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Walk Through History in Arles

Updated: May 11

Tasting Jean-Luc Rabanel's cuisine is worthy of a trip all by itself, but there are deeper reasons to visit Arles, France.

Arles is an alluring town for not only strolls, but for a walk through history. Dating back to the Roman era, Arles was a venerated city of Gaul. Like all important cities in Roman Gaul, Arles had its own amphitheater, built for entertainment.

Constructed around the 1st century BC, the amphitheater seated 21,000 spectators to cheer on the gladiators and bloody battles. Unlike most, this amphitheater has remained largely intact and well-preserved to this day. It is indeed in the very center of the old town of Arles.

Arles Roman Amphitheater, my son Ethan reading the signs

And what is that tower? During the decline of the Western Empire in the 5th century, the amphitheater was transformed into a fortress, becoming a shelter for the city's population and gaining four medieval towers atop the Roman structure in the process. During this time as a citadel, the structure surrounded more than 200 homes within its circumference.

Medieval Tower Above the Roman Amphitheater

In 1825 the writer Prosper Merimee initiated the change to a national historical monument. Between 1826 and 1830, the houses built within were converted from private to public assets. The initiation of the structure as an arena of the modern era occurred in 1830; its first event was a race of the bulls celebrating the French Invasion of Algiers. Quite a walk through history considering that concerts and bull events are still being held within this amphitheater, originally built by the Romans.

Every Roman city also needs a theater, in addition to the amphitheater, for plays, pantomimes, choral events, orations, and commerce. Arles Roman Theater was built during the time of Augustus with seating for more than eight thousand. In the early Middle Ages, it was used as a quarry, providing materials for the town hall. Today, more than 2000 years after it was built, it is still a performance venue, thus, the modern lighting above the ancient tiered seating.

Arles Roman Theater

Behind the stage are two columns “Les Deux Veuves” (The Two Widows) which were a part of a large and dramatic backdrop for the stage which included a statue of Augustus.

“Les Deux Veuves”

While in Arles, don't miss the medieval church, Saint Trophime, located right on Place de la Republique. During the 11th and 12th centuries, Arles was experiencing its second golden age, and was considered one of the most beautiful cities in the Mediterranean. Built between the 12th and 15th centuries, this Roman Catholic church's western portal is considered among the best Romanesque sculptures remaining today.

Cathédrale Saint-Trophime d'Arles

The west portal presents the story of the Last Judgment through the eyes of the gospels of St. John and St. Matthew; it is spectacular.

Christ is centrally seated, and is surrounded by the Evangelists. The most common interpretation renders these as the lion of St. Mark, the ox of St. Luke, the man of St. Matthew, and the eagle of St. John. Seated below him are the twelve Apostles and over his head are some forty angels.

As the Apostles look on, the woeful souls damned from paradise are to Christ's left. They are chained together, shuffling along with fires from hell whipping at their legs.

On Christ's right side are the blessed who shall enter the kingdom of heaven. I choose that side.

My son went quickly inside the church, while I had a hard time moving past that marvelous facade and portal. Although the interior is not as embellished as the exterior, it is just as impressive, and contains a number of relics that are not to be missed. The nave is the tallest in Provence, equal to a six story building.

Nave of Cathédrale Saint-Trophime d'Arles

The stained glass windows are opulent with the Virgin Mary and Saint Trophime in the central window.

Virgin Mary and Saint Trophime in the Central Window

This church is also noted as the starting point of one of the pilgrimage routes, dating back more than one thousand years, to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

Are all of these sites recognized by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites? Of course, they are, and have been since 1981. Our family loved Arles and we hope to return; it really is a magnificent walk through history, all in one lovely city. Add the delectable food of Provence, and that is a place where I want to spend more time. Remember that Van Gogh chose to live here and actually preferred it to Paris. I now find that fact at least understandable.

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