Arles is a remarkable town drenched in over 2,500 years of history, comfortably settled between Provence and the Camargue. Although the centre is medium-sized, you will stumble over remains from the classical antiquity era wherever you go. It’s even the city with the most Roman monuments in France! Time for a closer look at this UNESCO World Heritage Site on the banks of the Rhône River.
Starting my visit at the Tourist Information Office, I decided to buy the ‘Pass Liberté’ for 12 euros. This pass allowed me to visit six sites of my choice within one month. From the tourist office, I walked straight into town. After just a few metres, I reached the Place de la République, the heart of Arles. The town hall and the Saint-Trophime church and cloister overlook this square. The unmissable obelisk in the middle of the square once stood in a Roman circus at the end of antiquity. Walking around, I noticed the banners with the ‘Reine d’Arles’ from year to year. This ‘queen’ is elected to be a Provençal ambassador for three years. Tradition still reigns in Arles!
As the Roman theatre was closed, I went to the ‘amphithéâtre’ instead. Built around 90 A.D., this amphitheatre could host 21,000 spectators to watch the gladiator combats and chariot races. Nowadays, it’s still in use as an arena for bullfights a few times a year (ugh…). In the middle ages, the amphitheatre became a sort of urban fortification. Four towers, a church, numerous houses and shops were built around and even in the arena, leaving an open square in the middle. I climbed one of the towers to admire Arles from above. On my way back, I spotted the emblematic ‘coquille Saint-Jacques’, or the scallop shell. It is probably in memory of the pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela via the ‘Chemin d’Arles’.
The thermal baths
Next stop was ‘Les Thermes de Constantin’, Roman thermal baths dating from the 4th century. On this very spot, the inhabitants of Arles, ‘les Arlésiens’, daily would come together for their bathing ritual. Not only for personal hygiene but also to meet and catch up on the latest gossip. Women and men separately followed a specified route, leading them through a sweat room, the hot bath including a session of scraping the skin, the lukewarm room and the cold pool. The visit ended with a deep massage. I wouldn’t mind reintroducing such a bathing ritual to end my working day!
The picturesque streets brought me back to the town hall on the Place de la République. The fourth Roman monument to visit was the cryptoportico (‘cryptoportiques in French). These underground corridors served to support the columns of the rectangular public square above, also known as ‘forum’. They were built during the reign of Emperor August, somewhere between the late 1st century B.C. Below, you see a bust of Caius Cesar, one of his grandsons. I had a little trouble finding the entrance. However, once I realised I had to enter the main entrance of the town hall and immediately go left, it was pretty simple to find my way.
The Saint-Trophime cloister
Another monument that is accessible from the Place de la République, is the Saint-Trophime cloister. It’s right across from the Saint-Trophime church with its impressive portal from the 17th century. The cloister itself is a few centuries older, dating from the 12th and 14th centuries. Pay close attention to the cloister galleries. Two of them are typical examples of the Romanesque style, while the other two demonstrate a Gothic architecture. The serene environment cooled and quietened me down from the summery temperatures. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to see all the monuments (the Alyscamps, for example) and museums (Musée Réattu, Musée de la Camargue, to name a few), nor to follow Van Gogh’s footsteps. So, I guess this won’t be my last visit to Arles!