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In between Roman ruins and the reserve La Camargue: Arles, beyond Van Gogh

During our road trip in Provence, most probably, due to the vivid colors of Van Gogh paintings and for my appreciation for this artist, I was really looking forward to visiting Arles, even if Jordi didn’t have much of a clue about it. As a pleasant surprise, we discovered this city not to be just a home to this great painter but also of a lot of others historical, natural and artistic beauties.

Arles from above!

 
If you planned to stop by the city for just a couple of days, rethink it or program already the next trip, because there is much to see in Arles, without counting the Regional Park of La Camargue, that deserves a weekend or even more just for it.

 

 

    Around the city of Arles

Depending on what you like and what you are interested in, there are many ways that you can explore a city like Arles.

Considerated as an open-air museum, definitely the Roman ruins are the nucleus and protagonist of it. With the restored ancient theatre that’s still hosting performances and cultural events, as the nearby Arena, built in 90 AD, that despite the years passed it keeps on being home of gladiator combats and chariot races (of course, re-enactments), and scenery of other Arlesian traditions like the bull games, during Easter period and in September.

Inside view of the Arles arena

 
To know more about the evolution of the city in the Roman age, can help a visit to Le Musée départemental Arles Antiques, where are collected the findings of the period and the reconstruction of the monuments. In particular, for us, it has been really useful to have a better idea of the old forum, since nowadays there are just left the cryptoporticus, well-preserved underground galleries, the base of the Roman city center.

A wide part of the monuments are part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, between them there are the church and cloister of Saint Trophime built during the XII century, with the beautiful and well-preserved gate of the cathedral carved in Romanic style like all the decorative sculptures of the cloister, we found it really charming. Moreover because while we were there, in the cloister there was an interesting exhibition of an old Provençal tradition: the Santonniers, clay statues representing figures of the nativity and also people characteristic of the territory.

While visiting the Museum Réattu

 
Of course, the sites to discover are many more, like the Museum Réattu that changes periodically exhibition and is host in a house of the XV century on the Rhone’s bank, that as the Van Gogh Foundation was inaugurated just three years ago. When we visited this museum, they were displaying work mainly about the Arlesian artist Jacques Réattu, combined with a photographic exposition in upper rooms. We have to say that we liked it more than expected.

Saint Honorat church

 
After the tour at the museum you can swing by the Constantin thermal baths right next to it and not to be missed, in my opinion, is the church of Saint Honorat, erected in the XI century at the end of the Alyscamps, already used as a necropolis during Roman age and kept on being used as cemetery until middle age, when it became a starting point for the Pilgrimage Route of Saint Jacques de Compostela.
 

 

Van Gogh mental hospital (on the left) and the famous bridge of Langlois (on the right)

 
What I would recommend, it is to dedicate some time also to walk around and discover the places of some of the most known Van Gogh paints, from the famous coffee Le Soir to the bridge Langlois, passing through the no longer existing yellow house to the garden of his mental institution. To guide you on the street, you will find marks to follow.

If you have some spare time, it can be nice to pay a visit to the Mountmajour Abbey —free for under 26—, which is a monastic complex dated back to the eight century that from its position, just a few kilometers north of Arles, guarantees a nice view of the city and the surrounding countryside.

Wonderful sunset on the river

 
To conclude at least one of the days in Arles, you shouldn’t miss a walk along the riverside and enjoy a wonderful sunset on the waters of the Rhône.

 

    National Nature Reserve of La Camargue

Habitat of hundreds of different species of birds and location of one of the biggest salt works in Europe, the National Nature Reserve of La Camargue was an unexpected, but more than welcomed, surprise on our way.
 

White horses and black bull gazing in the park

 
In case you didn’t hear about it until now, we are glad to make you discover it because if you like nature, animals and wildlife, it’s an unmissable stop during your stay in Arles.

It covers a vast area, a total of 13,000 hectares, in between the cities of Arles, Port-Saint-Louis-du-Rhône and Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. This time we had the car, so it was easy to move around. Just remember to refill the tank before you get in, because of course there aren’t almost petrol stations, and we risked running out of gas. Another and more charming way to visit the reserve can be by bike or eventually, if you are really short on time and would like to take a quick look, you can book an organized tour in the city of Arles.

On the bank of Vaccarès lake

 
For us unluckily, has been a quite fast visit also because some part of the park —like the Domaine de la Palissade, that they recommended us a lot— was closed since in the months of December and January they don’t open. Still, it was nice to drive all the way along the Rhône until the seaside: 50 km of beaches with fishing rods and fishermen on the coastline. On the road, we passed by the salt ponds and stopped here and there to take pictures of the landscapes and animals, really nice and quiet especially during the sunrise.

