I’ve always believed it’s my duty as a citizen to be engaged and informed. But lately I find myself reacting to the news in ways I never used to. It’s a reflexive and visceral response — even when events don’t directly affect me.
My instinct is to discuss these events, because they’re important. But then I consider that my friends’ emotions are probably as raw and frayed as my own. That’s when I decide to post a photo of a puppy instead of an editorial.
That’s also why I escaped into my archives this afternoon to unearth the photos from Arles I’ve been promising.
Arles (pronounced “Arrrrl,” like a pirate) was founded in about 600 B.C. by the Greeks, who named their city Theline. The Romans took possession in 123 B.C. and immediately began improving their new outpost. You’ll find little vestiges of those early days all over town.
But there are lots of big Roman remnants, too — such as the Arènes d’Arles (Arles Amphitheater), which still dominates the center of town. In its heyday up to 20,000 people would gather here to watch gladiatorial spectacles, but today this UNESCO World Heritage Site is more likely to host concerts, plays, and the occasional French bullfight.
I enjoyed visiting at different times every day to see how the light changed.
If the saying is that “all roads lead to Rome,” in Arles it’s “all roads lead to the Amphitheater.”
The architecture is astounding both in its sturdiness and its austerity. See how the arches not only buttress the weight of the seats above, but also create corridors for the spectators?
This entrance to the arena would have been covered in smooth plaster back in the day.
Arles boasts an ancient Roman theater, too, which is also still in use. Clever Esteban found us a gorgeous and surprisingly inexpensive apartment that overlooked the ruins. I never got tired of hearing the tour groups go by, their narration in a confetti of languages.
On one particularly rainy day we visited the Cryptoporiques — a labyrinth of underground cellars and tunnels that date to the first century. They once served as a foundation for the Forum, and as a means of moving goods into the busy marketplace.
We also walked about a mile out of town to visit the Alyscamps (Elysian Fields, or Roman cemetery). I’d read that during the late 1700s and early 1800s the local farmers had carted off the Roman sarcophagi and repurposed them as troughs to water their cattle.
But in spite of this — and the general state of disrepair — it still felt like hallowed ground. I got goosebumps imagining that people had been walking along their ancestors’ tombs on this very road for centuries.
Our visit happened to coincide with the Recontres d’Arles international photography festival, which in 2016 focused on the (mostly female) human nude. The exhibits were dispersed throughout several venues, including a number of churches. But since this is a family blog I’ll only show you the churches.
Insiders’ tip: If you look closely, you’ll notice that Arles’ former denizens had an unhealthy obsession with being eaten by lions.
One of the oldest churches is the Cloître St. Trophime, which was built between the 12th and 15th centuries. The west portal is a masterpiece of Romanesque sculpture …
… and is only a hint of what you’ll see inside. I’ll leave it to Wikipedia to detail the Biblical stories that are sculpted into the columns — but see if you can spot which sections are Romanesque and which are Gothic.
During our strolls we encountered some of the sites Vincent van Gogh painted when he lived here in 1888. Amid the vibrant colors and warm midday sun it was difficult to imagine the despair that consumed him in Arles, and that eventually claimed his life.
But apart from the rich history, what I enjoyed most was simply strolling through Arles. Although it has some 50,000 residents the old city is compact — and delightful to explore on foot, thanks to a network of pedestrian-only streets.
When I got up early — even on a market day — the small residential streets felt deserted. I grew so accustomed to being alone in the mornings, in fact, that when I did spot the occasional human form it seemed jarring.
Some of the streets, near the top of the hill, felt particularly village-like.
Speaking of the hilltop: The overlook was well worth finding for the views.
It was also from the overlook that I first spotted some wonderful street art.
The city of Arles may be ancient, but its residents are young at heart.
From beautiful doorways …
… to flower-adorned windows …
… to ancient courtyards and alleys, lots of details in Arles caught my eye.
But with the benefit of time, these small impressions have all coalesced into a deeper appreciation for the centuries of history and tradition that intersect in Arles.
It’s a powerful reminder that other civilizations have survived turmoil and conflict over the centuries — and a call to hope that ours will, too.