I promise I’m not going to start this post off with another rant about UniWorld – I’ll save that for the next post. Instead I’d like to dedicate this rant to the idiot who left his camera resting on the autofocus button overnight, meaning the freshly charged batteries that had been inserted the day before were completely flat by the time we arrived in Arles. And of course, due to the threat of pickpockets at the markets today, I had decided to leave my camera bag and all of its contents (including fresh batteries) back on the ship. Thankfully, the iPhone makes a pretty good substitute for a DSLR in most situations, and I did still manage to come away with some useable shots.
There are two names heavily associated with Arles – one is Julius Caesar and the other is Vincent van Gogh. The first name should hint at Arles’ importance to the Roman Empire during Caesar’s reign, whilst the second recalls a time centuries later when a young penniless painter lived and painted in the city, churning out over 300 pieces between bouts of self mutilation and suicide attempts.
Alright, so I lied about waiting to the next post before ranting about UniWorld, but this is only a small one, and it’s not entirely their fault anyway. It’s just that our guide on the bus from Tarascon to Arles was very knowledgeable but very verbose, and she spoke with a very thick French accent that made her quite hard to understand. Upon arriving in Arles, we decided to split off into a different group and follow another guide, but this fellow proved to be even worse – the whole way, his commentary revolved around him more than anything to do with Arles, and he also smelt like it had been a while since he’d seen the inside of a shower.
Ness and I tagged along with the group for a little while but we were eager for the opportunity to split off on our own as soon as possible. As with most of these tours, you’ll see twice as much at your own pace as you will walking with a group, and any information a guide will tell you is freely available on Wikipedia anyway. My one gripe against UniWorld with this is that their guides all seem to have a policy of waiting until you’re 20 minutes into a tour before telling you when and where the assembly point for departure will be, meaning you can’t do your own thing until Manu has finished telling you his completely uninteresting story of how his dear mama taught him to always be nice to ladies because ladies run the world. Grrrr…
Anyway, onto Arles. One of the biggest drawcards to tourism in Arles (it’s pronounced “arl” not “arls” by the way) is the Roman Amphitheatre. Built in 90 AD, it is still used today for bullfighting and rock concerts, among other things. It is an imposing piece of architecture, and one of the first sites you’ll see upon entering the city.
Facing onto the arena are a number of beautiful old houses and cafés. Of course, as with most places in France, anything facing a tourist venue will have an English menu and be twice the price as the little bistro around the corner, but they are quite beautiful.
We threw a couple of Euros into the basket of a busker who was doing a roaring trade belting out every clichéd French classic in the songbook – but at least there was nobody trying to sell us trinkets or get us to sign petitions like at so many other tourist spots on our trip so far.
Just down the road from the Arena was another Roman ruin – this time the remains of an old Roman Theatre. The seating area is still reasonably well preserved, but much of the stone from stage and backdrop was cannibalized in later centuries and used to build churches and other stately buildings in Arles.
By this stage we had grown completely bored with the inane nonsense of our guide and had turned off our headsets. We followed the group through some side streets until we came to a large square surrounded by cafés, including the one featured in van Gogh’s Cafe Terrace at Night, which is also known as The Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum. The café was refurbished in 1990 to match the painting – apparently the prices have risen steadily ever since, whilst the quality of the meals served has dropped by a similar proportion.
While van Gogh managed to capture most of the buildings quite well in the picture, he did leave out the remains of a Roman monument at the corner – perhaps he felt the ancient ruins didn’t quite suit the modern bustling environment of the 1888 downtown Arles café scene.
Finally our guide revealed the big secret of where and when we needed to assemble to head back to the bus, and Ness and I were able to split off on our own. We first headed into a church, the Primatiale Cathédrale Saint-Trophime to be exact, a huge Catholic church built in the Romanesque style and featuring sculptures on the facade & a variety of art inside.
Outside it was still hot, although thankfully there had been a few very light showers during the morning that had taken the sting out of the sun. It had gotten very muggy though, and after taking a brief look at the markets and deciding that there was nothing much we really wanted to buy from them, we found a café in a less touristy street near the Arena, and sat down for a drinks break.
The rest of our morning we spent looking at shops, stopping to buy a shirt for me and a locally made ceramic chicken ornament for Ness. We caught up with the group again and followed along beside the river, where our guide revealed his “secret” that he’d been promising to reveal to the group since we started – an opera recital in falsetto. We dropped back as far as we could without being late back to the bus, all the while thinking that this was one of those few times in life where you actually envy the deaf.