Saturday, November 8, 2014

Arles, Still Roman After All These Years

Details of the amphitheater

Arles is an old Roman town almost at the mouth of the Rhone River. It was an important settlement, outpost, and trading center. Now, it’s still a Roman town, with the Colosseum in use for sporting events and concerts. The old amphitheater is an outdoor museum and though the Forum buildings are
gone, its large open courtyard is the center plaza of the town.

The horse race track has been paved over by a road, but the center parts of it are still visible in the open field in front of the archaeological museum. The small inner city is surrounded for the most part by the original Roman walls. You must pass through gates to enter, and some are just barely wide enough for the small European cars. There’s a lot of car paint on the walls and corners of the gates.

We stayed in Avignon for a week, and on Sunday decided to take the local regional train to Arles. With a late start we didn’t see as much of the old city as we’d like. However, since it was the first Sunday of the month, all the museums were free! It was such a small city that we crossed it, from museum to train station, in less than 25 minutes, hoofing it to catch the last train.

The courtyard of the mental hospital
Arles is also known as the last place where Vincent Van Gogh lived and painted. He worked prolifically, creating over 200 paintings. Today there is an entire society devoted to him. The members have placed a copy of each painting at the spot where he probably stood to paint it. There are dozens of easels all over the town and out in the countryside, but unfortunately, there is not even one Van Gogh original in the city.

We happened to pass the hospital where he spent his last two years in a mental asylum, now converted to apartments and shops. The garden and the portal are essentially the same. I suspect they keep it that way so the easel with the painting still matches the scene.

During his stay, Van Gogh’s doctor allowed him to go out daily to paint in the areas around Arles. The locals objected to a loose mental patient, but after a while, when all Vincent did was paint or perhaps act strangely from time to time, they got used to it. His paintings never were popular until many years after his suicide.

The archaeological museum is extensive. The emphasis is on the Roman settlement, and the best displays are the models. In plexi-glass cases are detailed and large models of the city, the Colosseum, the river, and that unique Roman invention, the floating bridge. The public bathhouse which was several stories tall, looked like an emperor’s villa.
Model of the floating bridge, ingenious!!


In a long deep recess, there is a complete Roman barge that sank in 53AD into the Rhone. It was discovered by divers and exhumed only a few years ago at great expense. All of the cargo was intact and much of it is on display: dozens of tall ceramic amphora that once held wine or olive oil, heavy ingots of lead and copper, large chunks of pearly white limestone for facing buildings, and the personal effects of the crew. The rudder, the wooden-metal anchor, and the body of the boat are in amazing condition.

The museum also houses a number of funerary objects, carved marble sarcophagi, busts, sculptures, and beautiful swaths of tile inlay scenes that once graced the floors of elegant homes.

If we’d had more time we would have searched for the Van Gogh easels, and explored more of the Roman buildings that are still in use. Arles was a step back into several points of time, a real treat for someone who travels to learn.

Model of Arles in 50 AD

Brilliant solution to the need for shade at the Colosseum

The well preserved Roman barge in the museum