Arles: Van Gogh and Romans

While Donna went on the Van Gogh tour, I took the bike tour which featured the Roman Museum and entry into the stunning Arena. The small city of Arles sits where the Rhone River splits into two major tributaries at the north end of the Camargue wetlands on the coast of the Mediterranean. The Romans established Arles as a major outpost in Roman Gaul where trading with local tribes was established. Since 1981 it has been a UNESCO World heritage site because of the well-preserved Roman Arena at the center of the city.

Arles Bikers

The Romans established their settlement at Arles in the 2nd Century BC. When Julius Caesar and Pompey were struggling for dominance in Rome, Arles sided with Caesar while Marseilles took Pompey’s side. When Caesar won, Arles was awarded spoils and dominated the area of what is now Provence. After biking through the narrow winding streets of central Arles, we stopped at the Museum of Ancient Arles, which features Roman artifacts and models of how things looked during the Roman era.

Among the more interesting items on display at the Museum are a bust which the locals believe to be Julius Caesar (most experts dispute the claim) and the remains of a long narrow river boat.

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Vincent Van Gogh lived in Arles for 14 months from 1888 to 1889, producing a large number of paintings, watercolors and drawings including many of his most famous works. The city has posted copies of his paintings throughout the city from the viewpoint he painted. The most familiar may be the yellow cafe on a small city square which Van Gogh portrayed at night. The city also has it’s own small Van Gogh Museum. We stopped at the hospital where Van Gogh stayed after cutting his ear while his friend Gauguin was visiting. The courtyard of the hospital is another famous painting. Seeing the actual places and comparing the paintings hints at the refraction of Van Gogh’s troubled mind, which created beauty from mundane cityscapes.

We looked through a steel fence at the Roman Theater which was once impressive with seating for 8000, but was quarried for centuries to construct newer buildings. It is under slow and meticulous reconstruction.

Two blocks away is the jewel of Arles, the Arena or Amphitheater which was built at the end for the 1st century AD. Unlike the theater, the arena has been used continuously. After the Roman era, it because a town within a city. It remade into a fortress with buildings in the center and added towers with battlements. Three middle age towers which contrast sharply with the stately Roman design, but provide the best views of the Arena and the surrounding city. Today, the Arena is used for concerts and for a more humane variation of bull-fighting in which the bulls are not hurt or killed.

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One of the challenges of a bike tour is the difficulty of getting snapshots of the beautiful views along the way. The center of Arles is a scenic tangle of narrow alleys with flower boxes, barrel tiled roofs and windows with painted shutters. It is easy to see why Van Gogh stayed.

Arles Flowers



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