Provence Odyssey | Avignon to Arles: Day 3 – From Popes to Emperors
When I was considering an itinerary for our Provence tour this summer, it felt a bit like closing my eyes and pinning a pin on the donkey. With so much beauty ripe for exploration, where on earth would we go? One of the first factors was transport – not wanting to incur the costs of hiring a car, nor least the fear factor of driving on the opposite side of the road, we had to be in places that were public transport accessible. And given that we were taking the Eurostar down from London, Avignon – the first Provence stop on the high-speed line – seemed like a very good place to start. But beyond that, the rolling purple hills of Provence were very much our oyster, so to speak. So following my great passion for art, I decided to plan our itinerary following something of an art historical theme, taking the trail from Arles, which today has become synonymous with both Van Gogh and Picasso (who loved the bullfighting there while in exile from his beloved Spain), and onto Saint Remy de Provence – where Van Gogh self-admitted into an asylum, and finally ending up at Aix-en-Provence, the city of Cezanne, and this year a key player in the Marseille-Provence European City of Culture festivities.
So today it was onto Arles, the city famous for being the location of so many of Van Gogh’s paintings, from his Yellow House and Night over Arles, to his iconic sunflowers, and for generally being the reason why his paintings metamorphosed so markedly from the dull browns of Holland to the bright vivid colours of Provence. But it’s a city famous too for its Roman heritage – the great Roman amphitheatre standing at its heart is one of the best preserved amphitheatres from Roman times, and has literally dictated the shape of the town, whose streets wind so perceptively around it. But before we wind back the clock from medieval Avignon to Roman Arles, let me take a moment to bid a farewell to Avignon, whose charming ancient streets bore further fruit on this morning of our departure – a few hours further to explore this surprising city before our 20 minute train journey south to Arles departed at 2pm.
Indeed, before parting with Avignon, further treats were indeed in store. For a day which started off with a deliciously simple, vividly colourful and dangerously buttery breakfast at another typical local bar continued with similar sensual ravishment, as we walked out towards the city’s old dyers district, where the tiny River Sorgue emerges from underground and runs alongside the Rue des Teinturiers reminiscent of a dutch canal. In the glinting sunshine, this street was charm in urban form, providing the perfect platform for a laid back and tranquil walk along the very manifestation of the old historical city itself.
But just as the River Sorgue pours outwards into the wider dominant Rhône, so too did we head to that same main artery of the city, bidding adieu to this city by crossing the river on a bridge that is, mercifully, in one piece, in order to capture the best vantage point of Avignon, which of course had to include the Papal Palace and the famous broken Pont d’Avignon. Photographs collated, and luggage picked up, we headed to the city of Arles, back a few centuries to the time when the Roman Empire extended its special brand of classical civilisation to what was then savage Gaul, and developed towns such as Arles into little gems glinting on the far reaches of the empire.
Just as all roads are supposed to lead to Rome, so too do the narrow maze-like streets of Arles descend upon the imposing form of this almost perfectly intact amphitheatre, and it was to this great monument that our paths inevitably led within hours of our arrival in the city. Into the great monument we went, which in stark contrast to Rome’s iconic amphitheatre, is very much in use for bull fights and other theatrical festivities, so consequently what we were viewing was an auditorium in the round, set up with a floating metal seating structure, away from the now ancient and only partially constituted former seating of the original stadium. Like any amphitheatre, the building doesn’t differentiate much from one arch way to another, but walking around the great 360 degree structure was attraction enough to enable us to appreciate the magnificence of this surviving structure, and revel in this modern day connection back to our ancient past.
Having had our fill of Arles’ beating heart, we could do little else but take in the inherent character and charm of this city, whose houses are similarly shuttered like those in Avignon, but somehow more colourful and often more decorative. Arles lacks the great impactful squares which Avignon boasts, but that is because here, a city has very clearly developed around history, rather than making history in its own construction as in Avignon. The result is a maze-like development, which is not always straightforward to explore, but getting lost in these charming narrow streets is half the fun of the adventure. And ripe for adventure this city surely is, a venture now begun in this second leg of our Provence Odyssey.
More from Arles, coming soon.
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- Provence Odyssey | Avignon: Day One – Journey South (daily-norm.com)
- Provence Odyssey | Avignon: Day Two – Le Pont et Les Papes (daily-norm.com)
- Provence Odyssey | Avignon – A room with a view (daily-norm.com)
- Provence Odyssey | Avignon: Les Photos (daily-norm.com)
- Provence Odyssey | Avignon: Le Dîner – Coin Caché (daily-norm.com)