The Unexpected Beauty of Arles France: Where Old Is New And New Is Old
Updated: Dec 19, 2019
I just saw the hip hop wunderkind musical Hamilton (I know, I know, I'm late to the game), and it reminded me of Arles. Odd you say? Yes, most certainly. But bear with me.
Both Hamilton and Arles feature an intriguing and rare blend of old and new, an intertwining of ancient history and contemporary themes. In Hamilton, a historic revolutionary era backdrop is layered with musical present. In Arles, a Roman past is leavened with the dazzle of contemporary art and architecture. In both, the duality is quintessential to success.
Most people don't understand or appreciate the vibe and authenticity of Arles ... but they soon may. Arles is amazing spot in Provence. It's filled to the brim with Romantic treasures, fantastic art, and is a stepping stone to the Camargue.
Famous Happenings in Underrated Arles
"Happy as a cicada," Van Gogh sliced off his ear in Arles. Picasso frequented the bullfights at the Roman Amphitheater in Arles.
Arles was once one of Gaul's most venerated cities. Arles is a sun-kissed, biscuit-colored town built on a cliff overlooking the Rhone and is the gateway to the Camargue. It seems almost like an island. Great balls of fire, Arles is a UNESCO site.
Isn't that enough to be on every Provence to do list?
The town of Arles is rarely at the top of or even on most "must see" Provencal sites. People are busy chasing the Luberon villages, going to Aix-en-Provence (why exactly?), or eating and drinking their way through the Provencal markets. I kind of get it. I am just naturally inclined to ignore something that is too obviously pleasing.
And I wondered, was the venerated Rick Steve's fond endorsement of Arles as "unpolished and a little dirty" actually counterproductive? Is he unintentionally driving would be tourists away from a city he loves for its un-obvious beauty?
To find out, I based myself in Arles on a recent trip to Provence, Happily, I was greeted with a tsunami of historical and cultural stimulation. In fact, I think Arles might be the newest "hot spot" in Provence.
The Flavor of Arles, an Underrated Hidden Gem in Provence
To be sure, Arles is not synonymous with the languid romance and disney perfection of Provence's small medieval hilltop villages. So if all you want is a tiny cliffhanger, Arles may not suit.
But for the more discerning, Arles awaits, ready to seize your imagination and wrap its tentacles around the warm blood of your heart.
What Arles may lack in the most obvious scenic beauty, Arles makes up with sensuality, Rosé, the smell of lavender and Roman goodies a plenty. Throw in a huge dollop of art, two smidgeons of Mediterranean influence and a dash of Italian flavor, and you have an ideal cultural home base for western Provence.
Catnip for Cosmopolites
With its cultural atmospherics, Arles has become a buzzing honeypot for road tripping cosmopolites.
Fondation Vincent van Gogh, Arles' fine art museum, is the first stop for art lovers or those on the Van Gogh trail. Recently opened in 2014, The Foundation is the beautifully restored Hotel Leautand de Danines, a stone mansion off the Place du Forum.
Ironically, you won't see a lot of Van Gogh -- the post-Impressionist genius who was maniacally prolific in Arles and loved its sun-drenched light. But there are usually several pieces on loan from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Apart from it's main collection (a Joan Mitchell piece was a favorite of mine) the Fondation has temporary thematic modern art exhibits.
Address: 35 Rue du Dr Fanton
Hours: Closed from Feb 11-Mar 1 2019
From Mar 2 to April 21, Tues-Sun 11 am to 6 pm. Last admission at 5:15pm.
From Apr 22 29 Sept 29, Daily 11 am to 7 pm. Last admission at 6:15pm.
From Oct 1-20, Tues-Sun from 11 am to 6 pm. Last admission at 5:15pm. Entry fees: Book your tickets online here
Full rate: 9 €\
L'Espace van Gogh is the next Van Gogh lovers' magnate. This former hospital is where Van Gogh, often drunk and psychologically impaired, sought treatment after his bloody self mutilation.
In 1974, L'Espace stopped functioning as a hospital and reopened as a cultural center. There's honestly not much to see here. But, standing in the lovely courtyard, you may feel like you have stepped into a real Van Gogh painting -- “Le Jardin de la Maison de Sante a Arles."
Cutting Edge Photography
Arles is also the international capital of photography. It's home to the oldest photography festival in Europe, Les Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie, which is held there each summer.
Thousands of photographers and cosmopolites descend upon Arles to see cutting edge photography. Since it almost entirely showcases unseen work, the Rencontres is a visionary creative melting pot and has an international impact.
The "Guggenheim Effect"
But the real wow factor of Arles is the game changing Luma Arles. Luma Arles is the $150 million art complex and the brain child of Swiss art patron Maja Hoffman.
