Provence is a province in southeastern France, nestled between Italy and the Mediterranean Sea. It is known for its fascinating history, diverse landscapes, UNESCO towns, the vast fields of lavender that bloom in June/early July, and cheerful sunflowers that bloom throughout the summer. We became immersed in Van Gogh's history and visited many sites where he lived, painted, was hospitalized, and died.
There were several small towns and cities that we wanted to visit in Provence. There are intercity busses and trains linking most. Tours can be arranged to less-serviced areas from any of the tourist information centers. Adding up the costs, and considering our desire to slow down and spend more time in a place rather than travelling to a place, it made sense to center ourselves in Arles.
We would make day trips in the little hybrid Fiat 500 we rented in Lyon from Europcar. To keep costs down, I was the only registered driver (I drive stick) and ATB#1 was in charge of navigation. The little Fiat was plenty big enough for the two of us, (5'1" and 5'4") with room for our luggage. We had one full-sized suitcase in the backseat but the trunk would have accommodated two North America carry-ons. It had CarPlay and we quickly linked to the screen to display navigation. The Fiat handled well and after almost a week, we were delighted that we only needed to fill the tank once, and added a 1/4 tank before returning the car in Carcassonne. Driving the autoroute and country roads was easy and we encountered little difficulty navigating around.
Arles Arles is another UNESCO World Heritage Site, and we rented an apartment above L'Atelier Galerie where our hostess, Marie Christine Vargas, creates and sells her art. (Yes, we both came home with pieces)
Her husband, Laurent, rescued us when we got lost in the narrow roads trying to get around the market. The apartment was clean, cool, and comfortable and located right between the TWO Roman arenas. We were able to easily walk everywhere within the Old City and knew our way around by the end of our first evening.
We were within the Old City where driving is restricted. Laurent gave us a great tip on free parking beside the cemetery where we parked every evening without any trouble.
Arles is a charming small town that began as a Greek settlement. Later, it became one of the most important cities of the Roman colony of Gaul. There are several well-preserved ruins including the Arènes d'Arles, Théâtre Antique, and Place du Forum, as well as remnants of the Roman walls and bridge.
Arles has a slower pace and we found the people very friendly and welcoming. The narrow pedestrian streets and public squares offer many opportunities to explore, sit and relax, and people watch from benches or from the shade beneath the awnings of the outdoor cafés.
The Arènes d'Arles is a UNESCO-listed Roman Amphitheater built in the 1st century AD. It is the largest and best preserved ancient monument in Arles. The arena was one of the largest in Gaul and could accommodate 21,000 spectators.
The amphitheatre was built into the bedrock, explaining how it has survived the years. The double arcade facade includes 60 archways and four arches. It originally had 34 rows of tiered seating for visitors.
Towers were added in the Middle Ages and visitors can climb the entrance tower for a view of the old town and the Ancient Theatre. The amphitheatre continues to be used for community events like performances, bullfights, and other open-air events.
Théâtre Antique is another UNESCO-listed site. It was built a few years before the amphitheatre. The theatre could hold 10,000 people in 33 rows of seats. This would have been a glorious stage as archaeologists have excavated beautiful marble columns and statues (currently displayed in the museum).
After the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Middle Ages, the theatre was used as a quarry for the materials to build the town wall. It is used for performances and events throughout the summer. Each night we we passed, there were rehearsals and practices for children's dance shows. We saw many pretty little ballerinas in leotards and tutus. I never had my term recitals in such a magnificent setting! Constantine Baths Very little remains of Constantine's Palace but the Thermes de Constantin is still well-preserved. Only a small part of the baths are exposed but it's still an interesting (if short) visit.
Place de la République
The center of Arles is the Place de la République, which includes an ancient Egyptian obelisk, found in the amphitheatre and placed here at the end of the 1600s. On one side of the square is the Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall) built in the 17th century (replacing the ancient Roman Forum), although the bell tower is about 100 years older.
The cryptoporticus (covered passageway) lying beneath the plaza was built as a foundation for the Roman Forum. There are three double, parallel tunnels in the shape of a U. Marks on the stone show it was built by Greeks. While similar structures were used for grain storage, the crypts at Arles are very damp. It is speculated that these crypts may have been used for storing wine or housing public slaves.
LUMA Arles, Parc des Ateliers
Close to the old city is the area that Laurent referred to as futuristic. The LUMA building was designed by Frank Gehry, the same architect who designed the Gugenheim buildings.
The grounds are a gathering place with public art and performance areas. Unfortunately the building was closed when we arrived but we were able to wander around the park area.
The old city of Arles is where Van Gogh lived and painted many of his most inspired works. We tried several times to visit The Van Gogh Foundation, without success. According to the website, it was open daily from 10am to 6pm in May but it was not open any of the times we went looking.
It was in Arles that the famous series of café paintings, including the famous Café Terrace at Night, was painted. The café is still there in Place du Forum, looking very much the same as it was in Van Gogh's time.
We enjoyed aperitifs here but were less impressed with dinner service. We tried several times to arrive in time to get the daily paella special but it was always sold out by dinner.
We thoroughly enjoyed an evening we spent at Bistro Arlesiano just down the street from our apartment.
Our stay in Arles gave us a comfortable and really interesting home base for the many explorations we wanted to do in the surrounding area. We could spread out for a few days and take more time to soak up the atmosphere. Although public transportation could have been easily arranged, the car rental cost was actually less and the convenience was incredibly valuable.
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