols of the evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Other scenes include the Annunciation, Baptism of Christ and Adoration of the Magi.
The church is a mix of Romanesque and Gothic, from the 12th-century right up through 1500. There was an earlier church on the same site dating back to the 5th century and a Roman temple before that. According to legend, Trophimus of Arles became the first Bishop of the area, and this church was subsequently named after him. He became St. Trophime and his relics were installed in the new Cathedral here around the year 1152. It's believed that the apse and transept of the church were built first and the nave and bell tower were added later in the 12th century.
The interior is mostly Gothic, while the ambulatory is late Gothic - you can see the curvatures in the stone, like a flame, called flamboyant Gothic. The beautiful chapel was added in the 15th century, so construction of the church went on for about 400 years, and yet the different styles blend beautifully together showing evolutionary progress from the early Romanesque to the late Gothic.
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. During the nearly thousand-year history of this building there have been many subsequent revisions, with works of art installed during the Renaissance and later, producing a rich mix of paintings, tapestries, sculptures, stained glass and various reliquaries. There are magnificent architectural details on the top of the columns and distributed throughout the church. Several side chapels are decorated in the Baroque style from the 17th century, displaying large oil paintings with elaborate, gilded wooden frames. The baptismal font of this remarkable building is a sarcophagus, an ancient Roman tomb.
Be sure to visit the Cloister of St-Trophime, tucked away next door to the right of the church, well worth the small admission charge. It is easy to overlook because there is only a small sign at the door, which leads into a courtyard with entrance at the rear. You might not even know it's here unless you studied up a little bit in guidebooks or heard about it somehow. This cloister is like an open-air museum with architecture and sculpture spanning a 300-year period: Gothic pointed arches on one side, and older, Romanesque barrel-vaulting on the other side. The open court in the center is surrounded by beautiful columns, each with different, detailed stone carvings on their capitals, and corner columns especially noted for their realistic, gothic statues representing various saints. It’s a calm and peaceful place making this a rewarding site to visit.
This is generally considered to be the most important cloister in all of Provence. It is rare to find a cloister such as this one that is so intricately decorated and which represents such a long period of architectural evolution, from Romanesque through the Gothic. The top of each column is a uniquely carved capital and several of the columns are impressive works of art in themselves, especially the corner columns, St. Paul the most spectacular of all, and there are some other scenes of daily life carved into the galleries of the cloisters. There is a meditative and prayerful atmosphere in such a cloister. This had been at one time a residence of the clergy, with nuns and priests associated with the church living upstairs in a space now used for various kinds of exhibits.
The other main building on Place de la République is City Hall, built in 1675 according to plans by the famous architect, Jules Hardouin-Mansart, who left his mark all over Paris. They have a public lobby with beautiful architecture dating back to the Renaissance, with peculiar vaulting of the vestibule. On the landing of the first floor is a cast of the Venus of Arles.
This location has been the center of town for millennia, and part of the ancient Roman Forum is still preserved today underground in the Cryptoporticus Museum of Arles. You walk downstairs from the City Hall lobby and trip back 2,000 years into a dark, dank, eerie series of barrel-vaulted tunnels, with water dripping from the stone roof, fragments of statues and buildings lying around on the floor, and shallow side chambers leading to mysterious dead-ends.
You can walk through three double, parallel tunnels arranged in the form of a U, supported by fifty piers. They provided a foundation for the main structure of the forum above and it's believed they were used for grain storage or perhaps to hold slaves. Towards the end of the Roman Empire shops were built, opening on the outer side. It's a little spooky down there but definitely quite fascinating and worth a visit.
Emerging back above ground to fresh air and daylight, welcome back to the 21st century, stepping into the bustling streets, ready for another stroll.
Walk along Arles’ other main pedestrian lane, Rue de l’Hôtel de Ville, lined with attractive shops, one of the very best lanes in town for exploring, so take your time and go all the way. A network of appealing cross-streets will lure you to probe up and down, including Rue des Suisses and the small lanes leading out from Place Saint-Roch, a prime neighborhood for the random wander.