It is half art museum, half think tank, and all Frank Gehry. Gehry designed the 10 story glass building -- a twisting tower clad in reflective aluminium tiles designed to attract the international art jet set.
The tower's opening date has been pushed back to spring 2020, but one can see the irregular lego like forms of the metallic tower above the city of Arles.
That Gehry Magic
Gehry has a reputation as the go to architect for starchitecture projects since his Guggenheim Museum Bilbao opened in Spain in 1997. Twenty years ago, Bilbao was scarred and encumbered by failing industry and a city infrastructure in need of serious renovation. The city decided to speculate on Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum.
The museum saved the underrated city of Bilbao, metamorphiszing it and giving teeth to the transformative effect of art. Now tourists (like me) come to Bilbao to view the trendy and objectively magnificent architecture, perhaps subliminally hoping that their own trajectory is of the "out of the ashes" variety.
In Arles, the hope is that the "Guggenheim effect" will erase, Bilbao style, Arles "gritty" stereotype and usher in a "New Arles."
Arles Is Crammed with Ancient Roman History
While Arles is a hip art center, it's also a veritable playground of ancient Roman ruins. These ruins are unmissable sites in Provence. After coffee and croissants, I went to inspect them.
1. The Amphitheater
Like nearby Nimes, Arles' amphitheater was inspired by Rome's Colliseum and is largely intact. Built in the 1st century when Augustus reigned, the two tiered arena can hold up to 25,000 people. Much of the structure's original architecture remains, including terraces, galleries, and the original Roman drainage system.
Today, the arena hosts spectacles and concerts befitting a cultural hot spot. It also features Camargue-style bull runs and controversial bullfighting, which while beloved by Picasso is controversial or illegal elsewhere in France.
Address: 1 Rond-Point des Arènes
Hours: from Nov 2 to Feb 28, 10 am to 5 pm, from Mar 1 to April 30, 9 am - 6 pm, from May 2 to Sept 30, 9 am to 7 pm, from Jan 10 to Oct 31, 9 am to 6 pm.
Entry fee: 6 €
Tel: +33 08 91 03 70
2. The Roman Theater
After a delicious lunch break at Cuisine de Comptoir, where you can grab a high quality but très popular sandwich in a jam packed setting, I strolled over to the somewhat less imposing Roman Theater in the Rue de la Calade.
Like the Arena, Arles' Roman Theater is of Augustian vintage. With seating for 8,000, it's as large as the famous theater in Orange France.
While I was there, I was lucky to witness a dance performance at night. With the lights flickering across the roman stones and the few remaining pillars standing guard in the darkness, I felt catapulted back in time. It was exactly as affecting as it ought to have been.
Address: 8 rue de la Calade
Hours: from Nov 2-28, 10 am to 12 pm & 2 pm to 5 pm, from Mar 1 to April 30, 9 am to 12 pm & 2 pm to 6 pm, from May 2 to Sept 30, 9 am to 7 pm, from Oct 1-31, 9 am to 12 pm & 2 pm to 6 pm
Entry fee: 6 €
3. Constantine's Baths
My next stop was the Baths of Constantine, which date from the 4th century A.D. and were part of the imperial palace of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great.
Only a small part of the original site is excavated, but it is well-preserved and you can glimpse some of the engineering that supported it. Roman baths were, of course, an important part of Roman public and social life and are now fittingly part of Arles' UNESCO classification.
Address: Rue Dominique Maisto
Hours: from Nov 2-28, 1 pm to 5 pm, from Mar 1 to Apr 30, 9 am to 12 pm & 2 pm to 6 pm, grom May 5 to Sept 30, 9 am to 12 pm & 2 pm to 7 pm, from Oct. 1-31, 9 am to 12 pm & 2 pm to 6 pm
Entry fee: 3 €
4. Eglise St. Trophime
When the Roman sites are a fait accompli, tucked away in the northeast corner of the Place de la Republique is the Eglise St.Trophime. St. Trophime is a medieval church built between the 12th and 15th centuries.
It has an elaborately carved portal telling bible stories via sculpture. Inside, it's austere, but not without adornment. The church houses some of the world’s finest examples of Romanesque sculpture, including what I call the "approved public stoning" piece. For better or worse, the church has been laser cleaned, wiping away more of the apparently tourist deflecting Arlesian grime.
