Our previous day is Provence was so underwhelming that we needed something really good to restore our faith in Provence and vindicate our decision of visiting the region. And Arles was the perfect little city which did exactly that. Well not really little as technically Arles is the largest city in mainland France in terms of area. With its Roman monuments, churches, crypts, burial grounds, squares and narrow and winding streets, Arles also had that elusive essence of Provence.
We decided to start our third day in Provence early as we had a lot to cover. Just like the previous day we had the option of going either by bus or by train but this time we chose the train as it departed from Avignon Centre railway station while the bus departed from the far off Avignon TGV station. We boarded the train from Avignon Centre and in just 15 minutes we were standing at Gare d’Arles (Arles railway station).
PONT DES LIONS
As we exited the railway station and began walking towards the city centre we were able to see the River Rhone a short distance away. Once we got close to the river we were able to see two imposing sculptures of lions on two pillars. On the opposite bank of the river were two similar sculptures and it was clear that these sculptures were the remains of some sort of bridge. Later we found out that the bridge, known as Pont des Lions, was a railway bridge built in 1868 and subsequently destroyed during a bombing in World War II.
We continued our walk along the river enjoying the fantastic views of the city sprawled in front of us on the banks of the river. Soon we came across the ruins of the city’s walls and guard towers. It was then that we left the river behind and entered the old town.
We had reached Arles pretty early and all around us the city was slowly waking up and coming to life. We found an open bakery shop and bought croissants for a quick breakfast.
The first monument that we saw was Arènes d’Arles, a Roman amphitheatre constructed in 90 AD with a seating capacity of 20,000. Though not as huge or iconic as Rome’s Colosseum, this amphitheatre is much better preserved and is largely intact. It is a two-tiered structure with 3 towers and is still used to host events like bullfights and concerts. We bought the tickets and entered the amphitheatre.
As we climbed the stairs and sat in the seats in the theatre, we began imagining what it would be like to watch those bloody and gruesome gladiator battles in the muddy arena in front of us. Thereafter we walked the galleries getting a closer look at the large stone blocks used for construction. Ultimately we went up one of the tower and got a magnificent view of the city and Rhone in the distance.
We came out of Arènes d’Arles and spent a few minutes at Notre Dame de la Major, a small non-descript medieval church just across the amphitheatre.
THEATRE ANTIQUE D’ARLES
From Notre Dame de la Major we walked a short distance towards the next Roman monument – the Antique Roman Theatre of Arles. This monument was built towards the end of first century BC and was originally larger than the Arles amphitheatre. Most of the theatre, especially the stage area, didn’t have much left but a couple of columns, two levels of seating, a tower at one end and the remains of the outer walls gave us an idea of the enormity of this ancient structure. There was also a video panel near the ticket office which showed how the original structure would have looked like. We took our time exploring the theatre from all sides before leaving.
PLACE DE LA RÉPUBLIQUE
Just a few metres away from the Antique Theatre was our next stop – Place de la République. This historic square, considered as the heart of the city, was bounded by three important structures on the north side – St. Anne Chapel, the city hall and St. Trophime Church. Just beside the St. Trophime Church was the Cloister St. Trophime. The square also contained an ancient obelisk surrounded by a fountain.
CHURCH & CLOISTER OF ST. TROPHIME
We first visited the St. Trophime Church and its cloister (both have separate entries from the square). On first glance from outside this medieval Romanesque church looked plain and unimpressive but closer inspection revealed a series of exceptionally intricate and detailed sculptures around the main doors. The interior of the church was also decent with some colourful and vibrant stained glass windows.
The cloister also had some nice sculptures on the pillars and columns. It was clear that many of the sculptures had been recently restored while others were still under restoration. After walking around the entire cloister we went on its roof. We sat there for sometime enjoying the silence and a view of the church’s tower.
Next we headed to the city hall from where we went underground to visit the Cryptoporticus of Arles. This system of horseshoe shaped tunnels built by the Romans in first century BC served as the foundation for the ancient Roman Forum (currently Place du Forum) of Arles. The tunnels were quite dank and dark with water forming small puddles at places. We walked the entire length of the tunnels thinking about all the history that they contained. The tunnels also contained some broken pieces of ancient columns. Overall this was a new and unique experience for us which we immensely enjoyed.