View on the salt ponds at the sunrise

 
Lagoons, ponds, rice fields and lakes, among which Vaccarès is the biggest, create the extraordinary environment of this wetland, one of the largest in Europe. Between its inhabitants there are some more distinctive like the wonderful white horses of the Camargue —just missing the Disney prince on it—, the black powerful bulls and the pink flamingos, coming in this area during their migration and also to reproduce. Even if you still find flamingos and many other birds species all year round due to the plentiful food supply of the area, the best period to observe them is during spring and early autumn.

The famous flamingos of La Camargue

 
There are many ways to discover the reserve and different areas of the park worth to visit, but to get the first essential knowledge about the territory it can be useful a quick stop at the museum of the Camargue where you can read, if you know some French, and learn about the relation and evolution during the years between the humans and the nature of this place.

Different landscapes of the park: the coastline on the left and a pond on the right.

 
 
Without doubts, Arles and surroundings awed us more than we thought and surpassed my childhood expectations about it. Alive city all year round, Arles, can offer its visitors a 360º experience that goes from the ancient Roman ruins to the marks left by the artists passed through the city. From the traditional celebrations, like the election of a queen and the festival of gold and silk, to the most recent festivals and cultural events, as Le Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie and the music festival Flamme des Suds.

So seriously, I don’t know what you guys are waiting to add this beautiful city to your bucket list!

 

    Practical information to visit Arles

Arles is a so walkable city, so just bring comfortable shoes and with the map that you can get at the tourism office, situated a few steps away from republic square, you are good to go to enjoy the city.

To get access to the monuments what we definitely recommend to buy is one of the passes available directly at the tourism office, at any of the attraction’s ticket booth or even online at the Arles tourism office website. There are two options:

  • Pass advantage:
  • That’s the one that we had and we think it’s really convenient.
    For starters, it has six months validity so it’s perfect also if you live nearby and want to visit the city more the once or if you plan to come back soon.
    Its price is really good, just 16 Euros —12€ in winter time and free for under 18— that gives you access to the most important museums and monuments of the city (the Amphitheatre, Roman theatre, Saint-Trophime Cloister, Baths of Constantine, Cryptoporticus, Alyscamps, Réattu museum, Arles archaeological museum and the Camargue museum).

  • Pass Liberté:
  • This one, on the other hand, gives you the possibility to visit four monuments at your choice, the museum Réattu plus another museum at your discretion (except for the Van Gogh Foundation).
    This pass costs 12 euros —during winter season 9€ and free under 18— and its validity is up to one month.

At the tourist office as in most of the cities, it’s possible to purchase guided tours to visit the town, shared or private ones, of historical places and of course following Van Gogh footsteps. But if as us, you are an independent traveler that likes to explore around on your own, you will be able to make the most of your time in the Arles thanks to the help of two very useful apps, totally free to download on your smartphone. These applications are:

  • Arles Tour: that allows you to check out restaurants, hotels, activities and so on, but the best part are the already planned out walking tours around the city. There are different kinds of them: historical, about Van Gogh places, street art, etc. Just click on your favorite one and with the GPS that will guide you, start to discover Arles.
  • Monument Tracker: perfect for those who want to create its personalized tour around the city. Mark the monuments and attractions you want to visit, go to the map and it will plan the best route to pass by all the places that you chose.

 

    Where to sleep in Arles?

➡ If like us, you go to the hotel just to sleep a few hours at night, you might be interested in the place we stayed: the cheapest one you will find in Arles. At Premiere Classe Arles the double and triple room cost only 30 EUR / night. In our case, we took a double one, and we had a quite big room, with a nice double bed, AC, a flat-screen TV and a small private bathroom. Breakfast is not included but you can get it there paying extra or if you want you can use their microwaves and warm water dispensers. It’s a bit out of the center but it’s in a great location if you are traveling by car, right next to the road you take in the direction Nîmes-Arles-Avignon. It also has a free private parking and of course free Wi-Fi.

➡ If you prefer to stay closer to the center, you might want to check out Maison de charme d’Arles, which costs around 80€/night. We do not know it personally but they told it was nice —and its mark on Booking seems to validate it!— and it’s only 1 minute walking away from Republic square. This one has breakfast included in the price.

➡ If you like to stay in hostels to save some money, Arles is not definitely the city to do it if you are not travelling alone, since there are a couple of them and in both the price rounds the 20-25€/person.

 
So get ready downloading the apps, booking your pass and your accommodation, so once you reach Arles you will be all set to go and explore this beautiful city!

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