Running away to Arles

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.

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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.

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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.

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If the saying is that “all roads lead to Rome,” in Arles it’s “all roads lead to the Amphitheater.”

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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?

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This entrance to the arena would have been covered in smooth plaster back in the day.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Insiders’ tip: If you look closely, you’ll notice that Arles’ former denizens had an unhealthy obsession with being eaten by lions.

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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 …

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… 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Some of the streets, near the top of the hill, felt particularly village-like.

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Speaking of the hilltop: The overlook was well worth finding for the views.

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It was also from the overlook that I first spotted some wonderful street art.

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The city of Arles may be ancient, but its residents are young at heart.

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From beautiful doorways …

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… to flower-adorned windows …

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… to ancient courtyards and alleys, lots of details in Arles caught my eye.

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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.

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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.



  1. Those are some top of the line photos. I feel like I’m there with you every step of the way, thanks for relieving me from the stresses of life…

    Im a writer and am in the process of being published, but I need help with feedback from people like you before I take the necessary steps. I’ve got a new short out called, ” PHONESTRUCK” and your thoughts would be great. I have nearly 700 followers and if you came by, I would be more than happy to promote you blog, hope to see you there and youngster an adorable pup

    • I can only imagine the wonderful images you’d get in Arles, Joel! I do recommend it both as a respite for the body and a stimulant for the eye. 🙂

  2. Beautiful photographs-so glad you posted them. Love all the details you captured! Thank you for sharing them. Lots of possibilities for paintings-stay tuned!

    • Thank you for making my day with your kind comment, Roberta — I’m so honored the colors and details spoke to you!

  3. Remarkable. You have some beautiful photographs and obviously so many beautiful memories.
    Don’t let world events get you down. I stopped reading the newspaper because it was all doom and gloom. TV news….a few minutes a day is more than enough.

    • Thanks for your encouragement, Anthony, and for your kind words. I will take your wise advice and keep my chin up.

    • Isn’t it incredible the sway Rome still holds, even after the empire has long since disappeared? And I’m glad you found some echoes of the Eternal City in Arles, as well. A couple of spots were so eerily similar I felt as if I were having déjà vu!

  4. Wow, Heather! I visited Arles in 1984 and I’m sure I didn’t see half of what you’ve photographed; but this reportage is almost as good as being there, except that I feel I want to go back now.

    • I am both honored and sorry that this post has you pining for Arles, Xpat. I’d love to know whether it seemed much changed from the way you remember it …

      • I do have a couple of photographs as mementos of that visit; but back in 1984 I was still using Kodachrome and had to ration my shots because of the cost. I possibly have more in slides in a box somewhere that I haven’t converted. But the one I remember most fondly is of the tower with a rather relaxed statue on top, almost as though the fellow is waiting for a bus, and I was pleased to see it in the distance in one of your shots too. The other one I have is of the Colosseum/bullring but I’m not absolutely sure that that is Arles (and not Nimes). 1984 was a long time ago. Apart from those two shots, my memories are vague, of narrow winding streets in the old part of town, that your images have obligingly confirmed. I have uploaded my couple of shots of Arles to my photography website, under “Posts”. Perhaps you can give me your opinion on the location of the Colosseum shot. Cheers, K

        • I adore your description of the statue that resembled “a fellow waiting for a bus,” Xpat! I remember that statue fondly also. And I believe you’re correct in identifying that arena as Arles as well, because I recognize the spires and towers in the background. Thank you for sharing your shots! It’s fun to see the city through your eyes, too.

  5. Such beautiful and thought provoking photos. I was mesmerised looking at them, and felt as if I was walking alongside you. In these times of upheaval we need to breath in the wonders of the past. To stop and look at nature and believe that all things pass, but Love and the echo’s of Love always remain. Sending you my Love Tracy💕

    • Aw, Tracy … you sure know how to make a gal’s day! Thank you for your kind comment; I really appreciate your stopping by.

    • Thank you for your kind words and kind wishes, Anabel! I will do my best to post another adventure soon. In the meantime, I’m wishing you a wonderful middle of the night from where I live! 🙂

  6. Such a beautiful journey, Heide – and love how you wrapped it all around back to the beginning theme. We do need hope and a sense of resiliency right now. Thank you for sharing it via your photos and your words! – PS, love the history you included – fantastic!

