Arles is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the largest commune (French territorial division) in France, with an area of over 293 square miles. The location of Arles has been occupied since around 800 B.C. and was already an important ancient Phoenician trading port when it was taken by the Romans in 123 B.C. The town blossomed under Roman occupation, and, after Julius Caesar defeated Pompey, it was made a formal colony of Rome. The Romans proceeded to build the Amphitheater, the Circus, the Triumphal Arch, the Theater, Necropolis, Obelisk and a full circuit of walls, most of which are still visible today. Slaves, criminals and wild animals (including giraffes) met their dramatic demise before a jubilant 20,000-strong crowd during Roman gladiatorial displays and chariot races at Les Arènes (the amphitheater), built around the early 2nd century AD.
After he became ruler of the western empire in 324, Emperor Constantine I built substantial baths, the ruins of which can also be seen today. The Romans also built the largest water power complex in the ancient world, the Barbegal aqueduct and mill, nearby to the commune of Fontvielle, a few kilometers from Arles. It is interesting to walk among all this ancient history and try to absorb just how long Arles has been an important place to the development of western civilization. There is a very good museum, the Musée de l’Arles et de la Provence Antiques which houses many fine Roman antiquities. And where there is civilization, religion, culture and art follow. Over the centuries, the political fortunes of the town waxed and waned as its original territory was gradually absorbed into what would become greater France. With the arrival of the railroad in the 19th century, the importance of Arles as a major port on the Rhône diminished and the city fell from economic importance, to become a quiet backwater.
Van Gogh in Arles
Enter: Vincent van Gogh who, tired of the cold and damp of Paris, and urged on by his brother Theo’s offer of a monthly stipend, was attracted by the quiet nature and warm sunlight of the sleepy Provençal town. He moved there on February 21, 1888. He soon invited his new friend, Paul Gauguin, to come stay and paint with him.
"The two men had been brought together by van Gogh's elder brother Theo, who was Gauguin's dealer in Paris and Vincent's sole source of money. The idea that they should live together had many advantages: Gauguin could keep an eye on the unstable Vincent on his brother's behalf, the two impecunious artists could share expenses, and together they would form a 'Studio of the South', a quasi-monastic artistic community. The Yellow House, enthused Vincent, would be 'an artists' house, but not affected, on the contrary, nothing affected'." -Michael Prodger, Nine Tumultuous Weeks in Arles, The Telegraph, April 2006 (Above left: The Café Terrace on the Place du Forum, Arles, at Night, 1888)
Van Gogh was so inspired by the light, the landscapes and the provençal peasants that, during the short 14 months between February 1888 and May 1889 his enthusiasm for Arles led him to produce over 300 paintings and drawings! Many of his most famous paintings were completed there, including The Cafe Terrace (above), the Yellow Room, Starry Night Over the Rhône, and L'Arlésienne. Gaugin produced far fewer, but they are among his most sought after works. Unfortunately, the Studio of the South idea was fated never to take hold. During this period, van Gogh’s mental health and stability declined rapidly, and after he famously sliced off part of an ear and gave it to a prostitute, the citizens of Arles petitioned to have him locked up. In May 1889, van Gogh voluntarily left Arles to seek help and refuge in the Saint-Paul asylum at nearby St. Remy, and Gauguin left for Tahiti, never to return to Arles.
A must-see in Arles is the very modern Fondation Vincent van Gogh, a museum dedicated to hosting exhibitions with a van Gogh theme which always include at least one van Gogh masterpiece: 33 ter rue du Docteur Fanton. www.fondation-vincentvangogh-arles.org. Don’t miss a visit to the rooftop terrace and the bookstore to see the wonderful polychrome glass roof which throws a kaleidoscope of color down into the space.
The Roman Amphitheater
Another famous contemporary artist who loved to visit Arles was Pablo Picasso. Attracted by the bloody bullfights, Picasso made multiple trips to Arles to witness them and made at least two paintings and 57 drawings from his memories.
Today, bull fights are still conducted in the amphitheatre, including Provençal-style bullfights (courses camarguaises) in which the bull is not killed, but rather a team of athletic men attempt to remove a tassle from the bull's horn without getting injured. Every Easter and on the first weekend of September, during the feria, Arles also holds Spanish-style corridas (in which the bulls are killed) with an encierro (bull-running in the streets) preceding each fight.
