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.
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.
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.
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.
I’m back in Provence, having come in to soak in the sun for the long week-end. Nimes was an easy choice: it is the Roman town in France and sister-town to Verona. Nimes had been constructed in Roman times and is home to a wealth of well preserved Roman ruins. The charming and impressive Arene de Nimes, a small coliseum still in use today, and the beautiful temple called Maison Carree transport one to a glorious era of Gods, emperors and gladiators. Incidentally, the movie Gladiator was shot here and the arena appears in the fight scenes.
La Maison Carree, on the other hand, is remarkable for reportedly being the most intact Roman temple in existence. Dating from around year 2 AD, it was constructed as a replica to the Temple of Apollo in Rome by emperor Augustus, when Nimes, then called Nemasus, was a prominent colony.
In medieval times, Nimes became a famous textile manufacturing centre. What most people, including me, would be surprised to hear is that it is here that denim (de Nimes!) was invented! The fabric was then exported to Europe and, later, America, via Genes (Genova), which, mispronounced, perpetuated another name for it, “jeans”! Who knew?
The town, finally, has the typical southern European feel: narrow streets, lively piazzas, sunny weather.
The medieval tower in Place d’Horologe changes colour at night, people eat dinner late into the night, German tourists get serenaded by Gypsy bands and everyone enjoys the balmy evenings and relaxed atmosphere of the town.
I now understand why painters loved Provence.
My second day in Provence, spent briefly visiting the beautiful little villages: Gordes, Roussillon (the home of ochre pigment painters love), the castle of Lacoste (once upon a time belonging to Marquis de Sade…now, Pierre Cardin’s, go figure) and Menerbes. Notwithstanding, of course, another stop by the lavender fields.