  7. FIRST WHY have I NOT been here? It seems like a dream! Seriously, I have read you talk about it and seen pictures (all stunning) but this truly captured Arles essence and I NEED to go. Sooo stunning!
    Also I agree with you. While words and writing for me are healing and therapeutic, it can be difficult when everything is raw finding the right ones. We do need things light and funny and even cute as a puppy to remind us that despite all the darkness, laughter love and goodness does prevail. Thank you for not just feeding my wanderlust soul, but also reminding me of all the beauty that still lives despite the evilness that can occur. ❤

    • What a beautiful comment … you’ve warmed my heart and made my day! Thank you, K.M. (And yes, please do go to Arles if you get the chance. You won’t be disappointed!)

  8. OK, now I’ve found a new goal and place to explore ~ incredible shots of life, and the history so rich it is a bit scary to have it all right in front of you. You bring out the possibilities of both the future and the past. Love the ending shot.

    • What an insightful comment — and what kind words too. Arles is indeed a bit scary in its sense of timelessness; from the Roman ruins to the modern TGV trains, everything seems to coexist effortlessly. If you do have a chance to go someday, I highly recommend it. Your photos will be astounding.

  9. Damn ! I want to visit the South of France now. I remember I went there several times when I was a child, but unfortunately, at that age, all I cared about was the pain in my feet after having followed my parents for hours in what was only old stones to me… In French, we say : “Si jeunesse savait, et si vieillesse pouvait…”. Pretty insightful 😉 Lovely photos !

    • Your proverb reminded me of another, Pierre: “Les vieillards aiment à donner de bons précepts, pour se consoler de n’être plus en état de donner des mauvais exemples.” But that pertains to rather a different blog post, doesn’t it? 😉 Well, I’m honored and pleased that my post encouraged you to consider the south of France — considering how many times you’ve had me thinking about Paris and Lyon! thank you so much for stopping by.

  10. I literally forgot where I was while looking at your images – superb indeed. Such a wonderful post as usual Heide 🙂 so thank you very much for letting us in to your world of photography. Hope you’re having a lovely day 🙂

    • What a kind and generous comment, Sóla — you’ve made my day! I’m always honored when you like my images. Thank you!

  11. I feel exactly the same way you do about the state of things. It’s too overwhelming. I’d RATHER look at a puppy. As for your other photos…stunning, and lovely that you had an opportunity to take photos without hordes of people in them. That series of doors and windows needs to be collaged together; everyone one of them makes me want to peek inside.

    • I would rather look at a puppy too — even if this particular one was like a little alligator with fur. 🙂 And funny that you should comment on the lack of people in my photos. Just this weekend my husband said that Arles looked like a ghost town in my photos. I guess that’s what happens when you sneak out before dawn! Next time I’ll make a mental note to include more humans, ha ha. And also to ingratiate myself to some of the residents so I can peek behind those doors! I was very curious too about the interiors. Guess it’s good to have a bit of mystery in our lives, eh? Thank you so much for stopping by, and for your kind comment.

    • @pmwesterner; I noticed that too and probably, because I do try to take photos without people when I want to see the architecture, the town, the place….. ppl in this case distract – and you describe Heide’s photos with beautiful words. 🙂

  12. Your photos are stunning, Heidebee. I’ve looked through your gallery a few times. I love the cobbled, curving streets, the colorful windows and doorways, and the sense of life just beyond. I spent a very short time here on a hot, August visit, so never came close to witnessing this beauty. After traveling two months, I think I was spent.

    And yes, puppies, kittens, anything but the roller-coaster of misery this week, seemingly rolling out by the hour.

    I hope you have a restful weekend ahead. xo

    • I’m so sorry you were spent by the time you got to Arles, dear Alys. Two months *is* a long time to be on the road — and I imagine that the heat would be oppressive in August, considering that we were there in April/May and still got sunburned. But perhaps you’ll have a chance to visit again someday under less-trying conditions.

      In the meantime, puppies and kittens! It does help, doesn’t it?

      Here’s wishing you a peaceful and restorative weekend as well.


