My Kind of Place: Arles, France

Arles' Roman past is captivating, particularly the first-century forum and its near neighbour, the ruined theatre, which was built a century earlier and is still used for concerts.
Arles’ Roman features include the first-century forum and its near neighbour, a ruined theatre that’s still used for concerts. Adam Batterbee
Arles’ Roman features include the first-century forum and its near neighbour, a ruined theatre that’s still used for concerts. Adam Batterbee

Why Arles?

This ancient town straddling the Rhône has been on the art radar since Van Gogh pitched up in Arles in 1888 with hazy hopes of founding an artists’ colony. Some of his most celebrated works were painted in this easy-going Provençal outpost of the Roman Empire. In warm months it throngs with art lovers, history buffs and, from July to September, photographers showing their works at the annual Rencontres d’Arles festival, one of France’s biggest international photographic exhibitions.

Its Roman past is captivating, particularly the first-century forum and its near neighbour, the ruined theatre, which was built a century earlier and is still used for concerts. Head underground to the cryptoporticus, the forum’s foundations that make for an atmospheric, if somewhat creepy, subterranean ramble.

But it’s the Provençal sun that you want to soak up most in the town’s medieval and Renaissance lanes and squares. It’s the same light that drew Van Gogh to the south, followed by countless others who recently have been turning derelict shops into galleries and ateliers. Perhaps Van Gogh got his artists’ colony after all.

A comfortable bed

Fashion designer and Arles native Christian Lacroix has put his inimitable stamp on the five-star Hotel Jules César (www.hotel-julescesar.fr), which was completely redecorated two years ago. Now the 17th-century former Carmelite convent has suitably colourful rooms that retain the history of this venerable building, which also includes a spa and outdoor pool. Double rooms cost from €125 (Dh515).

There’s a funky mix of the ancient and the modern at Hôtel du Cloître. Within its beamed rooms, dating from the 13th to 18th centuries, are immensely stylish 1950s interiors. The roof terrace has lovely views of Arles’ rooftops. Doubles cost from €95 (Dh391).

Galerie Huit near the forum is an enchanting 17th-century B&B that doubles as an art gallery. Romantic rooms span the centuries and are filled with antiques. The copious breakfast is served either in the Arlésienne kitchen or in the cosy courtyard garden. Doubles cost from €90 (Dh371) including breakfast.

Find your feet

Arles is compact, and its sights – which are on the south side of the Rhône – are easy to cover on foot. Most visitors make a beeline for the forum, where Rue des Arènes carries on to the Place du Forum and its busy cafes. A patchwork of narrow streets eventually leads north to the river and a few more notable sights, namely the wonderfully eclectic Musée Réattu and the cloisters of St Trophime church. The tourist office is on Boulevard des Lices, which skims the southern side of the old town.

Meet the locals

Of the cafes in Place du Forum, Apostrophe is the liveliest, especially on weekends. The up-and-coming district of La Roquette has a good mix of restaurants, cafes and bars along Rue des Porcelet.

Book a table

The friendly Les Filles du 16 (www.restaurantlesfillesdu16.fr) is the place to try gardianne de taureau, the signature rich bull stew of the Camargue region. Menus cost from €21 (Dh86).

Book ahead for lunch at L’Autruche, a tiny restaurant hidden down Rue Dulau, off Rue de la République. The husband-and-wife owners keep it simple but sumptuous, with dishes such as roast duck breast with creamy polenta (€18 [Dh74]).

The best of the restaurants in La Roquette is Le Gibolin. The menu changes, but could include dishes such as roast cod with fennel confit. Menus cost from €27 (Dh111).

Shopper’s paradise

You will find quirky women’s boutiques along Rue des Suisses, such as Alfred & Mado and La Rose à Pois. Check out L’Atelier Sophie Lassagne (www.alcaline.com), on Rue de la Liberté, for handmade ceramics.

Actes Sud, near the Rhône, combines a publishing house with an excellent bookshop, plus a cinema and cafe.

For refined food gifts, try L’Epicerie du Bar à Vin on Rue de l’Hôtel de Ville.

What to avoid

Even if you’re a passionate Van Gogh fan, don’t be too obsessed with following the trail. The bright yellow Café la Nuit in Place du Forum, for example, which models itself after the famous painting, is best avoided.

Don’t miss

The excellent Saturday-morning market, regarded as the largest in Provence, spreads out along Boulevard des Lices. Stall after stall tempts you with fantastic Provençal produce and street food, as well as bric-a-brac and clothing.

Getting there

Return flights with Emirates from Dubai to Nice cost from Dh3,095, including taxes. The flight time is about six hours and 45 minutes. Trains from Nice to Arles cost from €45 (Dh185) each way and take three to four hours.

Published: August 7, 2016 04:00 AM

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