Arles is the 'third city' in the département of the Bouches-du-Rhône. Compared to its boisterous, historical rival Marseille and its worldly sister Aix-en-Provence, it can be quite sedate, though summer visitors might disagree.
True, modern Arles has its festivals, its markets, its bullfights, its International Photography Show, and a seasonal stream of tourists, but it always seems to be looking over its shoulder to the past. And a rich past it is.
In the 6th century BC, the Greeks colonized the region, but those remnants are only visible in the Musée de l'Arles antique. What is more than visible out in the open is the Arena, an imposing structure of the days when Arles was a Roman colony.
Under the Roman thumb, Arles thrived and surpassed its rival Marseille. Its glory started in the 1st century BC and lasted until the 5th. The town was a hub in the interconnecting land and water ways, a port of importance (then the sea came much closer than it does now) and a center of Provençal culture.
After the fall of the Roman empire, Arles languished and declined. The Roman structures fell into disarray, their stones used for Christian churches and monasteries. Today, the Arenes d'Arles stands up proudly, but the theatre is more of a ruin: only two columns remain erect and are known as the Widows. Both are still used today for festivals and concerts.
In the 12th century Arles had a strong revival, magnificently shown by the church of St Trophime. Its portal is rich in splendid carvings. Inside, the cloisters are of a quiet elegance. To our surprise, one of the chapels displayed an array of relics of minor saints.
When you visit Arles today, you will no doubt pass the Roman structures, admire St. Trophime's portal, perhaps amble along the Allée des Sarcophages in Les Alyscamps, the famous necropolis in Arles. But there's one element of Arles' history that will follow you everywhere on your visit. It's in every kiosk or gift shop, on postcards and t-shirts, on book covers and towels: Vincent van Gogh, the Dutch painter who spent just fifteen, dramatic, months in this town. Read more about van Gogh in Arles.
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