A Day out in Arles

This week has flown by, to the extent that it feels as if someone has been playing with time. Whereas last week the days slipped comfortably by, these last 7 days have hurtled past, with so much going on that it’s been hard to keep up. It’s felt as if I’ve stumbled my way through, tripping over my own feet, as I have shifted direction at speed, meeting myself coming backwards. So I’m sure you can imagine that I was delighted, when good friends asked if I fancied joining them for a day out in Arles on Friday. It would be fair to say that they had hardly finished asking me, before I said yes.

We are so lucky to live in such a spectacularly beautiful area and even now, I find myself stopping to gaze at views that I know like the back of my hand, still soaking in the sights, sounds, and scents of this little corner of Provence, so many decades after we first visited. In fact, it’s so lovely that we almost forget to go anywhere else and in some ways, part of the legacy of the last few unsettling years has been that we have got out of the habit of having little trips away, to the point that I had almost forgotten what it is like to be a tourist.

With places like Roussillon on our doorstep, we’re so lucky

Arles is about 1hr 30 mins drive from us and although we’ve passed through on our way to The Camargue, I’ve only stopped off there a couple of times, but these have been fleeting visits and I’ve never given myself enough time to explore it properly. However those little tasters had been enough to whet my appetite to return, and find out more about its rich Roman history & links with Van Gogh. So from my perspective, there were certainly plenty of reasons to go, and the chance to step off the roundabout of life, at the end of such a chaotic week was the icing on the cake, so by 8.45, I was at the pickup point mentally ticking off that I had everything I would need for a day away from the house. I know that probably sounds slightly ridiculous, but the last proper day out that I can remember having here, was when we last visited the Carnaval de Nice, this time three years ago, so I’m rather out of the habit.

In the car, munching croissants, on the way across, we decided that the first port of call would be a cafe for much-needed coffee, before heading over to the Arles Antiquities Museum to see the Roman Barge, which was recovered from the river in 2004, and after years of restoration is now on display there

It has to be said that finding a cafe proved to be almost the most difficult part of the day, and after failing to find anything open near the Amphitheatre, we set off into the pretty labyrinth of streets of the old town, zig-zagging our way through in search of (by this time) much-needed coffee. Eventually we found a little place on the Place Du Forum, finding a table in the sun, where we sat for a good hour, as one coffee turned into two, before we finally dragged ourselves away from the sunny spot, to walk through to The Museum.

From our table in the sun

Walking through the rabbit warren of narrow streets in heart of the old town was delightful. There was an eclectic mix of styles, with some beautiful carved stones on houses and wonderful old paintwork on others…

Wonderful old buildings

There were streets draped with swags of ivy that had grown across the wires criss-crossing between the houses….

Pretty back streets

And some places that were just so unusual that it was hard to understand how they had evolved to be like that…

Some buildings left us scratching our heads

Arriving at the Museum,( https://www.arlesantique.fr/en ) we bought a month’s pass that allows access to a number of sites in the city and at a price of 12 euros per person, seemed to be excellent value, even though we would be there for just the day. The Museum itself is well laid out, with excellent explanations on how the city had developed during the Roman period, to become a thriving and important port for the movement of goods across the extensive Empire. There is a superb collection of artefacts, reflecting the high status of the buildings and city itself, but the jewel in its crown is the incredible Roman Barge that would have transported goods on the river there, some 2000 years ago.

Beautiful dog jug

I must admit that I’d heard there was a barge, but that was about the limit of my knowledge, and I certainly hadn’t imagined I would be faced with an almost perfectly intact, 31 metre long, flat-bottomed boat. It really is an incredible find and so similar in design to more recent vessels, that it is hard to comprehend that it would have been making its way along The Rhone, in the earliest decades of the 1st century AD.

The Roman Barge

Designed with a reinforced central hold, it would have plied its trade along the river carrying goods to support the development of the city and the further expansion of the Empire. When it sank, it had on board approximately 30 tons of building stone, which was still in place, when it was found on the riverbed in 2004.

A bit of detail

There is an interesting, short film playing on a loop in a small theatre at the end of the boat, which shows the detailed and intensive work that was undertaken to document, recover and restore this incredible find, in a process that lasted 5 years, before it was brought to its new, purpose-built dry-dock in the Museum.

The passion of the archaeologists involved is evident and I can hardly begin to imagine how they must have felt, as the first pieces of the boat were cut away and raised to the surface, when the race against time began to preserve the barge and the artefacts recovered with it too. The innovative techniques and scientific processes that were developed to save this beautiful piece of history are fascinating and the fact that the boat is in such perfect condition now is testament to the work that was done by everyone involved.

On display with the boat are other artefacts, highlighting the importance of Arles as a port; from huge, stamped lead ingots that each weighed around 50kg, to a beautiful collection of amphoras that stored everything from preserved fish to olives, and oil to wine. I honestly never knew that there were so many different styles …

So many amphorae

Housed in the Museum are also some beautiful mosaic floors, which were of particular interest to our friends, as they have discovered their own 1st Century Roman mosaic on the floor of the cave under their house, which dates back to the time that Apt was an important Roman city on the Via Domitia.