Movie buffs will also recognize the amphitheater as the setting for key scenes in the movie Ronin, starring Jean Reno and Robert DeNiro.
One may also visit the Musée Reattu (10 rue du Grand Prieuré). This splendid modern-art museum is housed in the renovated 15th-century Grand Priory of the Knights of Malta. Among its collections are works by 18th and 19th-century Provençal artists and paintings and sketches by Picasso.
Arles is also a center of photography. Each summer it is host to the Recontres Internationales de la Photographie which fills the town with both famous and not so famous photographers and visitors from all over the world.
When we taught our Provençal workshops, we took our students to paint first along the Rhône, walking up Rue Jules Ferry past the ancient fortified towers of Rue Voltaire to set up along the stone Quai Marx Dormoy. From here one has a panoramic view of riverside Arles, the Rhône and the interesting high sloped flood walls laid up in hand-cut stone. Arles is a city of contrasts - old and modern, provincial and gentrified, immigrant and native Provençal. It can also be a city of surprises as we found when seemingly out of nowhere a Camargue cowboy, called a gardien, came riding down the street with a pack horse behind. Arles is often referred to as "the gateway to the Camargue", which is a large wetland and nature preserve a few minutes from Arles. The Camargue is situated between the Mediterranean Sea and the two arms of the Rhône River delta.
Here is where Les Gardiens, mounted on an ancient breed of special white horses called Camarguais, tend their cattle and raise bulls for the Arena spectacles. The nature preserve, Parc Naturel Regional de Camargue, is one of the few European habitats which supports the greater flamingo. The life of the gardien is hard and attracts few young people to it today. Recently, horseback tourism through the wetlands has become a popular new way for gardien families to make a living, so perhaps there is hope that the famous cowboys of the Camargue won’t disappear altogether.
Rue du Grand Couvent The Old Gate, Arles WC J. Hulsey
Old Arles is a delight to wander in and explore. On one trip, we walked up Rue du Grand Couvent from our car park and discovered an ancient gate set in the middle of a row of houses. Walking through the gate, we turned to look back and found our painting subject lit by the warmth of the Provençal afternoon sun. We were fascinated by all the evidence of old structures which must have been attached, but no longer are, the unsymmetrical openings, odd windows and beautiful glowing stonework.
Afterward, we walked along Rue Vauban toward the park at the foot of the old Roman theater complex, where we sat in the shade and enjoyed our picnic lunch which Ann had gathered at the markets in Aix that morning.
After lunch we walked west on Boulevard des Lices and wandered up Rue Jean Jaures to Place de la Republique - the large open square centered on an Egyptian obelisk. Nearby is one of Ann’s favorite fabric stores, Textiles et Traditions, where she bought a Jaquard-woven, double-sided Provençal tablecloth for her collection. These beautiful, high-quality fabrics are a specialty of Provence and expensive to buy in the U.S.
Shopping accomplished, we always make a visit to nearby St. Trophime, a former cathedral and masterpiece of Romanesque art built in the 11th and 12th centuries. Classified a UNESCO world heritage site in 1981, the magnificent front portal was restored between 1988 and 1995. The theme of the portal is the Last Judgment, with chained souls being dragged off to hell on the right side and the righteous being delivered into the hands of the saints on the left. The tympanum depicts Christ in Majesty surrounded by the symbols of the Evangelists. Other narrative reliefs depict events surrounding the Nativity.
St. Trophime is actually an amazing complex of interconnected buildings. The Cloisters of St-Trophime that adjoin the church on the southeast are definitely not to be missed. Entrance is through a separate gateway to the right of the church facade. The lovely Chapter House, a long hall with a peaked stone vault, displays some Gobelin tapestries and a small lapidarium in an upper gallery. The other rooms adjacent to the Cloisters are used for temporary exhibitions. The stairs leading to the galleries and the rooms above also lead to the terrace-like roof gallery which encircles the Cloisters and provides a view of the Cloisters and tower. This was a challenging change of light from the morning spent painting along the river, and required some getting used to.
