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.