With its sun-kissed golden stone, small-town feel and splendid setting on the east bank of the Rhône, Arles ranks high among southern France’s loveliest cities. It’s also one of the oldest, with the extraordinary Roman amphitheatre at its heart, Les Arènes, simply the most famous of several magnificent monuments. Originally a Celtic settlement, Arles later became the Roman capital of Gaul, Britain and Spain. For centuries, the port of Arles prospered from trade up the Rhône, especially when enemies blockaded its eternal rival, Marseille. Decline set in with the arrival of the railways, however, and the town where Van Gogh spent a lonely and miserable period in the late nineteenth century was itself inward-looking and depressed.
Thankfully, however, Arles today is pleasantly laidback – at its liveliest on Saturdays, when Camargue farmers come in for the weekly market – and a delightful place simply to stroll around. Its compact central core, tucked into a ninety-degree curve in the river, is small enough to cross on foot in a few minutes. While ancient ruins are scattered everywhere, the heart of the Roman city, the place du Forum, remains the hub of popular life. Medieval Arles, on the other hand, centred on what’s now the place de la République, the pedestrianized site of both the Cathédrale St-Trophime and the Hôtel de Ville. The one area where the city’s former walls have survived lies to the east, in a quiet and attractive little corner. Sadly, the riverfront, once teeming with bars and bistros, was heavily damaged during World War II.
Bullfights in les Arènes
Bullfights in les Arènes
Bullfighting, or more properly tauromachie ( “the art of the bull”), comes in two styles in Arles and the Camargue. In the local courses camarguaises, held at fêtes from late spring to early autumn (the most prestigious of which is Arles’ Cocarde d’Or, on the first Monday in July), razeteurs pluck ribbons and cockades tied to the bulls’ horns, cutting them free with special barbed gloves. In this gentler bullfight, people are rarely injured and the bulls are not killed.
More popular, however, are the brutal Spanish-style corridas (late April, early July & Sept at Arles), consisting of a strict ritual leading to the all-but-inevitable death of the bull. After its entry into the ring, the bull is subjected to the bandilleros who stick decorated barbs in its back, the picadors, who lance it from horseback, and finally, the torero, who endeavours to lead the bull through a graceful series of movements before killing it with a single sword stroke to the heart. In one corrida six bulls are killed by three toreros, for whom injuries (sometimes fatal) are not uncommon.
While outsiders may disapprove, tauromachie has a long history here, and offers a rare opportunity to join in local life. It’s also a great way to experience Arles’ Roman arena in use. Assorted bullfighting events are staged at Les Arènes between Easter and October each year, including non-fatal courses camarguaises at 5.30pm each Wednesday & Friday from early July until late August; ticket prices range from €10 for the courses camarguaises up to €97 for a prime spot at a corrida (wwww.arenes-arles.com).
Van Gogh in Arles
Van Gogh in Arles
On February 21, 1888, Vincent van Gogh arrived in Arles from Paris, to be greeted by snow and a bitter Mistral wind. Within a year, he painted such celebrated canvases as The Sunflowers, Van Gogh’s Chair, The Red Vines and The Sower. He always lived near the station, staying first at the Hotel Carrel, 30 rue de la Cavalarie, then the Café de la Gare, and finally the so-called “Yellow House”, at 2 place Lamartine.
Van Gogh found few kindred souls in Arles, but managed to persuade Paul Gauguin to join him in October. Their relationship quickly soured when the November weather forced them to spend more time indoors. Precisely what transpired on the night of December 23, 1888 may never be known. According to Gauguin, Van Gogh, feeling threatened by his friend’s possible departure, attacked first Gauguin and then himself. He cut off the lower part of his left ear, wrapped it in newspaper, and handed it to a prostitute. Gauguin duly left Arles, and although Vincent’s wound soon healed, his mental health swiftly deteriorated. In response to a petition from thirty of his neighbours, he was packed off to the Hôtel-Dieu hospital, from where he moved on to St-Rémy.
None of Van Gogh’s paintings remains in Arles, and the Yellow House was destroyed by World War II bombing. Vestiges of the city that he knew survive, however. Behind the Réattu museum, lanterns line the river wall where he’d wander, wearing candles on his hat, watching the night-time light: The Starry Night shows the Rhône at Arles, while the distinctive Pont Langlois drawbridge survives on the southern edge of town. The Hôtel-Dieu hospital itself, on rue du Président-Wilson, is now the Espace Van Gogh, housing a mediathèque and university departments, with a bookshop and a salon de thé in the arcades.
The Fondation Vincent van Gogh is due to open a large exhibition and research facility on rue du Dr-Fanton. As well as displaying contemporary works inspired by Van Gogh, it hopes to arrange temporary loans of paintings by the artist himself. For details, visit w fondation-vincentvangogh-arles.org.