Visit Arles, in the sunny south of France, if you enjoy lively sidewalk cafes, eating French food and drinking French wine, and exploring the soaring interiors of medieval churches and climbing on ancient Roman ruins. All this history is set in bright sunny scenery that inspired the painter Vincent Van Gogh. Strolling the narrow, mostly car-less streets of Arles is one of the best ways to soak in its stunning beauty.
Have you ever visited sun-splashed Arles, in the Provence area in the south of France? This was our family’s first time in Arles. We were bowled over by the beauty of this compact, walkable town.
Sunlight, Ochre Houses, and Blue Shutters in Arles
Arles is famous for its brilliant sunlight, which makes the yellow and orange stone houses glow. The beauty of the light hitting the flowers and front of the house above made me gasp.
Arles and its close neighbor, Aix en Provence, both in the south of France, remind me of similar things I love about Italy, Spain, and Croatia – gorgeous sunlight, lively sidewalk cafes, great food and wine, flowers as part of the cityscape, Roman ruins. And especially, a slower pace of life that appreciates the beauty of the everyday.
Gladiators once fought in the Amphitheater Romans built in the 1st Century to seat 20,000 spectators, right in the center of town. While we were there the arena held a day of bullfights – French style, so the bull isn’t killed – but we skipped it anyway. Instead, we visited the Amphitheater when it was empty and we could freely explore the stone seats. The reward for climbing up the steps to the top of the Roman Ampitheater was a sweeping view of Arles, with its orange rooftops, green and blue shutters, and the Rhone River beyond.
A short walk from the Ampitheater are the ruins of the Roman theater in Arles, which once seated 10,000. During the centuries of Roman domination of Arles, actors, musicians, and acrobats performed here, amplifying their voices, and using smoke effects and trap doors to entertain the crowds. The shows were free and helped spread Latin language, we learned from the video introduction when we got our tickets.
Arles is a compact town, so we walked everywhere. I’m glad we made time for the slightly longer walk to the archeological museum (Musee departmental Arles antique), located in a modern glass building near the site of the ancient Roman circus where chariot races were held. The museum has Roman statues, vases, sarcophagi, jewelry, and good explanations. We saw a 1st century Roman commercial boat that was embedded in the muck of the Rhone River for 2000 years, and discovered recently. The short film explaining the scientific challenges of digging up ancient boat without destroying it was suspenseful. The layers of history in the south of France are amazing.
Van Gogh Trail in Arles
The gorgeous quality of sunlight in Arles inspired Vincent Van Gogh, the tormented Impressionist artist who lived and painted in Arles for about a year. The town has set up 10 reproductions of famous Van Gogh paintings, now slightly worn, right next to the places Van Gogh painted. It was fun to compare what we saw to his slightly twisted way of seeing the same thing. We got a map from the tourist center to take a self-guided walking tour of the Van Gogh reproductions. Do you recognize the cafe below from Van Gogh’s painting of it, Café Terrace on the Place du Forum, Arles, at Night?
Place de L’Hotel de Ville
We crisscrossed the main square of the town at least twice a day, stopping for a gelato, a pastry, or to hang out on the fountain to people-watch. On one side of the square is the City Hall, Hotel de Ville. On another side of the square is the Church of St. Trophime, with a gorgeously carved Romanesque entryway.
Cloister of Saint Trophime
My husband and I took a self-guided tour of the elegant Cloister of St. Trophime, located next to the church. It was fascinating to see how the Christians recycled Roman buildings – like using the base of a Roman column from the theater to make a well.
Walking along the riverfront
Arles is compact and the riverfront is easily accessible. My son, 19, needed more exercise than we got during days of walking, so he went running along the walkway that lines the Rhone River. Our last night in Arles, we got gelato and walked down to the river to enjoy the sunset. One of the Van Gogh reproductions is there, placed approximately where Van Gogh painted Starry Night Over the Rhone River.
Traveling to Provence
To get Provence from Philadelphia, we flew to Paris, spent a few days, then took a train to Arles, stopping to get delicious pastries from the shop across the street from the train station. The high speed French train took only 4 hours to cover nearly 500 miles, taking us from sweater weather in Paris to the sun-drenched south of France. From Arles, it was an easy day trip to another beautiful town, Aix-en-Provence. For why now is a good time to visit Europe, despite State Department warnings, see here.
Have you ever visited Provence, or do you hope to one day? Tell us about it in the comments.