On the banks of the Rhone River, Arles is famous for its art connections and for the ruins left over from its time as a provincial capital of Ancient Rome.
The town’s most famous structure is probably Arles Amphitheatre built in 90CE with seating for 20,000 to host chariot races, gladiatorial contests and animal fighting.
From the same era is Les Alyscamps, a Roman necropolis littered with sarcophagi. There’s not a lot to see here anymore as many of the stones were pillaged for building work in modern times. But it was a frequent haunt of one of Arles’ most famous former residents, Vincent Van Gogh who came here to paint the mausoleums which still existed in his time and the avenues lined with pines and plane trees.
In the centre of town, there’s a swag of churches and public buildings built between the 12th and 15th centuries including the UNESCO listed Saint Trophine Church and Cloister, the Church of Saint Anne, now an art space, and the Hotel Julius Caesar, a former Carmelite monastery, now a hotel with interior design by Christian Lacroix.
There’s the usual network of lanes to find shade and discover hidden cafes.
Van Gogh moved to Arles in 1888 seeking refuge from his chaotic life and ill health in Paris. The cafe depicted in his iconic Cafe Terrace at Night is still here. It looks much the same.
It attracts many customers because of its association with Van Gogh but is consistently reviewed as having over-priced, terrible food. We gave it a skip and got the hairy eyeball from a waiter for taking a photo from the public square outside!
The Vincent Van Gogh Foundation hosts temporary exhibitions “exploring VanGogh’s influence on contemporary artistic creation”.
You know it’s pot luck but the drawcard is that each will feature at least three Van Gogh paintings. We saw what was probably the most brain-numbingly boring art exhibition ever. Avant-garde female artists from the 1970s, including a grainy video of a bunch of naked people writhing around on the ground while a women tossed dead fish on them. Even worse was the incomprehensible art-speak trying to justify a connection to the Van Goghs on show. Unfortunately they were interspersed through the rooms so visitors had to endure the whole thing to find the only artworks they actually wanted to see. On the upside, there were five. But that’s an hour of our lives we won’t get back.
For architecture buffs, the Frank Gehry designed LUMA is Arles’ latest art space. We weren’t up for any more random art, but it’s a magnificent building, with a rather surprising slippery slide inside.
Arles is also the gateway to the Camargue. Bordered by the two arms of the Rhone River and the Mediterranean Sea, it’s a vast expanse of fertile plains, samphire covered moors and salt marshes.
85,000 hectares are protected and managed as the Camargue Regional Natural Park aiming to protect the native fauna and flora whilst still allowing the traditional human land use which has been undertaken here for centuries.
It’s a renowned habitat for more than 300 different species of birds. If you’ve read our posts on the Caribbean, you’ll know one of our favourite birds is the flamingo. What luck – the Camargue has the largest population of flamingos in Europe!
The shallow salty marshes, reed beds and ponds are paradise for these birds. There’s lots of places to see them and we headed to Parc Ornithologique Pont de Gau, a 60 hectare area of the park specifically set aside as a bird reserve.
The species found here is the Greater Flamingo. These are larger than the American (Caribbean) Flamingos we saw in Bonaire and Curacao, and paler except for their bright legs and the hot pink feathers on the underside of their wings.
As mentioned in our Caribbean posts, a group is called a flamboyance, and they were in abundance, happily gorging on the micro-crustaceans that live in the mud flats.
Despite congregating in large groups they get quite territorial with one another at times.
Flamingos are the star attraction here, but there’s lots of other species relatively easy to spot.
Great White Heron
The park is also home to coypu, a semiaquatic rodent introduced from South America in the 19th century for its fur. They are considered a pest now, but protected here in the park. We saw just one elusive fellow.
Next day we headed to Saint-Remy-de-Provence, a charming town one hour from Arles. Despite its reputation as a summer destination of choice for the fashionable, it doesn’t seem ostentatious. On arrival, we discovered the town was having its own mini ‘running of the bulls’. This consisted of lining the main square with temporary barricades wide enough for people, but not bulls, to slip through, then letting a bull loose.
