“Can I help you?” asked a woman who approached me and my friend as we turned the street map of Arles in all directions. As it happened, we had a reasonable idea – despite appearances to the contrary – of where we were and where we were going. But she epitomised the friendliness we encountered in Arles on the final day of our trip to the Camargue.
The city of Arles is on the northern edge of the Camargue and right on the River Rhône. For me and my friend it was a toss-up as to whether we would visit Nîmes or Arles on our last day. Arles won – and we were glad it did. Navigating the ring road around the much bigger city of Nîmes later that day, we realised we had made the right decision.
The centre of Arles is compact and easily negotiable. Here, again, we met a very friendly woman who confirmed that the place where I had parked was not payant and told us she had been uncertain herself when she started work in that quartier. My friend peeled a somewhat sullied street plan of central Arles off the road and we were ready to go.
Despite being the end of May it was bitterly cold. Although the thermometer registered 13 C it felt a lot cooler. A north wind was whistling down the Rhône and we were not prepared for it. The Arlésiens plainly thought the weather was a good deal less than they deserved. But they kept their smiles and Provençal good humour.
Roman remains are much in evidence here. Not only is there an amphitheatre but also a Roman theatre. The amphitheatre is colossal – the Romans did things on a grand scale – and is still used for public entertainments. It has been extensively restored but the work continues. It was difficult to imagine the original ambiance while standing in a howling gale amidst modern seating and a building site, but the upper walkway conjured up something of the atmosphere.
Once the Romans had left, the people found it useful as a sort of citadel and built their houses inside, pillaging the stone. The amphitheatre was also damaged by bombing during World War II.
Seeking van Gogh
Vincent van Gogh lived in Arles, 1888-90. Alas, none of his paintings is there. But we did see a few of the sights he painted, such as the former hospital where he was treated after cutting off part of his ear and the café terrace he depicted under a starry sky. Feeling slightly foolish, I asked a newsagent if there were any van Gogh paintings to be seen in Arles. Far from treating me like a stupid foreigner, he again displayed the friendliness we experienced in our brief day in Arles.
“No,” he said. “Unfortunately, the city has none of his works. But there is going to be an exhibition of around 20 of his paintings at the end of this year. They have had trouble with security arrangements, since a lot of them come from private collections. Keep consulting the city’s website.”
We had a pleasant lunch in a friendly café right in the centre near the amphitheatre. The staff were jolly and looked as if they enjoyed their jobs – always a good sign.
Arles deserves more than the time we had available to explore it. By late afternoon, we had to leave to get to Domaine de Blancardy, our hotel in the Cevennes, which is also a vineyard. But I am already planning a little trip back to see the van Goghs.
Click here for the Arles tourist office website.
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