Arles, between Camargue and The Alpilles

Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo telling him
he would like to see artists meet up in Arles,
and decided to set up a studio there.

The Roman city of Arles has a fiery spirit all of its own, largely inspired by nearby Camargue! Its Roman heritage is absolutely remarkable. With a town centre and collection of Roman monuments that feature on UNESCO’s World Heritage list, the city nicknamed the Little Rome, has seduced Van Gogh and Picasso! It hosts the world’s greatest photographers during the Rencontres d’Arles (Rencontres Internationales de la Photo) photography festival.

Arles is also home to the Gipsy Kings, Christian Lacroix, photographer Lucien Clergue and the Actes Sud publishing house. Drawing on its rich past while remaining thoroughly forward-looking, Arles is developing into a contemporary town thanks to the Fondation Luma Arles.

That very special quality of light that inspired him is still just as stunning today! it casts a spell on visitors… and on the impressive architectural remains left here by successive generations of Celts, Romans and modern day men.

With a town centre and collection of Roman monuments that feature on UNESCO’s World Heritage list, the city referred to by the Romans as “Little Rome” offers travellers a voyage back in time. More than just a city, its astonishing blend of cultures lend it a spirit all of its own! to get the best out of your visit, take a walk on Boulevard des Lices, lined with veteran plane trees and café terraces. Then head up to the summer garden (jardin d’été) and Porte de Laure gate into the Roman quarter. Here, you will come to the majestic Roman amphitheatre, locally called the Arena, where bullfights are held at Easter and in early September.

Just next door lies the roman theatre built in 1 BC, where you can still admire the two magnificent columns comprising the remains of the stage wall. This history-packed venue is also the stage for numerous shows in summer! Just a short walk away, down the lanes lined with mansion houses, you will come to the Place du Forum, where labourers gathered to hire out their services every morning in Roman times. Van Gogh brought this site to fame in his painting Café Terrace at Night. The Van Gogh itinerary marks the locations where the great artist set up his easel with panels showing reproductions of his works.

Since April 2014, the Vincent van Gogh Arles Foundation is open to the public inside Hôtel Léautaud de Donines. With over 1,000 sqm of exhibition space on two storeys, it pays tribute to the painting of Van Gogh, whose amazing creativity reached its peak during his stay in the city, between 1888 and 1889. Through temporary exhibitions, the Dutch master’s paintings and original drawings are shown side by side with contemporary creations in a fruitful, constantly renewed dialogue.

A stone’s throw away on the bank of the Rhône lies the Musée Réattu, the town of Arles’ fine art museum located in an exceptional setting in the old Grand Priory of the Order of Malta. The museum is home to the entire body of work and personal collection belonging to Jacques Réattu, a local 18th century painter, as well as 57 drawings by Picasso gifted to the town by the artist in 1971 and an extra two paintings. In 2015, Christian Lacroix loaned the museum 67 high fashion drawings that span his entire career at the head of his haute couture fashion house. The museum began showcasing photography in the 1960s and has been enriched thanks to exceptional gifts and bequests, thus ensuring its collection has become the first of its kind in a French fine art museum.

The legendary “Hotel Nord Pinus”, adorned with two Corinthian columns from a temple that formed part of the ancient Roman Forum, has welcomed a plethora of celebrities in its time, including Picasso. This is a great place to stop off for a drink and lap up the atmosphere. Just next door is the city hall. Go through the foyer to admire the virtually-flat vault built by the craftsmen and artisans of the “compagnons du Tour de France” guild. The carved door of Saint-Trophime church opens to reveal a sober Romanesque nave, offering a striking contrast to the Gothic choir stall mouldings and Paleo-Christian sarcophagi.

The next stop-off is the Alyscamps or Champs Elysées, reputedly one of the western world’s most prestigious mausoleums up to medieval times.

The long line of sarcophagi, some of Greek style, leads up to Saint-Honorat Church, which stands guard over the mausoleum.

The Réattu art museum, housed inside the former commandery of the order of Malta, features a beautiful art collection, including an entire room dedicated to Picasso, who fell in love with the museum and donated many drawings to it. The colours and dress- style of Arles have also much inspired the famous fashion designer Christian Lacroix, who was born here.

To get a better insight into Arles in Roman times, head off to the Musée Départemental Arles Antique, now exhibiting the famous bust of Caesar and a Roman barge also found in the river in 2010, a flat-bottomed boat 31 metres long, the best preserved in the world. Each era has its emblem. Arles has lost none of its fervour for building and is eagerly awaiting the construction of the building designed by the Californian architect, Frank Gehry for the Luma Foundation.

Moving on to the former SNCF railway workshops, whose renovation was officially launched in April 2014, in the presence of the architect Frank Gehry who designed one of the buildings of the Campus LUMA Arles, a centre of art and research. The future art and research centre will lie at the heart of the site in a 10-hectare space. The new building will measure 56 metres high and will be partially clad in stainless steel. Its nine floors will occupy a surface area of 25,000 sqm, designed to host work rooms, lecture theatres, residency spaces and reception areas. Its 15,000 sqm of ground floor space will be given over to archives and sweeping exhibition spaces. Other buildings have already been renovated: the Grande Halle, the Atelier de Mécanique and the Atelier des Forges, which house artistic events each summer. The centre is due to open in early 2018. In the meantime, visits to the site will be taking place all through the year.

To the south of Arles, lie the wild lands of the Camargue, with their bulls, horses and the largest migration of pink flamingos in Europe. To the north, the town is sheltered by the Alpilles mountain chain and valley, with large olive groves and typical villages like Maussane, Fontvieille and Mouriès.

A mediaeval pause is essential at les Baux-de-Provence, recognized as “one of the most beautiful villages in France”. A few kilometres away, one finds Saint-Remy-de-Provence. It inspired some of Vincent Van Gogh’s most famous works (Irises and l’Asile Saint-Paul) and conceals several Roman architectural gems. Today, it has become a breeding ground for designers and artists.