From Avignon to Arles.


The fields of Normandy and the lights of Paris faded into the early morning mist until the sun shed to view mountains, cliffs, and castles, wisping by with the passing of the 6:52 to Avignon. The landscape quickly transformed from the wet farmlands of Northern France to the arid climate of Van Gogh’s Starry Night of the south. Cliffside fortresses and castles dotted the landscape between vineyards and country chateaus. The train burled forward toward the Avignon bus which would take us to our next home at Arles, France.

Arles is a city that presents the vestiges of the various influences which controlled the region. The city centers around a Roman amphitheatre which represents the Roman occupation in 90AD. The arches of the amphitheatre are filled with doorways which are filled in turn by stone representing its successive conversions between a city centre and fortress after Roman occupation which culminated in the erection of defensive towers which demarcate the cardinal directions.

The village is situated at the fork of the Rhone about 40km south of Avignon and is the saddle of the two legs which boundary the Camargue natural reserve to the estuary of the coast of the Mediterranean. Remnants of the city’s past are scattered through its borders as the ruins of arcs, ramparts and towers border the city’s boundaries. Matt and I wondered the town on our afternoon of arrival exploring it near entirety, discovering the wealth of history contained within.

Our second day was enjoyed browsing the market which envelops the canal streets with hundreds of street vendors selling everything from spoons to live poultry and everything in between. We enjoyed an overflowing box of paella on the banks of the Rhone before returning to the market for more wares and gifts for loved-ones long missed. We finished the day resting in the warm sun and cool breeze from our beautiful hotel top-floor pent-roofed room.

Today, Monday, as I ride the 6:09 to Nice with a transfer in Marseilles-St Charles, the soreness of my feet serves as souvenir to the adventures of yesterday. On Sunday, I picked up a £9 pass that allowed access to 6 of Arles’ monuments and 3 museums. The Roman public baths of Arles were impressive in that the ruins revealed the complex edifice of heating pylons, aqueduct direction, and drainage.

One of many rooms at different temperatures: calidarium (hot), tepidarium (warm), frigidarium (cold).

Heating Pylons that supported the floor and allowed fireplace heated air to circulate underneath.

Floor supported by pylons that would have comprised a calidarium, sauna.

After the baths, Matt and I headed toward the Amphitheatre, but on the way took a detour down an enticing stepped alley quintessentially Mediterranean, and at its termination lied an overlook of the surrounding countryside and village from the high point of the town, perched above the city’s rampart remains. From there we saw a distant hill which touted a large stone structure which the map revealed to be the Saint-Maur monastery. We decided to see if we could walk there after we visit the Theatre.

The Theatre in the 1st-century held thousands of spectators to watch the plays put on the large wooden stage. Of the original theatre, the outer/upper seating area has since collapsed but the inner/lower section remains in impressive form and viewers can still sit on the stones to watch play put on to this day.

Matt and I walked the three miles to the monastery through the Southern French countryside of farmland to the hill on which the it was situated. As we approached the hill from the rear, ruins appeared and disappeared in between the ancient vineyards since grown feral. I reasoned these to be the out-buildings of the monastery which were left when it was consolidated for preservation.

We managed to get into free using our EU student cards from the University of Glasgow. We entered through the storeroom to the crypt in which masses and funerals were held for people to be buried in the stone hill of the monastery’s cemetery in exchange for inclusion in their will. The monastery church of Notre-Dame-La-Blanche looked as the White City of Minas Tirith from the Lord of the Rings with the clean-cut white stone in impressive character which formed the high arches and vaulted ceilings on which the master-masons marked their guilds. It was the previous home of the relic of the true cross. We then explored the remainder of the grounds, cloister, and tower. Surprisingly and very fortunately, we were able to climb the considerably full height of the tower from which were amazing views for miles in all directions. The edges of the tower-top were overhung, Matt thought to allow you to shoot arrows through the ports that looked straight down at enemy’s directly below, having served as a protectorate tower for citizens during the period under the Abbot. Just a mile or so beyond the monastery gates was another hill, Mount Cordes, which we saw from the courtyard and read that the stone cliff faces have a hypogeum which served as a common grave for more than 4000 years!

Returning to town, we hit up the remainder of the monuments of interest. The Alley of Sarcophages was a long alley of stone tombs leading to an old church. The Cryptoporticos was the previous Roman Forum which is now buried underneath the current buildings due to the ground level which has since changed 6 meters! The scale was impressive after we realized that three-sides of the square of the forum remained intact with many of the side-rooms. I also stopped into Saint-Trophime Cloister to marvel at the impressive stone-work wrought into every column and façade.

Each of the Cloister’s column heads told a different story scene.

The Cloister corner columns were intricately carved into figures.

This cloister had a second story terrace that you could walk around.

The Musee de l’Arles Antiques had many models of the monuments left standing today. My last stop was to the Amphitheatre which still hosts mock-gladiator fights and bull fights (which were only two weeks from starting!) and is in the process of being restored, it used to hold 20,000 Roman spectators!

Enjoying the sunrise over the mountains into which Marseilles is literally carved, on my way to Nice to enjoy some sun and beach…


Posted: April 7, 2011

Author: jahjr1989

Category: Blog

  1. john.huston says:

    Wow. The animal life is spectacular.

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