      • I hope to do a lot of traveling in the future. I traveled when I was single and again with Mike, but my oldest son really struggled being away from home, so we abandoned travel for many years as they were growing up. It was completely overwhelming for him, even places geared to children, so we’ve made do. Their is no joy in the experience when your child is miserable, poor thing. It was a case of sensory overload. In a year, my youngest will enter college, and we hope to pack in more trips. xo

  13. I’m also into it… planning to visit some places that I’ve never been before and make some blogs not just for that place but also for the people who have never been there too… let’s just say this blog really inspired much….

  14. Well, there we go; found your utterly beguiling photo on Susan’s blog with a comment (I can’t recall now because NOW I’m in Arles and I’ll have to go back to Charrente Maritime first to see what made me move over here…. – it’s called a Senior Moment, and I have plenty of them) – but basically I wanted to know whether you were Swiss or German and rightly should be called Heidi…. 🙂 (I knew of one Heide in England, and she was pronounced Heidy…)
    I have immediately subbed to your blog, you are a girl after my own taste and I totally fell in love with your photos of Arles – but I still don’t know WHERE you live. Anyway, peu importe, your mesmerizing pics made me come back from a long ago trip (think early 90th) where I stayed in that area and took some precious (on paper film) shots of much the same I’ve found here again in such glory. It was a blistering hot day (over 40°C) and as the heat and I never agreed (I love the sun but the sun doesn’t love me one bit), I tried to hide a bit in the shadows of the arena’s pillars, the little shade there was along the houses, but I would love to return one day – and I’m sure I will.
    So, now back to Susan; enough praise heaped on your curly head for one day. Take care and have a great weekend, wherever you are.
    Kiki from Switzerland, living in France

    • Bonjour Kiki from Switzerland! J’habite au nord des États-Unis, pas loin de la frontière avec Canada. But as you can see my passion is traveling (especially in Europe, from where I draw my Irish, Scottish and German heritage), so I save every spare dollar and award mile to visit as often as I can. I have a particular fondness for France, though, which is why you’ll find many of my posts sprinkled with photos from Paris et quelques mots en français.

      Anyway, it’s a pity you visited Arles under such blistering heat all those years ago. A couple of my other friends have shared similar memories, so I’m starting to count myself lucky that it was mild during my visit. Which is why I heartily recommend another visit, either in the late fall or early spring, preferably with an overnight stay (or two). There is a kind of enchantment that descends on the city after all the tourists leave and the glow of the old amber streetlights illuminates the cobblestones.

      Well, thank you so much for stopping by, and for your interest, and for your kind words. À très bientôt, ich hoffe! 🙂

      • Heide, I loved France as long as I didn’t live here…. on Ile-de-France. I visited France a few times before and I always loved it. BUT I was ‘en voyage’, a traveller, a tourist, a visitor. Everybody exceedingly polite, friendly, helpful and since I learned French at school (and loved it) in Switzerland – I think they appreciated that they had ppl trying and bothering to speak their language. Living here where I am is stressful however and not terribly pleasant. I’m always happy to visit Paris and then return to my oasis in the evening. But in any case, should you happen to come to Paris, contact me and maybe I can offer you a bed, some guidance and help 🙂
        Although I have to point out that living within 3′ on foot from a rapid-train-station close to Paris brings us many more friends and visitors than our ‘far-from-everything’ location when we lived in South-Devon in the English South-Western coast for nearly 9 years….
        I’m seriously looking forward to a time in the future (when? No idea, for the time being I enjoy living in a beautiful house from 1920, with wall paintings and wonderful, if worn down mosaics and parquet floors and – especially wonderful – surrounded by a large garden and relative quietness) when I will be visiting France again as a valued tourist/visitor, so there’s hope!

        • I echo your sentiments on Paris, Kiki — I love to visit but fear the magic would tarnish if I lived there full-time. I’ve seen that happen to enough friends that I’m content to pass through “en voyage,” as you say. And also like you, I’m (mostly) content to retreat to the relative quiet of my 1920s home, although yours sounds rather better decorated than mine. 🙂

    • Arles is in the Provence region of southern France and is easily accessible by train or car. Happy travels, Prakritibaderia!