Young guys looking for a thrill squeeze through the gaps and try to run with the bull or encourage it to run at them.
Of course, they can duck back through the barricade if the bull gets too close, so the risk is minimal. It all seemed a bit silly, to be honest.
Saint Remy is a classic medieval walled town. The historical centre is worth wandering around. It’s clean and surprisingly quiet off the few main shopping streets.
Nostradamus was born here in 1503. There’s a fountain dedicated to him, completed in the 1850s.
The house where he was born used to be a museum dealing with his life and prophesies, but that’s closed and we understand it’s now a B&B. All that’s there is a plaque identifying it.
The ancestral home of the Marquis de Sade is also here. The Marquis never lived here but it’s a listed Historical Monument on account of its restored Gothic-Renaissance architecture and a 4th century Roman thermal bath complex discovered during renovations in the 1940s.
The building houses a collection of artifacts recovered from Site Glanum. Glanum was a Roman city built in what is now countryside just outside Saint Remy in around 120BCE. It was an important cross-roads town on the Via Domitia, a road designed to link Italy with Rome’s then Spanish provinces via the newly-conquered lands of southern Provence. The site is huge and mostly reduced to foundations. Ironically, the best of it is the Arc de Triomphe of Glanum and mausoleum which lie just outside the site itself.
For art lovers, however, Saint Remy is best known for the monastery hospital where Vincent Van Gogh spent 1889-90 receiving mental health treatment. Following a series of what may have been psychotic episodes while living in Arles, he admitted himself as a voluntary patient after his infamous act of self mutilating his left ear.
The Saint Paul de Mausole Monastery is just over one kilometre from Saint Remy. Along the way are sign posts with Van Gogh’s paintings and quotes from letters he wrote, mainly to his brother, about his art, his health and his mental state. Some of them are pretty cool, as they’ve been placed to match the actual landscape he painted from near that particular spot. Compare these:
The monastery is still a working psychiatric hospital, but the section where Van Gogh stayed is open for visitors.
His room has been preserved and fitted out to evoke his time there.
And there’s an interesting room with information boards explaining mental health diagnosis and treatment in that era. According to modern medical understanding, it’s likely he suffered bipolar disorder and epilepsy, complicated by alcohol abuse, absinthe and ironically – the use of substances including potassium bromide and carbon monoxide thought to be therapeutic at the time.
Van Gogh had one of his most productive periods while a patient here, completing 148 oil paintings and over 100 sketches, including such famous pictures as Starry Night, The Irises and Vincent’s Room in Arles.
As well as his room, visitors can see the vegetable garden and the internal courtyard of the hospital where he often painted.
Van Gogh stayed 53 weeks and by his own account, his mental state improved markedly. After being discharged, he moved to Auvers-sur-Oise near Paris and came under the care of a homeopathic doctor. Sadly, his depression worsened and only a few months later he committed suicide.
On a brighter note, back in Arles it was more bulls. We’ve avoided attending a bullfight on our travels. While accepting it’s a tradition in some places, a spectacle that involves taunting an animal until it’s exhausted and then killing it, just seems wrong. But the summer festival in Arles included a one-night event in the ancient amphitheatre demonstrating some of the bull fighter skills. After receiving firm confirmation that no bulls would be killed – “it’s mostly acrobatics” – we decided to go.
Holding it in the Roman arena definitely adds atmosphere.
And the skills on show were nothing short of remarkable. These photos don’t really capture it. They are from sequences where the man would run toward the charging bull and somersault over him. Then run for the barricades as the bull turned and chased him.
Others showed off the skills of a matador without a cape.
On occasion it seemed like the bull might get the better of the men. One guy fell after vaulting over the bull, scrambled to his feet and only just managed to leap over the barricade before the bull caught up to him. He came back later in the show, limping. That’s commitment!
On three heart-stopping occasions, the bull managed to jump the barricade when chasing his man.
And at the end, instead of being killed, the bull is honoured.
A nice end to our few days in Arles.