50,000 inhabitants, dépt. Bouches-du-Rhône, situated on the Rhone at the gateway to the Camargue. The economy of Arles is based on agriculture and tourism. The main products of the region are corn, vines, olives, fruit and vegetables and nowadays also rice. Tourists come attracted by its Roman monuments and its lovely provençal atmosphere. Recently, Arles has really started to cash in on the legacy of its most famous resident Vincent Van Gogh.
A Brief History The following account is very sketchy. The political role that Arles played, especially in the Middle Ages, was far greater than is indicated below. This only hopes to give a general idea. Arles was originally a minor Greek trading centre which rose to prosperity under the Romans after Julius Caesar destroyed its nearby rival Marseille in 49 BC. (At that time it was nearer to the coast and served as a port and a naval base. The sea has since receded.) It was christianised early, in the first century AD under the impetus of St.-Trophime, and by the C4 had become a major religious centre. After the barbarion invasions in which it was repeatedly sacked, it rose again to become one of the most important and powerful cities of southern France, reaching its height as capital of the Kingdom of Provence (subsequently Kingdom of Arles) in the late Middle Ages. It came to shrink from a position of power during the C17 as a result of shifting political axes and the ravages of plague and the flooding of the Rhone to become nothing more than a minor provincial city.
Van Gogh came to Arles attracted by the quality of the light (from February 1888 to May 1889). His yellow house is gone (destroyed by US bombs during the liberation of the city in 1944) but you can still see some of the places where he painted from, eg., in the Place du Forum or Les Alyscamps. For some general biographical details about him see the section on 'Painters and Provence.'
The Visit The only included entrance is to the amphitheatre. If the group wishes to visit any of Arles' other great monuments - the Roman theatre, les Alyscamps or the cloisters of St. Trophime - they pay the admission. The most appealing of these other sights is Les Alyscamps which you can strongly recommend. Otherwise, as long as the group is willing, you should do a brief walking tour through the compact centre, taking in the amphitheatre, the theatre, the Place de l'Hôtel de Ville with the church of St.-Trophime, and the Place du Forum. The latter is full of cafes and bars, among them some which in earlier incarnations were painted by Van Gogh, viz. particularly le Café la Nuit. (A reproduction of the famous painting is displayed in front of the seats on the terrasse. There is scarcely a difference between then and now.) Distances are not great and the walk is not remotely strenuous.
The Amphitheatre (Les Arènes) For general words on amphitheatres see Nimes notes. This one is slightly larger than the one at Nimes (the largest in fact north of the Alps) but not quite as well preserved. It is a generation or so later in date. The towers were added in the Middle Ages when the amphitheatre was turned into a fortress. As at Nimes it was inhabited until the early C19. The upper storey here is missing. You can still climb to the top for wonderful views over the town's rooftops and the path of the Rhone. Again as at Nimes the amphitheatre is still used today for bullfights and concerts.
The Theatre The Théâtre Antique is older than the amphitheatre, perhaps dating as far back as the beginning of the reign of Augustus. It is impressive in spite of its ruined state. It could seat 7,000 spectators. As with the amphitheatre it was cleared of houses in the early C19. You can glimpse it to an extent through the trees and railings on the rue de la Calade if the group doesn't want to pay the entrance. The main seating area has been restored and the theatre is now used for performances in the annual drama festival in July.
Les Alyscamps This is slightly outside the centre of the city, across the Boulevard des Lices and down the Avenue des Alyscamps, but is easily walkable from the other monuments. The word Alyscamps almost certainly comes from the Latin Elysii Campi (in modern French Champs- Elysées or in English Elysian Fields), that part of the Underworld to which departed heroes would retire. It is a splendidly atmospheric avenue lined with marble tombs, all that remains of Arles' Roman necropolis. This avenue was the entrance to Arles on the old Via Aurelia, the Roman road that led from Rome itself all the way to the Spanish colonies. St. Trophime, Arles' patron saint, was originally buried here before his remains were translated to the eponymous church. Van Gogh found Les Alyscamps worthy of painting. Dante refers to it in the 'Inferno.'
St.-Trophime The last of the great monuments is a romanesque church of architectural and historic importance. This was one of the starting points on the great medieval pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. Its aesthetic glories are concentrated on the west door which faces on to the Place de la République, and the cloisters, the loveliest in Provence, for which you need to pay a separate entrance. As part of your walking tour you should stop for a few moments at the facade to look at the sculptures: reliefs of Christ surrounded by the symbols of the evangelists, the Apostles, the Chosen and the Damned, the Adoration of the Magi and the Massacre of the Innocents.
Other famous natives and residents:
Jeanne Calment, the world's oldest woman according to Guinness Book of Records, who died in 1997 aged 121.
Emperor Constantine II (315-340)
Frédéric Mistral, writer in provençal, Nobel Laureate for literature, author of 'Mireille,' founder of the Museon Arlaten specialising in local history and provençal culture L'Arlésienne, the most beautiful woman in France, the woman depicted on French coins (at least until the arrival of the Euro).
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