ESPACE VAN GOGH
Our next destination had a much more modern connotation than the ones we had visited till now but it was no less significant. The famous painter Vincent Van Gogh came to Arles in February 1888 and made over 200 paintings there which included some of his masterpieces. Unfortunately this was also the time when he started suffering from mental illness due to which he had to spend a few months in a mental hospital. This hospital was later renamed as Espace Van Gogh.
We went to see the place expecting a dour and foreboding structure but to our utter surprise what we saw was completely opposite to our expectations. The building had a main courtyard which was full of trees, plants and colourful flowers in full bloom. The building itself was painted bright yellow. Overall it certainly did not look like a place which housed mental patients. There were some rooms around the courtyard but there was nothing much to see in them so we exited the building in a few minutes.
Most of us would find the idea of being alone in a large cemetery a bit scary and creepy but if that cemetery is Alyscamps then one just feels enveloped by an atmosphere of beauty and tranquillity. Alyscamps is an ancient Roman era cemetery outside the old town of Arles and served as the city’s main burial ground for more than 1500 years. It was a very prestigious cemetery and acted as the final resting place of some of the important saints and bishops too. It even finds mention in Dante’s Inferno.
Our one km walk from Espace Van Gogh to Alyscamps was memorable with a long stretch of it being alongside a canal. When we reached Alyscamps, there was absolutely no one there except the ticket lady. A tourist spot without tourists! Well that was exactly why we had gone to Provence. The entrance path was lined with trees creating a green and serene environment.
We came across the ruins of a building which might have been a chapel. Further ahead there were ruins of medieval era sarcophagi placed on both sides of the path. This path known as Allée des Tombeaux (Street of Graves) has been made famous by a pair of paintings by Van Gogh. We kept following the path and reached the Church of St. Honorat which lay at the end of it. This 12th century church did not have much to see but its surroundings made it eerily beautiful.
As we had the whole place to ourselves, we roamed around at our own pace and clicked photos before leaving. There were still a couple more places in Arles that we would have liked to visit but we were on a schedule so we walked directly to Arles railway station from Alyscamps (two kms).
Our original plan was to get a bus from Arles to the town of St. Remy de Provence. Thus, we waited at the bus station (right in front of the railway station) gorging on Paninis but the arrival time of our bus passed by without the bus actually arriving. We were in a fix now and there was no one else at the bus station who we could ask. We waited for some more time and then tried asking a couple of people but they weren’t able to help us out. Ultimately we decided to head back to Avignon and took a train to our base city.
PALAIS DES PAPES
In 1309 Pope Clement V, a Frenchman, moved to Avignon and gave rise to the Avignon Papacy. He was followed by another six popes, all of them French, who also lived in Avignon till 1377. Now obviously popes need a grand place to live in and this resulted in the construction of Palace of the Popes. We had not seen this primary attraction of Avignon yet but as there was sufficient time left in the day we decided to pay a visit to the palace.
The first thing that struck us about the palace was its enormity (it is the largest Gothic building of Middle Ages) and the second its bleakness which was in total contrast to the grandiosity of the other papal centre in the world – the Vatican. We learned that a fire had destroyed the palace in the 14th century which resulted in the loss of all the beautiful works of art that had adorned the palace previously. Thus, the building is now down to just its bare structure but that too is certainly worth seeing though an audioguide is essential to understand the purpose of various chambers and halls.
One of the first rooms we saw in the palace was the Consistory which contained many models that showed how the palace was constructed over the years finally attaining its current form. Then we saw cloisters and rooms like the banquet hall, audience hall, kitchen, grand chapel, chambers and offices of different officers and popes, treasury etc. The treasury even had secret underground vaults for storing treasure. There were some sculptures and faded frescoes in few of the rooms but mostly the palace was completely bare.
We also went on the roof of the palace and enjoyed some stunning panoramic views of Avignon and Rhone.
The Avignon cathedral was located just next to the palace. The highlight of the cathedral was the gilded statue of Virgin Mary on top of the bell tower. We did not go inside the cathedral and appreciated it just from the outside.
While returning back to our hotel we saw a Spanish dance performance going on at the main square of Avignon just like on our first day in the city. We stopped by for some time to enjoy the dance along with other tourists and locals who thronged the square and that was our last activity on a very fruitful and enjoyable day.