Until the past few years, I never really knew how much Roman architecture was left standing in France, especially in the south. I guess I always had a preconceived notion that most of it had been destroyed during the Middle Ages and replaced with more contemporary structures. I was pleasantly surprised, while doing my research, to find that there were a few cities in the south that still maintained a very Roman feel. Arles is among the most well known for its Roman architecture and history and gives one the opportunity to visit ancient Rome in France.
What’s really cool about Arles is that they actually have four different walking routes through the city to see the staggering amount of monuments. There is the Circuit Antique, the Circuit Medieval, the Circuit Renaissance et Classique, and the Circuit Van Gogh. I didn’t choose to follow any specific path because I wanted to see it all, however, if you are visiting with more specific tastes, these routes can be really helpful.
One of the more interesting things I saw when I was in Arles was a place called Les Alyscamps (which Van Gogh actually did a pair of paintings on). Once, this was a sprawling Roman necropolis where the well-to-do were buried. There used to be thousands of sarcophagi and mausoleums that attracted people from all over Europe as many wanted to be buried there. During the Industrial Revolution, however, much of the graveyard was demolished, leaving only one sarcophagus-lined lane leading up to Church of Saint Honoratus. The church itself is unused but leaves yet another hollow reminder of what this location once was.
I wandered my way back up into town, passing ancient ramparts and old chapels as I went. I found myself in the middle of a plaza known as the Place de la Republique. It was an interesting tourist moment. Crowds of people milled around, a man played the saxophone, pigeons were flying around, and I was surrounded by Roman and Medieval architecture.
There wasn’t a lot to see by this point of the night as most of the monuments and parks were either closed or closing. I used this opportunity to circle the arena looking for a restaurant within view of the arena, of which there are plenty. I wound up having a pleasant conversation with the Englishman next to me about our experiences in France and swapped stories about the climate of the politics in our respective countries.
In the early morning, I headed to the Cathedral of Saint Trophime. Built in the 12th century, this church is actually one of the stops on the Camino de Santiago and as such, is an extremely popular tourist destination. The adjoining cloisters and dormitories are both open to the public and make for a neat visit. Sculptures line the columns that make up the cloisters and there’s a wonderful air of quiet pensiveness that surrounds you while you’re there.
Arles taught me to take my time a little more. So often, I had woken up early and immediately checked out of my hotel to hop a train for another city or two, only seeing each for a very brief time, then moving right along. I decided to treat Arles differently. There was something about this ancient Roman town that called me to stay. I scheduled my train for later in the day, and, for the first time, didn’t think about where I had to be next.
The first step was to find lunch, which turned out to be easier than I thought considering by midday, all but about two restaurants were closed. I found a nice little cafe by the steps leading up to the arena and tried my first ever croque monsieur, which I loved. I journaled a little while I ate, enjoying the sun and the surprisingly quiet afternoon.
Unable to enter the ancient theatre or arena the night, I took the opportunity to visit both after lunch. The arena was spectacular, though there was a lot of scaffolding obscuring the view. It was interesting to take a look at each level within the structure. From the top, you can see where people had sought refuge and built homes within the arena itself. At one point, an entire city center, complete with markets and houses existed inside the ovular construction.
The theatre was breathtaking. I was so overcome with emotion as I walked up the stairs to the stone slabs that served as seats thousands of years ago. It was hard to believe that some of the earliest recorded theatrical performances happened in spaces just like this one. Getting back to the roots of the career I chose was such a surreal experience. Though a concert was being set up as I sat there, I felt like I was alone with my emotions, even if just for a moment. Very few places have left me as awestruck as this ancient artistic space.
After leaving the theatre, I checked with my map to see if there were things I had not yet seen and I realized that I had spent a lot of time in the city center, but very little near the water. I found a creperie that sold takeaway and went for a stroll. I’ve mentioned it before, but it’s worth saying again, the Rhône is one of the most beautifully colored rivers I’ve ever seen. The turquoise water, paired with the stunning white stone architecture that lined the banks was the perfect view while I stopped and ate my crepe.
It was here that a handful of people began to ask me if I was on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, one of the many ancient pilgrimages to the cathedral in Spain. It made sense, I was a single backpacker in a town that is one of the main stops in France. I almost felt bad that I wasn’t, though the idea of making that pilgrimage is high on my to-do list. The person that really surprised me though was the middle-aged woman taking photos for her photography class. She said she was taking pictures of backpackers passing through Arles and kindly asked me if I would be willing to let her take a photo of me, which I did. I wish that I could find that photo. Selfies are one thing, but having a complete stranger take your picture is another, and I’m fascinated with what she saw through her lens, her interpretation of me.
Great article! Really enjoyed reading it