Here you are close to the small ruins of the ancient Roman Baths of Constantine, just two blocks north on Rue du Grand Prieuré. Built in the 4th century, it is believed to be part of a much larger Roman palace built for Constantine, who spent considerable time here and made Arles capital of the western part of the Empire, extending through France and Spain. Not terribly impressive today, only a small building remains but it shows clear sign of Roman architecture with red bricks and vaulted arches. You can appreciate it quickly from the outside, saving time and money, while enjoying a majestic view of the Rhône River from the embankment.
Another cultural site nearby on Rue du Docteur Fanton is the Fondation Vincent van Gogh Arles, a museum opened in 2014 dedicated to showcasing Van Gogh’s artistic heritage, but unfortunately they do not own any paintings by the artist. Only for eager fans, the foundation hosts temporary exhibits by contemporary artists that generally establish some connection with the legacy of Van Gogh, and perhaps if you’re lucky, an original oil by the master on loan from elsewhere. Ironically and sadly, there are no paintings by him in Arles. The two houses he lived in during 1888-1889 were destroyed by American bombing in WWII. Unfortunately very little is left of any buildings or associations with the artist, but the walk soon brings you to a few reminders of his presence.
PLACE DU FORUM
When satisfied, find your way back south on Rue des Arenes or other little connecting lanes a few blocks to Place du Forum, one of the charming plazas in town. Formerly the main plaza of the ancient Romans, which extended from here back towards City Hall a few blocks away, Place du Forum has one of the only four-star hotels in Arles, the Grand Hôtel Nord Pinus, top choice in town.
The Place du Forum is best known today for the café depicted in “Café Terrace at Night” by Van Gogh, which is now called Le Café Van Gogh, a fine place for a drink -- just like sitting in a van Gogh painting. The Place can be lively if you’re lucky: puppies frolic, kids play, fashions parade by, musicians earn some coins and neighbors catch up on the day’s gossip. That distinguished gentleman cast in bronze is non other than Frédéric Mistral (1830-1914), most noted and only Nobel Prize-winning writer of Arles.
RUE DE LA RÉPUBLIQUE
Walk from Place du Forum west for a few blocks along Rue la Liberté, which becomes Rue Jouvène, to the intersection at a lovely plaza with Rue de la République, The Best Walking Street of Town -- shops, cafes, people, no cars, this is it! Only about 300 meters long, it is worth walking the full length, perhaps back and forth twice to really absorb it. Just don’t get here in the afternoon when all the shops are closed for siesta -- the custom throughout the south of Europe. If you are town at twilight, this would be the best place to enjoy that special time of day.
A unique local item you’ll see for sale in many of the shops are the Santons, whimsical little statues of Provence, usually carved in wood and vividly depicting colorful people dressed in native folk costumes. These small figurines are especially prevalent in late fall leading up to the Christmas season, when they play a big role in the decorations. From mid-November through mid-January there are special exhibits of these very collectible items. Provencal fabrics are also popular -- the colorful cotton material printed in the region around Arles using those characteristic pastel colors, the yellows, greens and oranges, depicting natural motives of olives and herbs, blended in flowing geometric patterns.
A museum of folk crafts and art might catch your eye midway along Rue de la République, the Museon Arlaten, established one century ago by the famed local poet Mistral and featuring a collection of clothing, furnishings, artifacts, wood carvings and scenes from daily life that are spread through 30 rooms.
One of the more interesting and poignant sites is the hospital where Van Gogh stayed, the Hotel de Dieux, located one block south of Rue de la République along Rue President Wilson, which sometimes has a little street market in its plaza. The hospital continued functioning until the 1970s, when it was converted into the vast culture center called Espace Van Gogh. Resembling a peaceful cloister, the two-story building surrounds a central garden with arcades all around the ground floor containing shops and cafes, with temporary exhibit space upstairs. Van Gogh was kept here briefly twice after slicing his ear, and did capture it in the “Garden of the Hospital in Arles.” He lived in Arles from February 1888 through May 1889 but local residents finally grew irritated by his increasingly erratic behavior and petitioned for him to be exiled, whereupon he moved out to the hospital in St Remy, never to return. Those 200 paintings he created here are probably worth $10 billion today, but not only did he get no respect, he was tossed out of town! You can feel for him while absorbing the vibes at the Espace.
This really does complete the main walking tour highlights of Arles, but there are more wonderful things to explore if you have time, including more little lanes, a major market, and the most important museum of ancient Rome in all of Provence.
