Monday, 9 January 2012

France, Arles – Romans and Post-Impressionists

As it turned out, quite by chance we had parked in a very convenient spot indeed and it was only a couple of hundred metres to the very centre of the ancient Roman city. We walked up some steps through a public park and immediately before us we could see the Roman amphitheatre and as there was a nice café with a terrace next to it with a good view we stopped for a while and sat in the sun and had a drink.

We had chosen to visit Arles for two main reasons, its Roman heritage and the painter Vincent Van Gogh. The city has a long history, and was of considerable prominence as a principal Roman Province and the Roman and Romanesque Monuments of the city were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1981. The Dutch post-Impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh lived in Arles in from 1888 to 1889 and produced over three hundred paintings and drawings during his time there – that’s a lot of paintings in only a short time.

This was out fourth Roman Amphitheatre this year after Pula in Croatia in March, Mérida in Spain in April and the Coliseum itself in Rome in June and there is something majestic about them which just fascinates me. No one can be absolutely sure about which was the largest in terms of capacity and it is generally agreed that this was the Coliseum but we can be more certain about physical size and there was a plaque nearby that claimed that this was the twelfth largest in the Roman Empire. Interestingly using this criteria the plaque only listed the Coliseum as second largest but it’s like I have always said size isn’t the most important thing!

It didn’t matter at all that this might only be the twelfth largest because it is certainly one of the best looking and the works that have been taking place for over one hundred years or so have made an excellent job of the restoration. In that time the city has torn down houses that had been built inside the arena and demolished structures that had been built around and joined on to its perimeter and the gleaming white structure now stands in a natural bowl surrounded by tasteful up-market cafés and bars and tourist shops.
After we had walked around the outside and felt the imposing presence of the towering walls we paid our admission and went inside into the arena which is in use again today and stages concerts and bull fighting. Provençal-style bullfights are conducted in the amphitheatre in which the bull is not killed but rather a team of brave or foolish men who attempt to remove a rosette from the bull’s horn without getting injured. In addition to this every Easter and on the first weekend of September Arles also holds Spanish-style bull fights and has reckless bull running in the streets.

We stayed awhile in the amphitheatre but there was more to see in Arles so after we left we wandered through the streets and down to the banks of the River Rhône, the second longest river in France after the Loire, and walked along the embankment where river cruisers were beginning to welcome guests on board for a journey north to Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Because of the river, Arles remained economically important for many years after the Romans left as a major port but the arrival of the railway in the nineteenth century eventually killed off much of the river trade, leading to the town becoming something of a backwater.

This made it an attractive destination for the painter Vincent van Gogh, who arrived there in February 1888. He was fascinated by the Provençal landscapes and many of his most famous paintings were completed there including The Night Cafe, the Yellow Room, Starry Night Over the Rhone, and L’Arlésienne. I like Van Gogh paintings and the tourist shops were full of prints and reproductions but I am not an art critic and have to confess that alongside those I find brilliant I find some that quite frankly are not so good (shock, horror). The sort of things that my children used to bring home from school, I’d say well done and give them words of patronising encouragement and then after they had gone to bed I’d sellotape it up inside a kitchen cupboard!

As we walked through the narrow streets and into the Place de la Republique, the Hôtel de Ville and the Cathedral I liked to imagine that we were walking in the footsteps of Vincent but the truth of course is, that like Mozart and Salzburg or Shakespeare and Southwalk, it is unlikely that, a hundred years later he would recognise very much about the place at all bearing in mind all of the restorations to the Roman antiquities and especially the fact that Allied bombing raids in 1944 destroyed the house where he lived, much of the rest of the city and the principal bridge across the river that he would have been familiar with.

Our circuitous walk brought us back to the amphitheatre and the Roman theatre which has also been extensively restored and after in the last two thousand years being a fortress, a Visigoth housing development and later a landfill site is now restored to its original intended purpose. We walked around the grounds and through the ancient relics that littered the gardens and then before we said goodbye to Arles we had a second drink in the café near the arena where Kim persuaded me not to drive to Nîmes and another amphitheatre but to take the coast road back across the Camargue instead. And here was me mistakenly thinking she likes Roman amphitheatres as much as I do!

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