Provence Part One – Arles

203When you think of Provence, what springs to mind? Lavender fields, olives, light, color, the mistral? Peter Mayle and his book (A Year in Provence)?  The Romans?  All of the above?

I’m willing to wager your thoughts do not immediately take you to the city of Arles.  When I was planning my trip to France last summer, I knew I wanted to spend some time in Provence.  In deciding where to set up a Provenςal base, I considered several options and finally settled on Arles.

Why Arles?  I was travelling by train and Arles is a central location. Avignon, Nimes, and the Pont du Gard are all within a short train, or train and bus trip, away.  Lodging options in Arles are plentiful and affordable.  It is also easy to find good food and drink at reasonable prices. The town itself is a marvelous blend of Roman roots, Provenςal charm, and the ever present feeling of Van Gogh tramping around the town and countryside toting his easel and wearing his straw hat.

From the moment I arrived at the little train station and wheeled my suitcase across the Place Lamartine and through the old Roman walls, I was entranced. The Roman arena (Les Arѐnes d’Arles) is instantly visible.  The memory of my first sight of the arena, tucked into 12th century buildings, juxtaposed with the easy paced Provenςal life, is a vivid one.

Where to Stay

I stayed at the Logis De La Muette, 15 Rue de Suisses, 13200 Arles.  The hotel is very close to the Arena; you can walk there in less than five minutes.  In fact, the old town of Arles is very walkable; there is no need for a car.  The hotel has 18 rooms housed in an ancient house built in the 12th – 15th centuries.  The rooms are comfortable, with exposed stone walls, and decorated in a typical Provenςal style.  The bathrooms are a bit tricky as the shower I had closely resembled a rocket ship; but the property is clean and pleasant.  A very nice breakfast served either in the breakfast room or outside on the terrace, was included in the room rate, which was a great value ($134 per night for a double room).

Sights

The great thing about staying in Arles is that you can come back after a day trip and have plenty of time to see the sights in town. The Roman monuments are pleasantly unavoidable; you see them every time you turn a corner:  the arena, the antique theatre, and the baths of Constantine.  The city has designed two tourist walks:  one for the roman sights and one for Van Gogh highlights.

Van Gogh painted over 180 canvases during his short stay in Arles (February 1888 – May 1989). The visitor’s center will give you a map of ten stops where Van Gogh painted actual scenes around town.  The locations are marked by little easels with reproductions of the Van Gogh paintings.  I walked the entire path, although I did make a separate pilgrimage at night to the spot where Vincent painted Starry Night Over the Rhone.  The Éspace Van Gogh, which is now an art gallery, was once a hospital; the hospital where Vincent was taken after the infamous cutting off of the ear.  The citizens of Arles were not very kind to Vincent during his time there, and none of his work is there now; however you can feel him everywhere.

Try to be in Arles on a Saturday so you can visit the weekly market.  You will find stalls with beautiful produce, roast chickens, lavender, macarons, and garlic.  As Arles is between Provence and the Camargue, you will also find the olives of the Camargue, and the special salt from the marshy swamps.  A visit to the market is a great opportunity see what life is like in modern day Provence.

In Place de la Republique, stop to see St. Trophime church, even if you don’t take the time to go inside.  It is designated as a UNESCO world heritage site and is known for having possibly the best Romanesque façade in Provence.  In the center of the square is a 4th century Roman obelisk which was fist erected under the Roman emperor Constantine II and located in the center of the Roman circus in Arles.  The Arles town hall is also located on this square.

Traditions

There has been bullfighting in the Roman arena in Arles since the 19th century.  Bullfights are also staged in the arena in Nimes.  Traditional Provenςal bullfighting is a bloodless sport.  The participants try to grab a rosette from the head of a young bull, and the bulls are the stars.  It is also common to have a running of the bulls prior to the arena activity.  Bullfight season begins at Easter.

Food

Arles has great food.  Arlesienne specialties include Saucisson d’Arles (sausage traditionally made with a bit of donkey meat), Taureau de Camargue (or bull of the Camargue), and fougasse d’Arles (a stuffed bread with assorted fillings).  Note that the taureau is a generic term referring to a type of cattle raised in this region.  I am a vegetarian and had no difficulty finding great vegetarian food in the city.  My favorite meal in Arles was at Chez Felix (32 bis Rond point des Arenes, Arles, France 13200, Arles, France). This little restaurant overlooks the Roman arena and serves organic soups, salads, and curries.  The service was friendly and I had a great time trying out my French.  When I told the waitress how much I enjoyed my vegetable curry, she invited me back to talk with the chef.  Chez Felix does not accept credit cards. A party of 2 at the next table had no cash with them.  The server kindly directed them to an ATM and trusted them to return with the money to settle the bill.  They did.

Another great little restaurant is Cuisine de Comptoir located at 10, rue de la Libertė. It was recommended to me by Martine at the hotel.  The restaurant serves wonderful tartines and wine.  The night I ate there, the owner’s 11 year old daughter was helping serve.  The dėcor is modern and the atmosphere very friendly.

My next post will review possible day trips from Arles. Please feel free to subscribe to the mailing list and leave comments or any question. Thank you!

 

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