MORE LITTLE LANES
If you have time, you are now in position for a wander through more of the quaint little back lanes of Arles, which you can reach via a staircase just beyond that aqueduct, leading you into Place de la Redoute. There are a few shops and restaurants in the neighborhood, which is a typical residential area in the old town. You’ll probably see cats and dogs out walking around, kids playing, mamas strolling, decaying buildings. It's a very friendly and safe neighborhood, off the beaten tourist track. This is just kind of an aimless stroll where you can simply walk along, enjoying the peace and quiet through little lanes of the residential district a couple of blocks away from the shopping streets.
Take an interesting stroll through Place de la Major, perhaps peek into Église Notre Dame, and then continue through more quiet residential streets. Rue de la Madeleine leads into a small maze of alleys lined by homes, not especially exciting but very local. Emerge by the theater and make note of the fine restaurant, Lou Caleu, one of many eateries along Rue Porte de Laure. From here you can circle back around the Roman amphitheater and take a turn along narrow Rue des Arenès, reached by a short staircase. Just take a look down this charming old narrow lane, which leads in four blocks to the Place du Forum, but is strictly residential without any shops, so you don’t really need to walk on it.
Now you are faced with a big choice: leave town, having successfully seen all the main sites of town, or push on to an archaeological museum one mile away. Leaving town is quite easy from the Arena, going out the way you came in, walking back to the train station in 10 minutes.
On the other hand, if you are a big fan of Roman antiquities (old broken statues, mosaics, bronze tools, and little models of machines), you would truly enjoy the excellent museum of archaeology, the best collection in Provence. However, because it is one mile away from the arena on lanes you have already seen, it might be better to find a taxi to take you there by calling 04 90 96 90 03 or looking for one at the Arena. Another option for those who had definitely planned on seeing this museum is begin your visit by taking a taxi to it upon first arriving at the train station, where taxis can usually be found. In that case, see the museum first, then stroll into town and adapt these walking directions to suit your purpose. With that sequence you don’t have to walk all the way to the museum through town and then walk all the way back to the station, which is a big workout – but Arles is always fascinating to walk through.
MUSEUM OF ANCIENT ARLES
This extremely interesting museum awaits beyond the southwest end of town, about a 15-minute from the center through a quiet neighborhood – for lovers of antiquity, it is definitely worth your time. Walking directions now depend on where you are coming from, where you last left the previous walk. Assuming you are coming from the Arena you could walk along Rue des Arènes, and keep going as it changes names at Place du Forum to Liberté and then to Jouvène, connecting to Place Antonelle. Then stroll along the short Rue du Porcelet, which soon becomes Rue de la Roquette, leading you through a residential area with a scattering of local shops and restaurants. Upon reaching the wide street, Boulevard Georges Clémenceau, turn right and pass under the viaduct by the river, which then leads directly to a new building housing the ancient remains.
Called the Musée de l’Arles Antique, it primarily displays treasures from the Roman period of Arles with an excellent layout in a large building that opened in 1995 and has been recently expanded. There are rows of marble sarcophagi, or tombs, of the Romans and early Christians, richly decorated with sculpture depicting religious scenes and daily life.
Elevated platforms enable you to look down on the large collection of mosaic floors from Roman homes that reveal brilliant scenes created with tiny pieces of colored stones depicting sea creatures, the zodiac, nereids, the four seasons and realistic human portraits. A lady riding a ball is called Europa -- interesting that even 2000 years ago they talked about Europa or Europe.
A large, impressive 3-D model of Arles in ancient Roman times shows how the city covered today’s entire historic center and demonstrates how sophisticated the buildings and urban plan were. The arena model shows how little it has changed over the millennia.
Also on display are original glass works, tools, gold jewelry, small statues, and a nice lineup of busts of the various emperors, along with simpler artifacts dating back to the Stone Age. There are other statues here depicting emperors, goddesses, soldiers and various sea creatures.
Romans were truly amazing inventors and the world's most impressive engineers at that time, 2000 years ago. Illustrating this are little models of Roman engineering feats, including bridges across the river, the busy commercial harbor, apartment houses and the arena. These dramatic displays remind us that Arles was one of the largest economic centers in the Roman Empire, with an extensive urban core. Even then it was so valued as a place to stay that many Roman soldiers retired here and are buried in the Alyscamps cemetery in the south part of town. In Roman times Arles was surrounded by graveyards, including one situated along the Via Aurelia which later became known as Les Alyscamps. This cemetery subsequently became important when the Christian martyr Saint Genest and the first bishops of Arles were buried there. Alycamps might be attractive for major fans of ancient Rome, but the dozens of sarcophagi here should be enough to satisfy that interest.