In the Cloisters, St. Trophime
The Cloisters are pretty dark, even during the middle of the day. Light bounces in from the open courtyard after first passing through the pillars and columns. Pillars alternate with columns, the capitals of which are decorated with fine sculptures of biblical scenes. The pillars bear figures of apostles and saints and between them are narrative reliefs of Christ and the saints. There is a long view down the gallery to a stained glass window, there are the pillars themselves and the view out to the courtyard, among our many choices of subjects. It is all so interesting it is a little difficult to decide which to choose, but the sun waits for no one, so I decided that we should try the long perspective down the gallery for my demonstration and class assignment. We set up out of the way and painted in the quiet meditative space which has been the spiritual home for generations of monks. It is hard to describe the feeling of painting in such an ancient and spiritual place. I guess you just have to go and experience it for yourself.
We wrapped up our day trip to Arles with a leisurely walk back toward the car and on the way spotted a small shop displaying the wonderful hand-painted Arlesienne pottery. Everyone was immediately interested, the prices were very reasonable and many purchases were made on the spot. We love the design and colors of this unique product of the Arlesienne craftsperson. It is art, just like any other pure form, and so we returned to Aix clutching our treasures and satisfied with a perfect day of painting in this intensely interesting city in southern Provence.
Village of Les Baux de Provence
Les Baux is another Provençal hilltop town with a fascinating and rich history which is definitely worth a day trip. Les Baux-de-Provence is set in the Alpilles regional country park on an ancient limestone baou (meaning "rocky spur"). Its hilltop location made it strategically important and there is evidence of habitation on the location dating back to 6,000 B.C. The Celts used the site as a hill fort known as an oppidum around the 2nd century B.C. During the Middle Ages, Les Baux, with its great castle was a feudal lordship controlling 79 villages, known as Terres Baussenques, or Baux lands. The powerful lords of Baux sought to control Provence for many years, but were eventually overthrown in the 12th century by the Count of Provence, King Louis III of Sicily. The court at Les Baux was known for its chivalry, ornateness, culture and refinement. Even though King Louis XI later annexed Les Baux and all the rest of Provence lands for the Crown, he was so uncomfortable having such a powerful fortress standing in his territory that he had the castle destroyed in 1483. During the Renaissance, Les Baux experienced a resurgence and the castle was partially rebuilt. However, after Les Baux became a center for Protestantism and revolted against the Crown, Cardinal Richilieu had his troops completely destroy the castle and its walls in 1632. In 1642 the town became a marquisiate and was granted to the Grimaldi family, rulers of Monaco. Prince Albert of Monaco is the current Marquis de Baux.
In 1822, geologist Pierre Berthier discovered a red mineral near Les Baux rich in "alum earth" which he named bauxite. The area was mined for the mineral bauxite through the nineteenth century, until the mines played out. Today the castle and many of the buildings of Les Baux lie in ruins, but tourists are drawn here by the site's history, beauty, and famous food. Take your time to slowly walk up the narrow, twisty "streets" and enjoy the shops and crafts as you make your way to the top. Once there, you can visit the cemetery, tiny church and ruins of the castle. But it is the panoramic views over Arles and the Camargue which are really the draw.
View from Les Baux
There are also recreations of the type of medieval siege engines and weaponry used to defend Les Baux from invaders. Just walking around these large devices gives one a sense of the terrible power and devastation that the defenders of Les Baux rained down on their enemies. It is surprising that Les Baux was ever conquered and destroyed. Demonstrations of the huge trebuchet catapults are given daily throughout the spring and summer.
Medieval Defense Trebuchet
Directions from Aix:
Take the D64 to the A8. Follow A8, A7 and A54 to N569 in Grans. Take exit 13 from A54 19 min (35.7 km). Take D113, D5, D17 and D27 to Grand Rue in Les Baux-de-Provence. 26 min (27.4 km). You can either park along the road below for free, or drive up to the parking lot and pay for the day. Be sure to get there by at least 9 a.m.
The south of France holds so many charms for the traveling artist that it must rank at the top of anyone’s bucket list. In Part III of An Artist's Tour of Provence, we explore Arles, Les Baux, Avignon, Châteauneuf du Pape and Carcassonne.
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