Under an hour from the Luberon is the striking city of Arles, most famous for its superb Roman remains (and accordingly a UNESCO World Heritage site). Thanks to its position on the trade route between Italy and Spain, as well as being on the Rhone river, Arles grew rapidly in Roman times, and acquired along the way temples, an amphitheatre, triumphal arches, a circus and a basilica. Constantine built himself a palace and grand thermal baths. It was recorded that Arles was so well placed that ‘all the products of the universe are channelled there’.
If you visit Arles for a day you will want to visit its Roman remains, which sit smack in the middle of town: the Arenes, the Theatre Antique, Constantine’s Baths and the Alyscamps. Happily you can do this on foot, Arles is a compact medieval city that rewards careful exploration.
At the Musee de l’Arles Antique you can see the bust of Julius Caesar that was fished out of the Rhone in 2008, and reconstructions of the city in Roman times in some detail. You can see how they shaded the amphitheatre with sailcloth, and how they built the floating bridge over the Rhone, for instance.
In the centre of town, Place de la Republique is a wide open square with great architecture on four sides, including the highlight of Provencal Romanesque – the cathedral of St Trophime. This dates back to the 11th century, the original church before that was 5th century. The entrance to the cathedral has a fabulous set of reliefs, depicting the last judgement, with Christ and the apostles sending the damned to hell in a conga line of anguish. Van Gogh admired it but was also shocked – “so cruel, so monstrous, like a nightmare...”
Around the corner from the cathedral is the cloister of St Trophime, an exquisitely preserved masterpiece that must be seen.
What else is Arles noted for? The beauty of its women has always been celebrated, bullfights, the wild Camargue and its cowboys is right on the doorstep, the Gipsy Kings, and of course, van Gogh, who painted some of his most famous works here.