Humans have been living in the region for hundreds of thousand years, going back to Neanderthal times and earlier because of its ideal climate and varied resources. The first historical records indicate a village was founded about 800 BC by Ligurians native to the area. Then came the Phoceans, an early Greek culture that settled the entire coastline from Marseilles to Monaco in 7th century BC. Greek society grew and prospered for several centuries until Romans took control in 123 BC as part of their conquest of Gaul.
Arles was a rival with the larger city of Marseilles, then called Massalia, but during the Civil War between Julius Caesar and Pompey in the first century, the Massalians made the mistake of siding with Pompey, who lost the war. Marseille was stripped of all of its power and Caesar moved everything to Arles, which had been building ships to help in his war efforts. Arles then became a retirement community for the Roman army, which had its base here, further adding to its prestige and economy. Soldiers put in their 20 years of service and then enjoyed a retirement paid for by the government. Caesar further rewarded Arles in 49BC by making it the capital of southern Gaul and Emperor Augustus
Arles continued growing with construction of the amphitheater, fortified walls, theater, baths, palaces, triumphal arch and many homes. Romans dug a canal connecting Arles with the Mediterranean, constructed a floating bridge across the Rhône, and built aqueducts to bring fresh water from the surrounding mountains. Aqueducts also irrigated farmlands and delivered water to an amazing waterwheel complex used for grinding grain into flour. Romans had frequently used waterpower elsewhere in the empire for turning industrial wheels, but never on such scale as the Barbegal aqueduct and mill, which consisted of 16 watermills on a steep hill, with aqueduct-delivered water flowing from one wheel to the next, grinding an estimated 4.5 tons of flour daily for several centuries. A major aqueduct also came into the city through a hole in the base of the fortified wall, still visible along Boulevard Emile Combes.
Constantine, who often resided here, built a stone bridge to connect the town with the commercial quarter on the ‘right bank. The ramparts and walls rising from the public gardens and the Boulevard des Aliscamps are chiefly the work of the Emperor Constantine, who came to Arles with his family and mother, Saint Helena. The population at that period is said to have numbered 100,000. Christianity was probably taught here by Trophimus, a disciple of St. Paul.
With the fall of Rome, Arles suffered a cruel decline when the Visigoths invaded in 480, followed by the Saracens, who remained until about A.D. 700. The town regained independence for a time after the barbaric invasions. In 879 it became the capital of a kingdom, which in the 11th century embraced the whole region between the Rhine, the Saône, the Rhône, the Mediterranean, and the Alps, and formed part of the Germanic empire. In 1150-1251 Arles was an independent republic. As UNESCO describes it, “Successively a territory of the Empire and a possession of the Counts of Provence, Arles was one of the most attractive cities of the Mediterranean world during the Middle Ages. Travellers from many countries described its monuments with enthusiasm.”
Then the Franks came in and the French took over, making it regional capital of Provence and beyond into parts of Burgundy, the most important city in this whole area. This continued for several hundred years until about the 1450s -- 1500s. Submitting at length to Charles d’Anjou, it shared the fortunes of Provence, which was annexed to France in 1481.
For various reasons the power shifted elsewhere and Arles became somewhat of a backwater and nothing much happened. And as a result, throughout the next couple of centuries there was very little reconstruction, leaving us in this well-preserved historic town.
The next major event was arrival of Van Gogh in 1888 and he lived here for 15 months, creating 200 paintings and 100 drawings. That was his peak period of creativity, near the end of his life. He then moved to St. Remy where he stayed in the hospital, and then he went up back up north near Paris, where he later died. His brother Theo was an art dealer in Paris, and kept him going with a small allowance even he couldn't sell any paintings. Imagine, his paintings now sell for up to a hundred million dollars, but he never sold one during his life.
Off-season is a great time to be here to avoid the summer congestion. In September the weather can be very pleasant with comfortable temperatures in the 50s and 60s, ideal for travel. During this off-season the town and sites are less crowded, but all the shops and attractions are open.