The Secrets of Arles My Unforgettable Visit to Provence
The road through France to discover Arles.
by Mahima Kaur
Arriving in Arles
A transport strike, a few cancelled trains and an urgent Uber ride from Avignon to Arles was not the kind of Provencal welcome I had imagined. The long journey and a growling stomach are quickly forgotten when walking through the deserted, cobblestone streets of Arles. I spotted the full moon, beaming brightly right through the intricate Roman amphitheatre. I knew the standing under the moonlit sky with my cold hands in my pockets that the sight in front of me was worth a million such travel days and a thousand more rumbling stomachs.
Far Beyond Paris
France has much to offer, beyond the cliched and beautiful Parisian streets, the glamorous world of style and fashion and the over-used media imagery of French food. For me, the city of Arles exemplifies the vastness of the country. The tiny by-lanes of this small town drip rich in history and culture, and brim with modernity and growth. The old cobblestone streets have beautiful awe-striking galleries on one end and well-curated modern stores at the other. This vision blended in such a beautiful whirl that one cannot help but feel like successfully straddling two periods of diametrically different historical times.
From museums and galleries to the most amazing cafes and bakeries, Arles comprises everything so effortlessly in its small-town that one feels right from the moment you arrive. There is much to see from the old gypsy settlement to absolutely amazing boulangeries offering a mouth-watering spread of loaves of bread and pastries hidden in its curvy twisting lanes to the sunlit walk on the banks of the Rhone. There is so much to offer that no matter how many days you spend in the city, you’ll always find an unearthed, unexplored corner to marvel. A walk through the same route every day will continue to surprise you every time. The colourfully painted houses with artistically decorated doors and life-size windows will never fall short of startling you into immense wonder.
Van Gogh’s Arles
Just as one exits a store after buying the most modern set of things, one is reminded by the yellow walled, painted cafe that this small city in the French Provence boasts of being the one-time residence of Van Gogh. Arles was both a sight and abode of relief for Van Gogh during one of his most dark and twisted and yet the most artistically relevant periods. You feel closer to the famous painter when you walk through the same streets he did. Walking on similar paths and starting to understanding what Van Gogh wrote about Arles in his letters to his brother Theo, “The Zouaves (soldiers serving in French North Africa), the brothels, the adorable little Arlesiennes going off to make their first communion, the priest in his surplice who looks like a dangerous rhinoceros, the absinthe drinkers … seem to me like creatures from another world.”*
*Roddam George, This is Van Gogh, Lawrence King Publishing, 2015
Smitten by Arles
Arles is a peculiar place in that it leads to an unpredicted storm in the deepest corners of your heart and yet offers a calming sense of peace to harness the sudden waves of emotions brewing inside you.
On a bright winter sunny morning, the blue of the sky blends organically with the colour of the water on the Rhône River. It looks calm as ever from a distance, but when you get close, you see tiny, fierce ripples on the ends of the river. Perhaps a funny metaphor for the city itself; Arles, a peaceful, quiet town at first sight until you arrive in the centre. Then in a sudden movement, you are drawn deep inside quiet, secretive lanes and run over with an envious blend of culture and contemporaneity.
The tiny cafes offer cozy and comfortable places to sit and gather your thoughts or to pick that book about Gogh and delve deeper into his life and its struggles.
Every path, every door, every tiny knob on the door, offers a picturesque backdrop for some jaw-dropping photography. A place, yet un-ravished by the world of social media influencers, I say to myself as I wonder if one picture can ever sum up the entire depth of the awe-inspiring world that the town has to offer.
A palette of colours, colours without a name, the seeming ruins of the Roman period stand in start contrast with an array of colourful doors that peep through every cob lane and path of Arles.
Feeling Like a Local
The Saturday morning market (two (2) kilometre long) shows me a side of France that I would never have seen if not for Arles. I go maniacally from stall to stall in the market, stopping everywhere to purchase everything from macaroons to baguettes to grapes to herbes de Provence and even the locally grown radishes. The array of products in the market is surprising.
My walk to the ancient cemetery offered a soft, yet potent reminder of the impenetrable rich history and culture in this increasingly modern town.
After three days of going around the town, I don’t want to feel like a tourist anymore, not even a traveller this time. The effervescent warm and welcoming smiles of the amazingly friendly locals enticed me to such a point that I feel I could blend in with them just like their heels crack the cobblestone paths, in a harmonious tune. The pumpkin soup from the friendly bald man below my Airbnb gave me the comfort of home and fulfilment that every person who is travelling hopes for, at some point.
More than I Expected
Arles was not the France I imagined.
The amazingly varied food. I sampled tasty, fluffy bread, mini eclairs, gorge-worthy macaroons, and finely whipped eggs. All of this served with the warmest smiles possible. Arles delivers the tender affable part of France hidden from the rest of the world.
A stay that ended way too soon, I think, as I pack my bags to leave for my next stop in the Provence, looking ahead yet not wanting to part with the town.
I don’t want to leave. Walking to the train station, I silently pray for another cancelled train and a reason to stay. The path allows me to walk through the same lanes, for one last time, breathing in the seamlessly blended air of the town for as long as possible.
I hold on, to the Van Gogh book, to the tiny bag, to the bits of pieces and to the feelings that I discovered fearing I’d lose them. That would mean losing the parts of me that I found while discovering this rustic gem in Provence.
As a major in Literature, Mahima Kaur has always cherished books and all that they offer. She feels that books let you live through different parts of the world. Her travels to new places allow Mahima to connect them to the written word. She has a flair for learning new languages and a passion for discovering new cultures and histories. You will either find her reading in a quaint coffee shop or taking a solitary walk in the mountains.
Image Credits: All photos provided by and published with the permission of Mahima Kaur.