On our way to Avignon, my daughter and I spent some time in the small city of Arles, France. We enjoyed it so much, that we never made it to Avignon. I’ll admit, we hadn’t budgeted much time for either city – we will definitely have to go back to the area!
Arles is located in southern France in the area known as Provence. The Rhone River flows through the city on its way to the Mediterranean Sea. Its proximity to the sea ensures nice weather for much of the year. Nimes and Avignon, larger cities, but with a similar feel, are 20 to 25 miles to the north. The southern edge of Arles borders the northern edge of the Camargue National Park, while the city of Marseilles is about 40 miles to the east.
Ligurians, Celts, and Phoenicians inhabited the area until it was overtaken by the Romans in 123 BC. The city became important politically as Romans used it for military headquarters. Throughout the years, parts of the Arles community were given to France with the last remnants ceded to King Charles VI in 1378.
There are remains of Roman structures in the city and in surrounding areas. A large amphitheater is located in the center of the city. There are Roman baths, an aqueduct, a Gallo-Roman theater and a necropolis (cemetery). It is amazing to see these ancient structures and ponder their history.
In 1888, Dutch painter, Vincent VanGogh arrived in Arles from Paris. He invited his friend Paul Gauguin who joined him for a time. While he was there, VanGogh’s mental state deteriorated to the point where the two men quarreled, VanGogh cut off his own ear and Gauguin left. VanGogh spent the next year in and out of the hospitals in Arles and nearby Saint-Rémy, before moving back north to be closer to his brother Theo and also, to Dr. Gachet, who also treated him. While staying in Auvers-sur-Oise, VanGogh shot himself and a couple days later died from an infection that resulted from the wound.
While he was in Arles and the surrounding area, VanGogh painted continually – sometimes finishing a painting a day. Although he often painted from his memory, he produced several works based on scenes in the area around him. The artist rented a yellow house to be used as a studio and living area, where he painted pictures of the house, his bedroom in the house, and even the chair in his bedroom. He painted a picture of the river a block from the house, a cafe down the street, and the amphitheater. (Read more about the Chicago Art Institute’s exhibit that focused on VanGogh’s bedroom paintings).
When VanGogh left the yellow house and entered the either of the hospitals, he painted scenes from the hospital grounds. The artist’s famous Starry Night was painted while he stayed at the Saint-Rémy hospital.
The city of Arles has capitalized on the works of their famous resident. They have set up a “VanGogh Walk,” which follows where the painter would have set up his easel. (Download a map here – sorry, only in French). At each spot there is a new easel holding a replica of the appropriate VanGogh masterpiece.
Ten of VanGogh’s works are featured on the map. My favorites were the Café Terrace at Night and the Entrance to the Public Gardens. As a fan of this Dutch painter, I especially enjoyed the walk and would recommend it, even if you do not always love art. Seeing the paintings displayed in situ – where they actually happened – makes them come alive.
In addition to history and art, Arles has one of the best markets in the Provence region. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, vendors set up their booths along the tree lined boulevard.
Produce abounds, but there are many other items as well. Perfumed soaps made their way into our bags. I wish we could have taken the flowers as well. The spices…who could resist herbs de Provence or lavender?
If you plan to be in the area, I would suggest that you rent a car, rather than taking public transportation. We were able to park near our hotel. If your hotel does not offer parking, they will be able to recommend something for you.
The Pont du Guard is a large Roman Aqueduct less than a 45 minute drive away. It makes a great outing for a day trip if you are staying in Arles. We spent an afternoon there – plan at least a couple of hours. You can hike to the top of the aqueduct for some amazing photos or you can hike up part of the way and walk across to the other side. You can even walk through the water channel (with reservations). There is an information center, bathrooms and a snack shop on the northwest side of the river.
The Provence area – the country outside of town – is beautiful. Schedule time to go for a drive, pack a picnic lunch, and enjoy the peacefulness. If you go in the summer, find a field of lavender; the view – and smell – will be unforgettable. We were here in the spring, but we found dried lavender at the market.
Although we were only in Arles a short time – we stayed one night – we decided it was a place we’d like to return to. And next time we will stay longer!