Mosaic floor and sarcophogi

There was also an incredible collection of carved stone sarcophagi, which left us marveling at the skills of the stonemasons, who created such beautiful works of art, that are as fresh and fine now, as they were when the final tool was laid down 2000 years ago. I wonder what will be left from 2023, for people to marvel at in another 2000 years time?

By the time we left, our stomachs were happily announcing that it was lunchtime and we made our way back to the morning coffee-stop for another sit down in the sun, and a very pleasant lunch to keep us going, whilst we explored more of the city in the afternoon.

Back to the sun for lunch

We knew that we wanted to visit the Amphitheatre and started to make our way towards it, but were distracted by a sign for the Cryptoporticus , that was accessed through the grand entrance of The Hotel de Ville. As we had the tickets, we thought that we may as well take a look, as we were passing and found ourselves descending old stone steps that led to a rather beautiful, vaulted underground chamber, made up of double, parallel tunnels that form the shape of a U.

The beautifully built cryptoporticus

They are exquisitely built and would have sat below the city’s Forum, to help provide a stable, level foundation for the buildings above, with some being later converted into small shops and even cellars for houses built above them over a thousand years after their original construction.

The structure, now hidden below the magnificent Town Hall, is rather beautiful, and is littered with odd bits of Roman buildings that lie along the side of the tunnels, including lengths of decorative columns and intricately carved capitals, like this one, that was lit by a small ground-level window, to dramatic effect….

Just a little bit of old stone

We emerged back into the sunlight, onto a beautiful square with a central 4th century obelisk, which was originally in the ‘circus’, which had been near the site of the Museum and would have played host to a range of entertainments (including horse and chariot racing). The Arles ‘circus’ had been abandoned in the 6th century and the obelisk was later found and relocated to this square, where it takes pride of place, surrounded by buildings dating back to the 1600s.

The 4th century obelisk

By now it was nearly 3.45, and having noticed that in February, the sites and museums close at 4.30, with the last entry being at 4, we got a shimmy on and hot-footed our way through to the Amphitheatre, hoping to at least get a sense of this magnificent structure, before having to leave. We made it, just in time to be granted access and went straight into the old arena, which is now decked out with modern staging to host events and festivals throughout the year.

The inside of The Arena

We were just about the only people there and had the space to ourselves, so it was easy to absorb the atmosphere of the place and to get a sense of what it must have been like, when it was packed with up to 21,000 spectators, watching the event of the day. It must have been a cauldron of sound, as even the slightest noise was amplified in the high walls and galleries surrounding the arena floor itself.

We walked up the steps to the tower, above the entrance, where there are amazing views, across the rooftops of the old city towards the river. I love a roof-scape and could have spent ages here, simply enjoying the view and the colours of the old terracotta pan-tiles glowing in the late-afternoon sun.

Rooftop view

It was also a good place to get a sense of the construction of the amphitheatre itself, with its vaulted arches and steps, carefully built over a series of internal galleries and stairwells that allowed access for the spectators, which appeared to be a blueprint for the huge arenas and stadiums that we see being built today.

The incredible construction

What I find particularly amazing about this place is that after it was abandoned by The Romans, it was taken over in the early Medieval period and became a defensive bastide, being redesigned to accommodate 200 houses and 2 churches. It’s hard to imagine how the huts and homes would have been constructed, but it must have been a chaotic and noisome space, although it remained occupied in this way, until the majority of the houses were removed at the end of the 1700s, before it was used once again as a venue for events, beginning with a festival to celebrate the taking of Algiers in 1830.

When the amphitheatre was a bastide

I would have been happy to spend a lot longer here, but sadly time was against us and with the clock ticking, we made our way quickly through the galleries and internal walkways, finding our way to the exit, just as the gates were being shut, which was a shame, but we couldn’t have fitted any more in.

The beautiful galleries

It was the end of the most perfect day, and my first experience in a number of years, of simply being a tourist. Yes, I know that if we hadn’t stopped for coffee and lunch, then we could have perhaps fitted in a couple more of the sights, but if I’m honest, I’m so pleased we didn’t.

Over the last three years, there has been so much going on and so much anxiety linked to going out and visiting places that I (and probably others too) have lost sight of what it is like to simply enjoy a gentle day, exploring a new place. It’s important to stop and reflect, it’s fun to get under the skin of a place and it is perfectly OK, just to sit with a coffee and let a little bit of time slip by, without worrying about things that are beyond your control.

Slowing down and having fun

Being a tourist for the day was great fun and I am sure that it won’t be long before I head back across to this beautiful little city and spend another day wandering the streets, looking up at the architecture and visiting the sites and museums that I missed this time around.

Near The Cloisters

All in all a wonderful day in a superb and fascinating place. I’m so pleased I went… Here’s a little taster of the day ….A Day out in Arles

Roll on the next visit….

3 thoughts on “A Day out in Arles

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