Promised Provence: Arles Dreamt and Painted.

When the Good Lord begins to doubt the world, he remembers that he created Provence. (c) Frederic Mistral

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The list of the places I dream of visiting is very long, and it is getting ever longer. I manage to update it with a certain frequency noticing, not without surprise, though, that our relationship has undergone considerable changes in the course of recent years. My dreams seem to depend on me no more. We rather coexists, living side by side, influencing each other in many different and curious ways. And it happens that my dreams rebel against me or decide to appear completely out of the blue, monopolize my attention entering into possession of my entire passion for travelling for good. I mean the dreams I’ve never seemed to have before.

To give you an example: all of a sudden I wake up in the morning realizing I just want to go to France rather than any other place on Earth. And it happens considering I’ve never regarded this destination as an option before the morning in question. At all. So stupid of me.

So, last year I went and took you to Normandy for a while. This year, if you wish to join me, we will travel a bit of Provence together and fall in love with this special place. The place governed by the scent of blooming flowers, the caresses of the Mistral wind and the overwhelming divine summer light.

Allow me to start our journey from a place of the magnetic artistic charm and authentic southern spirit – the city of Arles.

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What did I know about Arles before starting to plan our on-the-road trip to Provence? Nothing. Zero. Not a hint.

Letting go the desire to exaggerate my level of embarrassment with regard to this lack of knowledge and looking for a suitable excuse, I can’t but add, on behalf of my poor old, but still very well-functioning, memory that there was a faint recall of this locality being mentioned and noticed on a very specific occasion – at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

When the realization of the fact was complete somewhere on the neuron level inside my head, the desire to see Arles with my own eyes started to grow progressively. It cannot be otherwise for anyone in love with Van Gogh’s amazing genious.

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Thus, Arles couldn’t but appear on our Provence-on-the-road trip plan on top of the list of priorities. We even went beyond that choosing it as the base for the trip thanks to its strategic central location in the area we chose to visit: to the south of the lavender fields of Vaucluse and the ochre footpaths of Roussillon, bordering with the Camargue Nature Regional Park and being a true gateway to its wonders, in the proximity of both Nimes and Aix-en-Provence.

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It is very easy to understand the inspiration this city and its surroundings became to Van Gogh with their amazing palette of colours, deep blue sky and limitless horizon, flower fragrances and delicious smells spreading in the summer air, the placid pace of Rhone, the green arrows of cypresses, wild lavender purple bloom along roadsides, sunflower black eyes fixing you joyously. Arles grants no end to its beauty and charm.

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The modern aspect of Arles, inevitably and luckily for its visitors, bears the imprint of its glorious history. Its identity as a Roman colony in Gaul can be easily recognized in the outlines of its magnificent Amphitheatre, the ruins of the ancient Roman Theatre located nearby, the remains of the Constantine baths, the aqueduct complex located in the proximity of the city on the territory of the commune of Fontvieille, the Alyscamps Roman and early Christian cemetery and the mysterious Cryptoporticos underground Forum construction.

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From the times in which Arles gave its support to Julius Caesar’s army in the Civil War against Pompey, the flow of years brough the city to the Middle Ages where Arles, after the dark times of barbarian invasions, regained its strength and importance. To underline the rebirth of the city’s power, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire Frederick Barbarossa was crowned here in the 12th century, protected by the walls of the church of St. Trophime. Its amazing portal in Provençal Romanesque style dates back to the glorius period as well as the church’s unique cloister with its bizarre and stunning mixture of the Romanesque and Gothic architectural styles curiously melted together between the 12th and 14th centuries. 

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The modern history of Arles is closely associated with the name of Vincent Van Gogh, whose presence in the city is still perceptible through names, colours, foundations, exhibitions and allusions of various types. It is here where some of his most iconic masterpieces were born, it is here where his ear was cut off under sensational circumstances, it is here where Van Gogh’s friendship with Gauguin came to an end as well as what remained of his mental health. In the heart of Provence able both to inspire and to make one lose one’s mind.

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Lose one’s mind and gain some weight for Provence is an encyclopedia of gastronomic poetry. Here mastering the art of a good table is not an option but a must. Among the local specialities the ones not to miss are the Camargue rice and salt, black bull meat dishes, tellinas and variations thereupon, all of which has to be accompanied by a good glass of chilled Côtes du Rhône rosè wine and a bottle of fresh sparkling Perrier. Oh, I almost forgot, for all the anise-flavoured drinks lovers a pastis aperitif to start with is obligatory.

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Some useful tips for, especially for those who chose to explore Provence on-the-road:

  • The Camargue ‘corrida’. No worries about this one, it is not a bullfighting show as the one traditionally practised in Spain. The black bull is a symbol of the whole Camargue region and is respected and cherished being a true hero of any performance, any race (which the show is actually called). Some bulls have fans and long careers, no blood is spilled. 
  • There are many places of interest in Arles. If you plan to see at least the most iconic ones, it would be a good idea to purches an Arles pass at any of the main sight’s ticket shops. This will spare you time and money.

  • When in Arles we chose to stay at Mia Casa B&B. Speaking of this accommodation I have to mention its host in first place – Delphine. She was just amazing, patient, helpful, friendly, mastering great English. She assisted us in every possible way. The wi-fi connection was satisfactory, the location simply amazing. We enjoyed our room a lot, and we felt so much at home there. We are trully missing Mia Casa and its exceptional host. Hi Delphine, I hope you are doing well!

  • Arles offers an embarrasing choice of restaurants, but we relied on the suggestions made by our host, who is also a local, and did not regret it.

    Tonton Sam in 10 Rue de l’Hôtel de Ville. A very nice place to taste some really good hamburgers for a fast and economic lunch or dinner.

    Le Plaza – La Paillolette in 28 Rue du Dr Fanton. Our absolute gastronomic winner. It is simple genial, delicious, unforgettable. The service is attentive and polite. The menu options of the place are convenient and allow to discover its Chef’s true art.

    Boulangerie Soulier in 66 Rue de la République. Are you a sweet tooth? It is the place for you. Their sweets are amazing. Here you can also grab a nice crispy baguette and some croissants for breakfast or a nice mini quiche for a snack.

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  • Parking.

This one isn’t an easy matter in Arles, so approach this topic with the maximum of attention:

1. Choose the accommodation that provides a parking place or a garage. By the way, Mia Casa has a small garage to be booked in advance. 

2. There’s a free parking by the railway station and in Place Saint-Pierre on the right bank of the river. Both of them are a bit distant from the city centre, at least for those carrying heavy suitcases.

3. As far as we took our car every day to travel Provence, we opted for the following parking lots close to Mia Casa:

a. a parking lot at the crossroads between Quai della Roquette and Rue du Port. It costs 1,00 euro for every 20 minutes, but, if you find a vacant place, it is free from 7.00 p.m. till 9.00 a.m.

b. parking places along the left river bank in Quai della Roquette. It also costs 1,00 euro for every 20 minutes, but, if you find a vacant place, it is free from 7.00 p.m. till 9.00 a.m.

c. the most convenient and the cheapest option is along Boulevard Georges Clemenceau. It costs 1,00 euro per hour, but, if you find a vacant place, it is also free from 7.00 p.m. till 9.00 a.m. Note, though, that on Saturdays untill 3.00 p.m. the parking lot is occupied by the city market.

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Arles has a unique charm of its own, it is a place for the curious, for soul artists and poets, for thinkers and those who love to enjoy life and its every amazing fruit. Enjoy it without fuss, without hurry, without any prejudice or expectation. Take it as it is, accept it for it represents, and there will be no better place to be at here and now.

Photos credit: Machs Gut (c)

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