Seen from the air, Arles appears to have a huge hole in the centre of its historic old town, like a meteor has hit it with devastating effect. On closer inspection it turns out to be nothing more than a simple architectural and engineering masterpiece created by the Roman Empire over 2,000 years ago and still in use today (for non-lethal bullfighting). To say Arles Amphitheatre is impressive, does it a disservice.
The amphitheatre is but the crowning glory of a wealth of Roman history that is scattered around Arles and the surrounding region. Spend some time exploring it and you quickly realise why this small Provencal town is sometimes known as the Rome of the North. With a population of up to 100,000 at its height – twice that of its modern population – it was one of the most important Roman cities in Europe.
It’s a shame that the interior of the amphitheatre has been brutalised by the seating for the bullfighting, but the fact of that is, in and of itself, just one of the telltale signs that Arles shares a history and culture with nearby Spain. There’s no denying that it has a unique cultural vibe that is not easily quantified – it made us wish we’d chosen this as our base.
Wandering the narrow lanes of the historic centre is a joy. There are small squares with pleasant cafes and bars everywhere you turn. At the heart of Arles is the Place de la République, home to the 12th century Church of Saint-Trophime with its disturbing carvings of the Apocalypse, and a 4th century Roman obelisk. A short stroll away is the equally lovely Place du Forum, famed for a painting of one of its cafes.
Arles is not just an open museum and culinary hotspot (we had a fabulous lunch in a tiny restaurant), it feels like it has a gritty side. It also hosts international photography exhibitions, posters of which are pasted all over town. Despite its storied history and cultural delights though, Arles is better known today for its associations with Vincent van Gogh – a man who spent so little time in Provence, but who has come to define bits of it.
By happy coincidence, we parked close to the Yellow House, where van Gogh stayed and had his studio when he lived in Arles between 1888 and 1889. The original was destroyed in the Second World War, but a short stroll away is the River Rhône and the place where Van Gogh painted Starry Night over the Rhone. Not the most famous of the ‘starry night’ paintings, it is a thing of great beauty nonetheless.
Van Gogh came to Arles in 1888 and was joined by fellow artist Paul Gauguin. Despite his fragile mental health – it was here that he suffered a psychotic episode, cutting off part of his ear before giving it to a prostitute – it was a period of superlative artistic flourishing. He painted some of his most exceptional works, Sunflowers, Café Terrace at Night, The Bedroom At Arles, and many others
Van Gogh drew immense inspiration from the streets, buildings and people of Arles, and many of the 200 or so paintings he finished here were of Arles and its people. So familiar are these scenes, walking around the town you’ll suddenly find yourself with a feeling that what you’re looking at is strangely familiar. That’s quite remarkable over a century after Van Gogh put brush to canvas.
If Van Gogh was inspired by Arles, the good townsfolk did not always reciprocate the feeling. So wild was his behaviour that his neighbours drew up a petition to get rid of him. It was shortly afterwards that he was admitted to the Hôtel-Dieu, the hospital in which he was treated in Arles. Here he painted a portrait of Félix Rey, his doctor, and famously, The Courtyard of the Hospital in Arles.
All of this combined should be enough to keep Arles swamped with tourists around the clock, yet when we were there it felt calm, quiet and relaxed. I wish we’d made more time for this surprising little town, but at least we know where we’ll be staying on our next trip to Provence.