Arles – the little Rome of Provence

Affectionately known as “little Rome”, Arles was established as the first Roman foundation in Gaul. The 26,000-seat Les Arènes d’Arles (another UNESCO heritage site) was originally built for circuses and gladiator combats towards the end of the 1st century B.C. Still in use, it is now the site of Sunday afternoon bullfights. I know, who would have thought bullfights take place outside of Spain? In fact, both Nimes and Arles have them, owing the taste for the fight to the proximity of this part of Provence to Spain. The Provençal version of the sport, however, puts a more humane spin on the game, as the animal does not get killed. Instead, Bulfighters have to retrieve a rosette tied to the animal’s forehead without being gored.

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Beyond the Arene, the Théâtre Antique (site of a Music and Drama Festival each July), is even more magnificent. Endowed with amazing acoustics, though quite affected by the passage of time, the theatre astounds and humbles, and takes one to Ancient Greece via the Romans.

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More Roman vestiges can be found on the banks of the River Rhone, in the Thermes de Constantin. Originating from the 4th century AD, the thermal baths are incredibly well preserved, and quite instructional: the rooms and heating mechanism are well preserved and speak to an ingenious and precocious mastery of technology.

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St Trophime Church, finally, is also a must, but, on this occasion was closed for an event. I did, however, get a chance to visit the pretty and serene cloisters.

All in all, Arles is truly enchanting. For fans of Van Gogh, there are numerous traces of his time in the city as well as dedicated museums. For me, that would have to wait for a return trip.

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