Ancient, ancient Arles…

We’re told it was occupied or settled by Celts, then Greeks, before Julius Ceasar decided to give it to his veterans for a peaceful retirement perhaps! It became known as ‘Rome in Gaul’ and left a very impressive UNESCO World Heritage list of Roman and Romanesque buildings and monuments!

Then it became an important Christian centre in medieval times enduring invasions and rampagings. It was rebuilt in the 12th Century. The 17th and 18th centuries saw the addition of the stately homes and buildings lining the streets of Arles today.

We had a year of weather the day we were in Arles, no doubt reflecting this changeable history! Hot and cloudless, then later cloudy, then the wind picked up, then rain and a bit of thunder, then, thank goodness, it petered out while we kept exploring.

Tina had another low blood sugar attack so again lunch was by the car in the carpark as soon as we arrived – though we were looking at remnants of the old walls and the big round towers forming the city portal, so not that bad.

That done, it was through said portals for maps and info… Oops again, lots of things closed in the middle of the day (typical Baroness tour style) but being the resourceful and intrepid travellers we are, we worked around that!

The amphitheatre dates from about 90 AD and is built on this huge platform cut out of the rock. It can seat 20,000 spectators on more than 30 tiers who can all watch the action in the centre. (Once upon a time there were wooden stages in the centre with trapdoors to allow for exciting entries and exits of talent and props.) During the torrid Middle Ages it became a fortress with towers added and houses, even churches, built inside it. These were only cleared out in 1826-30, and it was only then that bullfighting was introduced for the first time – to celebrate the capture of Algiers! The day we were there, there was no bullfighting, but their smell was still overpowering. Bullfighting was evident in the graffiti, made up the majority of the souvenirs available, but even some boutiques had bullfighting themes in their windows. So it is still alive and well.

The Roman theatre held about half as many people as it was a semicircle rather than a circle. But this left more room for the stage, the back of which was decorated with huge columns and statues. All but two of the columns (known as the two widows) are now broken, sadly,though there are various fragments still in the premises. Again, from the 5th century, houses and churches were built inside the space until the 1830s when they were cleared out, and the precious marble pavement and some of the seats and walls were restored.

A number of artists were sketching and painting in the theatre grounds and I got chatting to Karen Grant. She has been studying and painting for several years, and has now decided to have her first exhibition A Summer’s Day

6-11 June 2011, 10am to 4pm
My Blue Studio
Alexander House
Springfield Lane
Broadway WR12 78T  – in Wostershire
Ph 01386 859245

If you’ll be in the area, do go and see it and her!

The Church and Cloister of St Trophime faces into the same square as the Hotel de Ville. (Trophime was allegedly the first bishop of  Arles.) A Romanesque building, the beautiful carved façade and doors were added in the late 12th century and are recognised as one of the largest collections of Romanesque sculpture in Provence. Around this time or a little later the Cloister of St Trophime was added to house the canons supporting the bishop and managing church property. (Part of Pope Gregory’s reforms of the time were that canons were to live like monks). Work suddenly stopped around 1220 and not long after, Arles began to decline and eventually this area was used for storage.

The Roman forum once in Arles had a massive terrace which needed very strong foundations. These were built in the form of semi or underground galleries, or cryptoporticos. These supported both the paved square and the complex of buildings housing the administrative, judicial, economical and religious functions of the city. Under some of these buildings, in the cryptoporticos, shops were added to the outside of the buildings.

Very tired, we found a lovely little café where croquet monsieur and chocolat chaud from a very friendly Pierre replenished our energy supplies to sortie off for more ‘ruination’…

Constantin’s Public Baths – a very important part of everyday Roman life, included training rooms, hot, lukewarm, and cold baths, a swimming pool and a final massage! And the women went first! Sounds very civilised to me! Only a small part of the complex from the 4th century that went along the Rhone still remains – the warm area. This seemed extensive to us, so in its day the complex must have been very large and used by crowds of people every day. The design of the vaults above the pools and rooms and elegance of the brickwork are a reminder of the beauty and sophistication of the art of this civilisation.

The Alyscamps is a large, U-shaped Roman cemetery outside the walls of the old city, and apparently one of the most famous necropolises of the ancient world. (Alyscamps is really the same as Champs-Élysées, or the final resting place for heroic or virtuous souls.) Originally Romans would have been buried here, but it continued to be used as a burial ground for 1500 years. This inevitably necessitated the sarcophagi being stacked upon each other.

During the Renaissance though, it was looted – sarcophagi were given as gifts by town councillors (?!), building materials were taken from it and later a railway and a canal were built through it! So by the time Van Gogh and Gauguin chose this as the first site of their painting expeditions it probably looked much like it does today. In fact it is amazing that what is there is still there.

At the very end of the avenue of remaining sarcophagi is the medieval church of St Honorat. Damp, cold, dark and very smelly it is now the home of pigeons, it felt haunting and haunted, especially in the dimming light and surrounded by the dark tall cypresses. Still a beautiful building in its architecture, it was a surprise to see it in this bad state. Maybe Arles has just too much past to keep up with it all.

World Heritage Tour of Arles click on each spot on the map for great virtual tour of each site and look around. But don’t get vertigo!!

Heather and Tina

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One Response to Ancient, ancient Arles…

  1. Leeroy says:

    Pretty cool of the French to graffiti onto paper instead of brick. How truly civilised.

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