Arles

As we said in last week’s blog, Les Tourades is just outside Arles. So on a somewhat gloomy Monday afternoon we popped in for an hour or two. We had visited in summer in the past, but southern French cities in particular have a very different aspect to them at this time of year when they are not as the guidebooks say ‘sundrenched.’

A square in the older part of Arles

The famous café in the Place du Forum painted by Van Gogh in 1888.

Arles was an important city in Roman times when it had, as now, the southernmost bridge on the river Rhone. You can still see substantial Roman remains there, including baths, the amphitheatre and a huge aqueduct. In more modern times, Van Gogh lived there and painted numerous paintings round the town. Much to the embarrassment of today’s town, none of these are now in Arles itself as at the time the city fathers’ taste in art was very conservative! But they’ve tried to make up for it by placing reproductions at the spot where a picture was painted.

 

A 4th-century sarcophagus in the church showing the visit of the magi above and Palm Sunday below.

Arles was also important in the spread of Christianity through what was then Gaul in the third century. The cathedral of St Trophime (one of the early bishops) is frankly not very interesting on the inside, but the magnificent late 12th century west entrance is covered with sculptures depicting Bible scenes and saints, with Christ in majesty surrounded by symbols of the four Gospel writers in the middle.

The entrance to St Trophime

Christ in majesty with angels above and saints below

There’s something charming and very distinctive about Arles. It’s certainly a relief from the anonymous concrete and glass modern buildings that dominate almost everywhere the Côte d’Azur. Arles has time and tradition on its side.

The town hall on the left faces the cathedral on the right

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