As the “soul of Provence,” Arles offers a rich artistic, culinary and historic experience.
In the late 1800s, Vincent Van Gogh lived here, creating some of his greatest masterpieces. It’s easy to see how the artist drew inspiration from the region’s wide array of colors. Visual stimulants are everywhere. Bright, sunflower-drenched landscapes. Dreamy pastel shutters on old wooden houses. Charming outdoor cafés beckoning patrons to linger.
Despite its modest size, Arles is a vibrant cultural center. Situated on the Rhône River, the UNESCO World Heritage site holds many festivals throughout the year. The events celebrate everything from art and music to theatre and literature. After spending a week with Brian’s exchange family in Vic-La-Gardiole, we were back on our own again. Loneliness doesn’t strike often on the road, but when it does, it can be unsettling knowing you won’t see any familiar faces for a while.
Luckily for us, Provence was the perfect distraction. It provided the culture of a big city with the familiar comfort of a small town.
After spending the afternoon in Nîmes, we hopped on a local bus to reach Arles. The bus wound through quaint neighborhood villages, dropping off school kids along the way. The detour gave us a rare glimpse into French suburbia life.
Upon arrival in Arles, faded old buildings, cobblestone streets and al fresco cafés greeted us. With a handy map from the Vistors Centre, we enjoyed a self-guided walking tour through town. We passed landmarks made famous by Van Gogh’s paintings including Café Terrace At Night and Garden of the Hospital in Arles. Comparing a replica of a painting next to its respective venue, we could envision how the artist captured the specialness of everyday venues. He took a simple scene and transformed it into an extraordinary work of art.
On Saturday, we headed to the popular Open Air Market on Boulevard des Lices. Here, local vendors line the streets with their Provençal goods. It’s definitely the place to be. The community is out and about, shopping at stalls, varying from clothing and art to food and spices. We picked up some fresh fruit and a crusty baguette. Later, we enjoyed an impromptu picnic in the Place de la Republic, the town’s central square.
What we particularly love about Arles is the underlying grittiness, adding to its charm and authenticity.
Strolling past the Antique Theatre and Les Arenes (Amphitheatre), both impressive Roman ruins, we relished in the town’s accessible size. Arles is not only ideal for walking, but for unwinding at its plentiful outdoor parks and cafés.
When the sun went down, we looked up at the evening sky with a different perspective. Instead of a blanket of darkness, we saw Van Gogh’s palette of rich blues and deep purples. We imagined his signature giant, glowing balls and whimsical swirls filling the air. A magical starry night indeed.