Ancient Rome Is Center Stage in Arles
Modern Arles is a beautiful city whose light inspired the likes of Van Gogh. His famous Cafe Terrace at Night was painted in Place du Forum in 1888 while he resided here. Situated at the start of the Rhône river delta, it is ancient Arles, however, that takes center stage. The Romans took Arles in 123 B.C. and made it an important port city. Its importance was secured when Arles sided with Julius Caesar in his battle with Pompey for control of the Roman Empire. Its most prominent ruins date back to this time.
A trip to Provence would be incomplete without spending a day exploring the history in the town of Arles and another day exploring the wetlands of La Camargue to the south. For the the first time visitor, here are the top 5 things to do on your visit to Arles.
1. Tour Les Arènes, The Roman Amphitheater
The Arles Ampitheater, prominently situated in the center of town, is the most popular destination in Arles. This two-tier Roman coliseum is still used today to host events such bull-fighting, theater, and concerts.
Built in 90 AD, it has a capacity of 20,000 spectators. At a size of 136m x 107m, it was the 12th largest coliseum of the Roman Empire (and not all that much smaller than the Coliseum in Rome).
For 9 Euros (as of September, 2012) you can purchase a ticket that allows you entrance to both the amphitheater and the Roman theater (#2 below). Roam freely through the corridors of the amphitheater, take in the demonstrations of gladiator fighting, and don't miss going to the top of north tower to see the amazing views of Arles and the Rhône.
2. Tour the Roman Theater
The Roman Theater, known as Théâtre antique d'Arles, was also built near the end of the 1st Century by Julius Caesar. Only two columns remain of its once magnificent two story stage. The 33 rows hold up to 10,000 spectators. Unlike its neighbor The Amphitheater, the Roman Theater suffered serious decline during the Middle Ages when it was mined for its marble. Despite significant deterioration of the original Theater, it is still used today for concerts and events.
It is open daily, and you can walk the grounds. For 9 Euros, you can purchase a ticket that admits you entrance to both the Amphitheater and the Theater which are located next door to one another.
3. Visit Place de la République
Place de la Republique is situated in the center of Arles, and is easily identified by the Obelisk at its center. Place de la Rupublique is home to St. Trophime Church with its magnificent Cloisters, St. Anne Chapel, as well as several shops.
St. Trophime church dates to the 12th century and was an important place of pilgrimage in the middle Ages. It's Cloisters is widely considered by art historians to be the most beautiful in all of France. Admission to St, Trophime was 4 Euros at the time of this writing (September, 2012).
4. Take a Day Trip to La Camargue
The Camargue is the delta formed where the Rhône River flows into the Mediterranean Sea. This 360 square mile (930 square kilometers) marshland was made a National Park in 1970 and declared a "Wetland of International Importance" in 1986. It's famous white horses, black bulls, 400+ species of wild birds, small villages, and general lack of tourists make it a wonderful destination that is only 6 miles (9.6km) south from the city center of Arles.
5. Visit the Museums
There are three remarkable museums in Arles that will give you the feel for the texture and history of this city.
- Arles Museum of Antiquity: In addition to the oldest known bust of Julius Ceasar, it displays the archaeological treasures of the city of Arles. Explore this museum to see the over 600 objects from 2,500 BC through the end of Roman times into the 5th to 6th Century. Depsite its ancient collection, the museum itself is a stunningly modern piece of architecture.
- The Réattu Museum: This museum on the banks of the Rhône is located in the former Grand Priory of the Knights of Malta. It houses a collection of 17th-19th century masters, contemporary art and photography, and a Picasso collection donated by the artist, himself, after an exhibition there in 1971.
- The Camargue Museum: Opened in 1979 in a renovated sheep fold, the museum makes an excellent first stop on your visit into the Camargue. It recounts the history of the Rhône river delta and the evolution of the land and people of the Camargue.