When I asked my late 97-year-old Father-In-Law about his years of military service in Europe during WWII, his most interesting memory was visiting Arles and Southern France. I had never heard of Arles prior to this point. After research, I discovered that Arles has been visited by Julius Caesar, Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Pablo Picasso and other notable figures in its history. Caesar would have called it Colonial Julia Paterna Arelatensium but today it is called Arles. I am in love with this city as this is my second trip in the past two years. I hope that this blog inspires you to visit Arles!
Disclaimer: We do not condone bullfighting.
Arles offers amazing sites, foods, nature, art, and culture. Arles is located in Provence, which is located in Southwestern France. Although Nice is more famous, Arles offers countless delights for history lovers as well as nature lovers away from the crowds in Nice.
Roman Historical Sites
Arles has many Roman ruins throughout the city which offers an amazing opportunity to see world-class archeological sites without the huge crowds that you might encounter in Italy.
The Arles Arena dates back to 90 A.D. and has 20,000 seats. It is still in use today. On my first visit, I was able to walk on the sand where the Gladiators fought 2,000 years ago. I also attended a bullfight during the Easter Festival. It is hard to describe the feeling of sitting in an arena dating back two millennia. Today, the Arena is in great shape and hopefully will be in existence for another 2,000 years. It is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Both Vincent Van Gogh and Pablo Picasso painted the Arena in their paintings.
The Theatre Antique dates back to the 1st century. This is where Romans watched plays and attended other cultural events. Today, classical performances are held at the Theatre during the summer. Anyone can tour the Theatre, as I did, and still be amazed by the structure of 33 rows and imagine events being held in ancient times.
The Ancient Obelisk is found in Place de la Republique. It dates back to Roman times and is a landmark in front of the center of town. Today, local merchants sell art, food, clothes and other items in the square.
Discover Van Gogh’s connection to Arles
Vincent Van Gogh moved to Arles in 1888. Many paintings had Arles as a subject by Van Gogh. One theory about Van Gogh cutting his ear off was that he saw the Matador cut off the ear of the bull while attending the Arles Arena. He also stayed in a local hospital for his mental illness.
Some of the sites associated with Vincent Van Gogh in Arles are still today visible including the Arena, The Bridge of Langlois, Saintes-Maries de la Mar, Musee Reattu, Cathedral Saint Trophime, and many others. Sadly, some sites have disappeared including his residence.
If you are interested in art, many websites display Arles and the actual locations of Van Gogh’s paintings. It is fantastic to physically them. The Tourist Board offers information about a walking tour “In the footsteps of Van Gogh.”
Explore nature in Camargue National Park
The Camargue is a National Park made up of a marsh preserve located outside of Arles between the Mediterranean Sea and Rhone River. It is protected with strict regulations where wild bulls, horses, storks, flamingos, and birds thrive. It is one of France’s major wetlands and offers a unique opportunity to experience true nature a short distance from Arles. It is best visited in spring and avoided in summer due to the mosquito population. There are many ways of seeing the Camargue including using a tour guide (my option.) For more information about bird watching in Camargue National Park, I recommend this independent travel guide to Camargue National Park.
We ended up hiring a tour guide that we met at the tourist office. Our tour was conducted by an experienced guide in an SUV since parts of the road were muddy. Without the guide, we would have missed so much information about the Camargue. If you prefer traveling in a different manner, horseback riding or biking is also available for seeing the Camargue.
One surprising stop was the town of Saintes Maries de la Mer that is the largest town in the Camargue. There is a 1,000-year-old church, a great beach, countless restaurants, and shopping in the town. In May, Roma people have a large festival in the town, which I highly recommend.
Festivals in Arles
Easter in Arles
Beyond being a religious holiday, Easter in Arles has a number of traditions, which date back hundreds of years. Throughout the city, you’ll find strolling bands playing music from flamenco to Lady Gaga. Also, there are many flamenco dancers performing throughout Arles.
Although many events happen in Arles during the four-day period surrounding Easter, I was advised to avoid the crowds as the best days are the first and the last. During the festival, the hotel and food prices in Arles remained unchanged from non-festival periods.
In the mornings, there is an Encierro where local people test their courage by running with 8 bulls around the square for one hour. In the evenings, there is a Bandido Finale, where bulls run through the streets. The bulls are escorted by guardians (French cowboys). In the morning and afternoon in the Arena, there are bullfights. These events are best avoided for anyone who is an animal lover. (We do not condone bullfights.)
Other festivals in Arles worthy of note
There are many festivals held throughout the year including the Course de Satin dating back to 1529 with horse racing. The Rice Festival is held at the end of summer and celebrates the crop and worth visiting Arles for!
Eat Well in Provence
Provençal food is famous for its freshness. Being so close to the Mediterranean, Arles has seafood and fish that is delicious and readily available. Local French wine cost a few euros per glass although a better buy has to be getting a bottle or half a carafe to share with dinner!
While in Arles, I tried many of the many famous dishes of Provence. One of my favorite dishes was the ratatouille that is made with eggplant, zucchini, and other local vegetables. Many restaurants also specialize in chicken dishes cooked in. I also tried the fresh Artichokes for lunch that was fantastic. The chefs excel in using local ingredients with flair. Be prepared to wait since the food is cooked after ordering. Be patient.
Many restaurants also serve local French cheese with the meal. One day, I went to the market and the oranges were spectacular. Perhaps, my favorite meal is the Salad Niçoise. One small restaurant that was great was the L’ Amendier with a great plat du jour that included tuna, vegetables and wine per person cost 17 Euros for dinner (2019).
Additional notes about Arles
I stayed at a great 3* hotel called Hotel le Calendal very close to the Arena and theatre that I stayed at. Although it’s touted as a three star hotel, I believe that it should be rated as a 4* hotel for its value and hospitality. The managers told me that Rick Steves stays in the hotel when in Arles.
I did not find it difficult to get around Arles without speaking fluent French. Of course, being able to speak a few words went a long way towards communicating in restaurants, streets, but do not worry if you forget your high school or college French as the locals are friendly!