Eclectic Arles

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A THEME IS EMERGING here. I didn’t plan it, but I seem to be following the Via Domitia — the road between Rome and its colonies in Gaul. Arles and Nimes (which I visited today; it will be the subject of a separate post) were super-important in the 1st to 4th centuries, with major monuments whose astounding size and engineering call into question just how much more advanced, if at all, our own architecture and construction is today.

Above: Arles’ 2,000-year-old amphitheater by night. This was only the 20th largest in the Roman empire, though it takes a good 15 minutes to walk around it. They still use the 2,000-year-old arena for Camargue-style bullfights, which don’t aim to kill the bull, but to remove tassels from his horns with a special hook. 

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For a change of pace, I’m spending three nights in one place. I’ve based myself in Arles, a small Provencal city of about 50,000, which has its challenges: first, pronouncing it (there’s gargling involved), and second, keeping cars out of my photographs. The photo ops are innumerable.

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Early morning view from my window, above

Yesterday I walked the streets of Arles in free-form fashion, easily seeing most of the highlights in a day. The 1st century arena is mere meters from my hotel, the Hotel Le Calendal, above. The hotel seems tailor- made for the convenience of travelers. There’s a would-you-believe 24-hour cafe and wine bar in the lobby, full-on free internet, reasonably priced laundry service, garden that it’s been too chilly to sit in but is lovely to look at, and even a steam room and small indoor swimming pool for the use of guests. (My room is 75 euros/night.)

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I checked out what’s left of the Roman baths. Below, as they look today and below that, in a model from the archaeological museum, as they looked in their prime:

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The Roman theatre, below, held 10,000 in its heyday.

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I visited the Fondation Vincent van Gogh, below, a contemporary art museum that aspires to display work of artists informed by van Gogh’s. I enjoyed the museum and the view from its roof terrace, but I think you have to speak the special language of art critics to understand the van Gogh connection.

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Above: A gloppily painted piano and another work by Bertrand Lavier

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Above: A painting by Yan Pei-Ming

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I’m frankly not feeling the spirit of van Gogh here in Arles, although the city makes much of the fact that he spent some 15 productive months (many of them institutionalized) and painted 200 masterpieces in the area. Many of the sites associated with his well-known works are gone, like the drawbridge and the house he lived in (a casualty of Allied bombs in WWII). I did pop in to see the garden of what’s now called Espace van Gogh, below, the asylum to which he was taken after his ear-slicing, and bought some postcards. The Fondation van Gogh has the sole original painting that the city owns, a self-portrait, below.

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In search of a meal, I headed to Place du Forum, below. The cafes around the square seemed touristy, especially the bright yellow one called Cafe van Gogh, whose claim to fame is not its food.

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I resigned myself to a mediocre meal, but then decided to take a chance on Chez Caro, below, a side-street hole-in-the-wall with a chalkboard outside. It turned out to be a stylish spot that would not be out of place in Tribeca, and soon found myself eating a salad with beetroot, greens and egg, a plate of incredible cheeses, the best-ever rolls, and a glass of white followed by a glass of red (27 euros, service compris).

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Saturday is market day in Arles, below, a mile-long stretch along the ring road that separates the old city from the modern one. Think Greenmarket combined with tacky street fair, plus paella and Provencal textiles, and you’ve got the idea. There were things I would have bought had I not had to carry them (notably some baskets), but nothing I truly regretted leaving behind.

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I was en route to Arles’ ultra-modern archaeological museum, below, which is justifiably proud of its outstanding collection of Roman sarcophogi, sculptures and other artifacts, including an intact wooden barge of about 50 A.D., raised from the Rhone ten years ago complete with cargo and navigation equipment (it sank in a flood and was buried in sand only a few meters below the riverbed). I spent a long time looking at the detailed models of the city in the Roman era, trying to get my head around what life was actually like two millennia back.

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Above: Roman amphitheaters had retractable canvas sunshades, called velum, strung on a spider-web like system of ropes. 

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The barge, above, 31 meters long, made its debut at the museum in October 2013. 

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Floor mosaic, just one of many at the museum from a group of villas along the Rhone. 

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I’m glad I stayed put for a while in Arles.

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Pretend Provence

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MAYBE BECAUSE IT’S SUMMER, or I’m living near the water, or there’s something about the light here on the East End, but lately I find myself drawn to all things Provençal. The South of France is one of my favorite parts of the world, and I haven’t been there in far too long. So I try to replicate the experience in small ways, such as:

  • Eating salad Niçoise almost every day, with fennel and Niçoise olives, naturally, and Alziari olive oil (a $20 splurge at Citarella but I was so happy to see it there – it took me instantly back to the famous store in Nice, where they fill customers’ empty bottles with fresh-pressed oil out of huge kegs)
  • A little jar of Herbs de Provence, also from Citarella
  • Lavender soap, lavender dishwashing liquid, lavender toilet bowl cleaner, etc.
  • Intentions of putting  a yellow printed table cloth on my round picnic table and spending three hours dining under the trees sometime
  • Sunflowers in a vase at all times
  • My Bodum French press coffee-maker (the best system I’ve ever found — no more Mr. Coffee for me)
  • Van Gogh print of Flowering Gardens at Arles on the kitchen wall

I have no plans to start smoking Gauloises (I did briefly in college) or re-read Peter Mayle any time soon.