Where Two Worlds Collide - Arles, France
I’ve been to several destinations where I felt two or more worlds collided, but few more profoundly than Arles, France.
Let’s begin with the world of the Romans in Arles. If you want to see Roman ruins, there are few places with more well preserved Roman ruins than Arles.
Rome began its’ conquest of southern France (known then as Gaul) back in 125 BC. By the time the Goths conquered Arles in 471 AD the Romans had been putting their mark on the region for several hundred years, leaving behind magnificent structures that are still in use today.
The Arena was probably the most remarkable of the Roman remains. Constructed in 90 AD it is a smaller version of the colosseum in Rome and remarkably intact. It is two stories tall and could seat 26,000 spectators. Today the Arena is used for the southern France version of bullfighting, as well as concerts and opera performances.
The Theatre Antique is another public theater area. While the Arena was used for brutal games and sports this semicircular amphitheater was used for performances of drama and held only about 12,000 people.
If there is another item of construction Romans are famous for it’s the Roman bath, and Arles is no exception. Emperor Constantine constructed a thermal bath facility in the 4th century that is still visible today.
Even the city center still pays tribute to the Roman history of the town by focusing around an Obelisk that once stood at a Roman circus.
When Vincent Van Gogh moved to Arles in 1888 the massive remnants of the Roman world there collided with his light, impressionist style resulting in an amazing body of work for which the artists is most famously known to this day.
Van Gogh loved what he called “the yellow sun” of Provence and his inspiration propelled him into a creative frenzy. In fact, his frenzy became lunacy that ended up with his move into an asylum (the garden there is now called Espace Van Gogh and is the subject of many of his paintings).
Within walking distance of the asylum is the Place du Forum, where sidewalk café’s still serve amazing local fare and remain recognizable as the subjects of many Van Gogh paintings. Co-existing with the local cafés are the remains of a 2nd century Roman temple façade.
Les Alyscamps is an expansive burial ground of both the ancient and middle ages and was the place Vincent Van Gogh first painted in Arles along with Paul Gaugin. Did you know Arles is where Van Gogh and Gaugin had their famous falling out, which ended with Vincent committing suicide in 1890?
Speaking of Gaugin, he was inspired by Arles as well. So was Pablo Picasso (in fact 57 of his original drawings are displayed in the Musee Reattu in Arles).
The south of France is an area that you can experience in a wide variety of ways: escorted motor coach tours, river cruises as well as independent travel.
I had never seen the south of France prior to this trip, and I have to say it is as stunning as you imagine it to be. Every day we passed scenery that was simply breathtaking and the historic and cultural attractions made this a trip that I would definitely recommend and would jump at the chance to repeat.
Joy Gawf-Crutchfield owns and operates The Joy of Travel