Address: east side of the Place de la Republique
Hours: Open daily 8:30 am to 6:30 pm, Cloister: Nov-Feb, open daily 10 am to 5 pm, Mar, April & Oct open 9 am to 6 pm, May-Sept open 9 am to 7 pm
Tel: +33 04-90-96-07-38
Entry fee: Free admission to the church; cloister 5.50 € adults, 4.50 € students, free for children 17 and under
Les Alyscamps: Death and Glitter
The next day, after a similar morning nutritional injection, I ventured out to the Gallo-Roman Alyscamps. Alyscamps is a famous tree-lined Roman necropolis a short distance outside the walls of the old town near Jardin d'été, shadowed by the Chaine des Alpilles Mountains.
Dating from 241 BC, it is a hybrid place, both a lichen covered stone cemetery for former aristocrats and a serene tree-lined promenade for those of more recent vintage.
During the middle ages, it was forbidden to bury the dead inside the city walls for religious and hygienic reasons. Cities like Arles created suburban "Aurelian Ways" lined with tombs just outside the city.
Alyscamps was the most coveted burial site outside of Rome. In fact, it became so popular that sarcophagi were shipped from around Europe to be interred. Legend holds that Jesus Christ himself attended the burial ceremony of Saint Trophimus (the first bishop of Arles), leaving an imprint of his knee on a sarcophagus lid.
Van Gogh in Les Alyscamps
Van Gogh and fellow artist Paul Gaugin often came to stroll in and paint what they considered the romantic "Champs Elysées" of Arles. Their relationship, like their art, was turbulent. Van Gogh apparently razored off his ear after one of their absinthe-fueled quarrels.
Both loved vibrant colors. Gaugin once remarked of Van Gogh (and you can see it his 1888 painting of Les Alyscamps above):
Oh yes! He loved yellow did good Vincent…When the two of us were together in Arles, both of us insane, and constantly at war over beautiful colors, I adored red; where could I find a perfect vermilion?”
There's a satisfying contrast between the serene feeling of the ancient cemetery and the dusty bustle of Arles within spitting distance. Arles has so many Roman attractions that Alyscamps could easily be forgotten when sightseeing in Arles.
Address: Avenue des Alyscamps
Hours: Daily 8:00 am to 7:00 pm
Entry Fee: 4 €
Perhaps no longer.
Gucci in Les Alyscamps
In May 2019, the serene quietude of Alyscamps got a fiery makeover when it became the star-studded backdrop for Alessandro Michele's Gucci Cruise 2019 show. With the Alyscamps' mysterious aura and long medieval history, the location was the perfect setting for a creative director’s ethereal gothic universe.
No Hamilton hip hop type music. But church bells towed, sepulchral music played, and the audience was treated to "yet another phantasmagorical extension of the multilayered, time-collapsing world inside Michele’s head."
The Laid Back La Roquette Neighborhood of Arles
If you're feeling culturally oversaturated, catch your breath and get off the beaten path in Arles' La Roquette neighborhood. It's a charming spot in southwest Arles that dates back to the middle ages.
It's an excellent place to stay if you don't have a car. Otherwise, you must park across the river with some very minor inconvenience and cost.
Nestled between the Quai de Rhone and the Boulevard Clemenceau, La Roquette is a funky bourgeois bohemian neighborhood with nearly every type of architectural detail. It's been spectacularly restored and is crammed with narrow streets, open air cafes, and artisan shops. There are colorful flowers and vines everywhere, spilling out of and surrounding the beautifully renovated homes.
Arles is also the Stepping Stone to the Camargue
Just 30 minutes from Arles lies one of France' stop notch wildlife destinations. When I think of southern France, my mind turns to enchanting medieval villages and bucolic lavender fields. I don't expect to see wildlife. So imagine my surprise when I arrived in the Camargue, on a fantastic day trip from Arles.
I saw wild bulls and white horses galloping in the countryside and pale pink flamingos flapping their wings in the salt flats. Because of its biodiversity and natural splendor, the Camargue is on the tentative UNESCO list.
The Camargue is a river delta where the Rhône meets the sea. Not only is it an outdoor enthusiast’s and birdwatcher's dream, it's a very off the beaten path destination in southern France. Much more so than Arles. Visitors can hike, cycle, or ride horses in peace and quiet.
Or unwind by cruising the waterways. If you want to see thousands of flamingos, they're on the coast between Les Stes Maries and Salin-de-Girard. Boats leave from Les Stes Maries.
The "New Arles"
Arles is no longer the sleepy small post-industrial town crystallized in most people's perceptions. Flash forward, it is differently embodied, with more gloss than grit. Like the Broadway smash Hamilton, Arles flawlessly combines the ancient and the modern to riveting effect.
I would say it is a veritable jewel in the crown of Provence and a must visit 21th century cultural center. Go ahead, take a step back into the past and a glimpse into the future in Arles. Have I convinced you?