Arles, since 1981 listed as a World Heritage site, has a number of the most important Roman monuments outside of Italy. It is also the gateway to the Camargue, France's cowboy country.
We love Arles, its location on the Rhône, its wonderful Roman monuments, the ramparts, Place de la Republique with Cathédral Saint-Trophime, its cloister and the impressive town hall as well as retracing van Gogh's steps. Let's not forget the many cultural events and festivals during the summer season. Expect bus loads of tourists during the summer time, Arles is one of the major attractions in France outside of Paris.
First we retrace some of Arles' history so we can enjoy the historic monuments in the right context.
Walking around Arles you can group most of the the monuments into three periods, the three golden ages of Arles:
- Early Roman times: the arena, the theatre and the cryptoporticus, dating back to the 1st century B.C.
- Late Roman times: the baths of Constantine and the necropolis of Alyscamps, dating back to the 4th century
- Medieval times: Saint-Trophime and its cloister (11th and 12th centuries), one of Provence's major Romanesque monuments.
Arles was founded by the Greeks in the 6th century BC, albeit there probably were earlier Ligurian settlements. A hill between the Rhône and the Crau, the former delta of the Durance river, which in these times flowed directly into the Mediterranean sea, must have been an obvious location for a settlement. The Celts conquered it in 535 BC and named it Arelate. The Romans captured the town in 123 BC. After Marseille's punishment in 40 BC by Julius Caesar for its backing of Pompey the Great, Caesar's arch rival, Arles developed into one of the most important administrative and religious centers in the Provincia Narbonensis. The Romans constructed a floating bridge, the most Southern crossing of the Rhône and hence the most direct overland route from Italy to Spain. Provincia Gallia Narbonensis or Provincia Nostra, hence today's name Provence, became the first area outside of what is today Italy, where Roman officers were rewarded land to retire. During those times many of the Roman monuments which still exist today were constructed. Arles reached its peak during the 4th and 5th centuries. It was frequently used as headquarters for Roman Emperors during military campaigns and in 395 it became the capital of the Roman district of Gaul, an area that encompassed large areas of today's France and Spain. The Emperor Constantine the Great resided here at times; his son, Constantine II was born here and Constantine III made Arles his capital in 408 during his 4 year reign.
In early Christian times Arles became a key religious center and at times expoused theological directions not always in line with the hierarchy in Rome. This trait continued in later history of the Provence , which became an important base for the Cathars. Despite these disputes Arles developed into the most important religious center in the Provence.
Arles decline began with the invasion of the Provence by the Muslim Saracens, who later were expelled by the Franks. They took control of the region and in 855 Arles became the capital of a Frankish Kingdom of Arles, which included Burgundy and part of Provence. During those times all of Southern France was terrorized by Saracen and Viking raiders. In the following centuries Arles changed hands many times and the town's importance declined. Most of the old town was in ruins and the population a fraction of what it had been in Roman times. It gradually recovered and became a regional center for agriculture and trade with a thriving port, yet it remained small in comparison to Marseille.
Arles experienced its 3rd golden age in the 12th century, when it became a free town governed by consuls and magistrates. Emperor Frederick Barbarossa was crowned in Arles in 1178. It retained its self governing status until the French Revolution of 1789.
The construction of the railroads in the 19th century sealed Arles' fate, it became a backwater of the Provence. Similar to Aix en Provence there came something good out of adversity. Over time both towns attracted artists, mainly because both had retained their Provençal charm and were not disfigured by industrial development. Vincent van Gogh settled in Arles in 1888. He produced over 300 paintings and drawings here, such as l'Arlesienne and Starry Night Over the Rhône. However his mental health declined and in 1889 he left Arles for the mental asylum in Saint Rémy de Provence. None of his works are however on permanent exhibition in Arles. Creating an annex to the Louvre or Musee d'Orsay in Arles and/or Aix en Provence is unthinkable in centralist France, it's Paris or nothing.
Check out the three different Arles Visitor Passes, which grant admission to most tourist attractions. For short term visitors the Pass Monuments Liberté is probably the most advantageous. For €9 per person it allows you to visit a maximum of 5 sites (1 museum + 4 monuments) within a 1 month period. The Espace van Gogh is not included in any of the passes.