  15. Oh! I’ve spent the better part of my morning on your Arles story. And it’s time well spent! I kept asking myself – do people really still live in those age-old houses? Were you ever allowed inside any apartment there? What can it be like, living in a house there? Well, like all good stories, yours gives rise to plenty of questions. Like, what about nude bodies on exhibition in churches? Hasn’t Christianity always had problems with the human body? So, how had this exhibition been made acceptable to the church? And the old obsession with lions. Has it been documented or discussed before you noticed it? And then Arles and the beauty of it all! Thank you!

    • I love your questions, Arletta — it’s wonderful that you are so curious about all these details, and I’m honored that my post inspired so much pondering. Let me see if I can answer your queries in the order in which they were received. 🙂

      Yes, people really do still live in those age-old houses — in fact, the old city seems occupied to almost full capacity, in contrast to so many other small towns in France that are dying out. The apartment Esteban and I stayed in was once a monastery, and there was some ancient writing etched into the stone walls. The other houses and businesses we visited were also built of stone around timber frames, and were all in varying conditions. The sense I got from the locals is that they were rather used to the centuries of history that surrounded them and thus thought of Arles and its old buildings simply as “home,” rather than “Roman forum,” or “remains of monastery.”

      As for the nude photos in the churches: This gave me pause as well, exactly for the reasons you cite! In one case I wondered whether the church had since been deconsecrated, because I didn’t find any of the usual trappings. But in a couple of other venues my husband did his best Gallic shrug and said, “What do you expect? We’re in France.” Whatever the case, the juxtaposition of the photos and the venues made the experience extra-interesting.

      Finally, about those lions: I’m guessing the photo I showed outside the cathedral was a pictorial description of St. Ignacius of Antioch’s martyrdom. Perhaps the same is true of the lions I saw inside the cloister of St. Trophime. But you’ll also see lions everywhere else you go in Arles because the lion is the city’s symbol. So I suppose it’s not too far a leap to worry about being eaten by lions, especially if the city’s government is anything like most French bureaucracies. 🙂

      Well, I hope that helps answer some of your excellent questions. Thank you again for spending so much time on my post, and for your interest in learning more! It’s because of comments like yours that I keep blogging.

  16. Actually, I wanted to write to you because of your intro…. I too am full to burst with compassion, ready for discussion, nearly exploding with all my thoughts on how is this and that possibe and how much easier it would be to love instead of to hate…. and I too am far too weary to discuss the unpleasant situations everywhere with everybody because the hurt and the dispair eventually hurt myself too and I can’t change the others only myself…. and then I also often feel like just looking at another puppy photo and smile 😉
    I would like to print out your first para and frame it to read daily – for a long while. Luckily, I then, just before sighing once too much, went on to Arles with you (I don’t want to correct your French but should you wish to impress the French, please pronounce it ‘Arrrl’, with nothing more at the end) and I was a happy bunny/puppy again!

    • Ah, mais je suis toujours reconnaissante quand les gens m’aident à ameliorer mon français, Kiki ! Thank you for that note on the pronunciation. I was going for comedic effect, but you’re right that it’s better to model correct diction, so I have updated the post accordingly. As for the rest of your kind comment, I’m honored that these simple words spoke to you so deeply. These are troubled times, but we must stay strong — and doggedly continue to seek beauty and joy wherever we may find it. (“Doggedly.” Get it? Ha ha.) Merci infiniment !

      • 🙂 I DID get it 🙂
        Although English is not my first language, I am happy to own a very good sense of linguistic details and I have a quite unusually ‘wide’ sense of humour for a Swiss…. (and – like the English I know and love – I have no problem at all making fun of myself …. doggedly or not). I have a feeling we’ll get along just fine!

  17. Great blog and wonderful photo from the South of France where I am from… You made me go back home for a instant. Lovely. Thanks for sharing

    • What a lovely compliment — I’m thrilled that my photos took you back home! Merci infiniment for making my WEEK with your kind comment.

    • Thank you for making my day with your kind words, Otto. I apologize for my absence from WordPress but will do my best to return soon and catch up on your latest work, too — because you are ALWAYS an inspiration. My best to you!

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