Brimming with Roman vestiges such as the impressive 2,000-year-old amphitheatre where as many as 20,000 spectators would come to watch gladiators wrestle with lions, Arles is also a quaint Provençal city that counted Vincent Van Gogh as one of its residents from 1888-1889, one of his most industrious periods. While Arles has its fair share of attractions, the world-acclaimed annual Rencontres d’Arles international photography festival is the highest event on the cultural calendar for the creatively minded.
Kicking off on 6th July, the photography festival, which saw the likes of Martin Parr in 2004, Raymond Depardon in 2006 and Nan Goldin in 2009 join the festival committee, holds the city in its grip for an entire week. Originally founded in 1970 by Arlesian photographer Lucien Clergue, writer Michel Tournier and historian Jean-Maurice Rouquette, Les Rencontres d’Arles has become known for being the place to spot new talent. This year, the events will take place across 60 venues, including several twelfth-century chapels and nineteenth-century industrial buildings which are not usually open to the public.
While the festival draws visitors by the thousands, Arles is also perfect for indulging in the laid back Provençal way of life. Sit back and sip a glass of chilled rosé at a bar while people-watching on the lively Roman Place du Forum, still very much Arles’ beating heart. In fact, it was on Place du Forum that the Van Gogh spent a lot of his time during his 15 months in the city. It proved to be a prolific period for the Post-Impressionist Dutch painter, who, inspired by the light of Provence, produced some of his most famous paintings including the The Café Terrace on the Place du Forum, Arles, at Night. Today, in the exact spot is a replica of the café of Van Gogh’s painting, that opened in the 90s and is nothing more than a tourist trap.
Other iconic paintings like Yellow House at 2 rue Lamartine where Van Gogh lived, as well as Straw Chair, Bedroom, Sunflowers, Starry Night and of the hospital courtyard where he cut off his ear, were also created during his time in Arles. Honouring this part of the city’s cultural heritage, the Fondation Van Gogh, which reopened last year, shows the artist’s works by creating a dialogue between his work and that of contemporary artists.
Originally a Greek outpost, the Romans conquered the city around 125 BC and as Arles prospered in the fourth century, it was made a Roman capital by Emperor Constantine. The city is scattered with clues to its Roman past like the fourth-century obelisk on the main square Place de la République, which also boasts the 12th-century church of Saint Trophime, the 17th-century city hall and the 18th-century Episcopal Palace.
In keeping with the rest of the city on the outside but completely overhauled on the inside by Arlesian haute couture designer, Christian Lacroix, the aptly named five-star Hôtel Jules César was built as a 17 century convent. The building was then converted into a hospital, which closed in 1903, and finally became a luxury hotel in 1928 with a brief stint as the Kommandatur of the German Occupation during the Second World War.
The interiors of the 52-room hotel reference local history and culture like the carpets printed with stone patio patterns and the silhouettes of Arlésiennes (local girls in traditional costume) and milk cows reminding of the nearby must-visit Camargue nature reserve painted around the restaurant ceilings.
For more of an intimate experience but with plenty of chic, the 18-room Hôtel Particulier, which is located in Arles historic centre, is housed inside an eighteenth-century building full of local character. The boutique hotel comes with soothing lofty whitewashed interiors accentuated with touches of gilded furniture and a wonderfully romantic garden patio and pool.
Fondation Vincent van Gogh Arles,
35 rue du Docteur Fanton, 13200 Arles
Tel: +33 (0)4 90 93 08 08
Open everyday from 11am to 7pm, open late on Thursday evenings until 9pm
Hotel Jules Cesar,
9 Boulevard des Lices, 13200 Arles
Tel: +33 (0)4 90 52 52 52
Hôtel Particulier Arles
4 rue de la Monnaie, 13200 Arles
Tel: +33 (0)4 90 52 51 40