In Roman times Arles was capital of the three Gauls, France, Spain and Britannia, a city whose geographical location ensured its pre-eminence, the last bridging point across the lower Rome. The Arena at Arles rivalled the Coliseum, if not in size then in savagery. Christians were thrown to the lions and the rich decoration of the rooms behind the scenes with mosaic floors and marble walls, was because the bodies of dead and mortally wounded gladiators and Christians were brought here during the entertainment, and made it easier to wash the blood away at the end of the day.
The spectators, shielded from the sun by a canopy, could avail themselves of scented drinking fountains. A full house at the Arena was 23,435, at least according to a French mathematician, who measured the entire seating. Exactly how he overcame the conundrum of the disappearance of the uppermost storey seems uncertain; perhaps he assumed it to be the same size as the two that have survived, supported by 60 arches and decorated by columns, the upper Corinthian, the lower Doric.
The Roman theatre nearby accommodated between 7,000 and 12,000 spectators, a much less precise calculation, as no one knows quite how large it was. The original structure, built during the reign of Augustus, afterwards was pillaged so extensively for housing that its popular name was ‘the quarry’. Following some restoration, 20 complete rows of seats remain in the theatre, where productions of various kinds are held during the summer months.
The famous Venus of Arles statue was discovered in the theatre garden in 1651 and Louis XIV unwisely ordered the sculptor Giraudon to restore its missing arms. The original, complete with arms, is displayed in the Louvre in Paris but copies can be seen at Arles Town Hall and in the Museum of Pagan Art.
The former Cathedral of the legendary St-Trophime, a supreme example of Romanesque art, has an evocative frieze above the great west portal. On its left the Elect, those chosen to enter the kingdom of Heaven, proceed fully clothed and have their souls received by an Angel. On its right, the Damned stand naked and chained in despair, pulled remorselessly by a demon towards the fires of Hell. The cloister is equally famous for its medieval carvings, revealing Provençal Romanesque at its most creative and beautiful.
The Museum of Pagan Art has an outstanding collection of Greek and Roman statues. The Museum of Christian Art contains the beautiful Tomb of the Trinity, whose occupants were evidently extremely rich to have afforded such a memorial. The Arlaten Museum, a 16th century Gothic house bought in 1896 by the poet Frédéric Mistral, provides a unique recreation of Provençal artefacts, artistry and everyday life.
Arles’s most famous citizen is Vincent Van Gogh. The great artist, the son of a Dutch pastor, had been a lay preacher himself and later an art dealer before he turned his hand to painting.
Although he went to Provence to take advantage of its vivid colours, Van Gogh spent much of his stay at Arles in 1888-89 recording its unappealing industrial aspects. The bridge he made famous by his ‘Pont de Langlois’ was in fact part of a new irrigation scheme, entirely utilitarian and pulled down in 1926 without a moment’s thought.
Van Gogh’s base at Arles was Place Lamartine, a down-at-heel area close to the railway station, where he set up his studio in a bistro called La Civette Arlesienne. It was decorated in a lurid shade of yellow, painted by Van Gogh as ‘The Yellow House’. For most of his stay Van Gogh slept across the square at the Café de l’Alcazar. It underwent such a facelift in becoming the Bar- Restaurant Alcazar that only the quaint old wall clock survived from the scene painted by Van Gogh in his famous ‘Café de Nuit’. His ‘Café du Soir’ was a watering hole on the east side of the place du Forum, not far from the Arena. You will look for it in vain: it later became a furniture shop, before being taken over by the Vaccarès Restaurant.
Van Gogh had an ambition to set up a colony of artists in Arles but of his fellow painters only Paul Gauguin joined him, and thought Arles unattractive in the extreme. When he unwisely voiced his opinion, this led Van Gogh to threaten Gauguin with an open razor. The alarmed Gauguin spent the night at the Hotel Camel while Van Gogh proceeded to use the very same razor to cut off his own ear. Gauguin caught the morning train to Paris; Van Gogh committed himself to the lunatic asylum at St-Rémy-de-Provence.
The Arles of Van Gogh is best explored on foot, as its maze of little streets, full of tourists in summer, is almost impassable for cars and parking is extremely limited. Those daunted by the heat could try the little land train that starts at the Arena and takes in all the main sights.
West of Arles is another brilliant example of Provençal architecture, the Abbey-de-St-Gilles. See, especially, the magnificent 12th century west front, whose triple portals, framed by pillars supported on lions, show scenes from the life of Christ. The bell tower contains a remarkable spiral staircase, known as “la Vis de St-Gilles”, the Screw of St-Gilles, which has the effect of a curved funnel, as its steps are roofed over with stone.
To the east is the Moulin de Daudet, which features in a famous collection of short stories by the 19th century Provençal writer, Alphonse Daudet, entitled Letters from My Windmill. Completely restored and in full working order, the mill has a charming aspect, located on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Rhône Valley. Unfortunately from a purist’s point of view, Daudet never owned it, and probably never wrote a word of his book at the mill, but simply milked the miller for his stories.
Beyond Daudet’s mill the road runs northeast to Glanum. Here at the crossroads of the Roman way to Spain and Italy are “les Antiques”, the Antiquities, a huge Roman arch celebrating Caesar’s victories and the so-called Mausoleum, in fact a memorial, built of white stone. It commemorates Lucius and Caius Caesar, groomed by their grandfather, the Emperor Augustus, to inherit the Roman Empire, until they died tragically within two years of each other. Later Glanum became a Roman health resort, with baths, temples and a forum.
St-Rémy-de-Provence was the phoenix that rose from Glanum’s ashes. Its arcaded terraces are now occupied by pleasant cafés and its 16th century mansions include the birthplace of the astrologer Michel Nostradamus, whose book “Centuries”, published in 1558, contains a series of remarkable predictions.
Between Arles and St-Rémy-de- Provence lie the Alpilles, a frightening land of twisted rock, where in the Middle-Ages every traveller paid homage to the Lords of Les Baux. Before the power of this fascinating fortress was broken by Cardinal Richelieu, who dismantled it stone by stone, Les Baux and its Court of Love had provided employment for 6,000 people, including wandering troubadours.
The Court survived many a scandal and act of violence. One of the lords of Les Baux seduced his own niece and when she fled, heavily pregnant, to a friendly castle, he tunnelled under the walls and caused her chamber to collapse. Another, in prison, summoned his wife to bring a ransom but instead she brought a dagger and used it on him. A third was flayed alive for blasphemy, outside the walls of Avignon.
When the Duke of Guise stayed overnight at Les Baux, the wine flowed freely and the Duke ordered a cannon to be fired each time he proposed a toast. Eventually he declared his intention of firing the cannon himself. Unfortunately it exploded, and what was left of the Duke of Guise now resides in a tomb at St-Trophime in Arles.