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Arles: a city full of Roman and Romanesque monuments

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Arles (about 55,000 inhabitants), a city in Provence, the capital of the region and the largest municipality in metropolitan France. The city located along the banks of the Rhone, is located 37 km from Avignon and 31 km from Nimes, on the river delta. The city is the capital of the Camargue region.


Arles, the Roman Arelate, became a Roman colony in 46 BC, and had considerable importance in the province of Gaul Narbonensis. The history of Arles begins in the Bronze Age as a Celtic-Ligurian settlement.

In Roman times it was called Arelate (city of swamps). In 49 BC the city sided with Julius Caesar during the siege of Marseille. Then, in 46 BC it was rewarded for her help by becoming a Roman colony. During this period many veterans of Caesar’s troops settled in Arles which became one of the most important Roman centers in the area.


Located along Via Domitia – the main road between Italy and Spain – the city prospered, was fortified by a wall and embellished with remarkable buildings and became the capital of Roman Provence. During this period important monuments were built including an amphitheater, a triumphal arch, a theater. Also in Roman times the city was completely surrounded by walls. Later, in the 4th century A.D. it became the capital of the prefecture of the Gauls. Starting from 254 it was a bishopric and an important religious center.

In the 9th century it was sacked by barbarians who halted its development and compromised the role of the region’s main political center for the benefit of Marseille. Despite this, until the 12th-13th centuries Arles was still an important center of power. In the Middle Ages the city of Arles was an important stop for pilgrims going to Santiago de Compostela. At the end of the 19th century the famous painter Vincent Van Gogh lived in Arles.

Rich in Roman monuments, evidence of the role of ancient capital of Roman Provence. Arles has not only outstanding Roman monuments such as the Amphitheater and the Theater, but also examples of the first grandeur of Romanesque-Provençal art such as the church of Saint-Trophime.


In 1981 the Roman and Romanesque monuments of the city were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Arles preserves important Roman remains, the most important of which are: the Roman Theater (12 BC), the Arena or Amphitheater (80 AD), the Alyscamps (Roman necropolis), the Baths of Constantine (4th century AD ), the cryptoporticus (i.e. the area of the Roman Forum). Even part of the ancient Roman walls are still visible today. The best preserved part is that which goes from the Gate of Augustus to the tower des Mourgues.

The Church of Saint-Trophime represents one of the most important monuments of Romanesque architecture in Provence and is part of the monuments included in the list of World Heritage Sites. In particular, the central portal, richly carved with a representation of the Last Judgment, and the Cloister are worth mentioning.

Arles is a good example of the adaptation of an ancient city to a medieval city. The city has some impressive Roman monuments, of which the oldest – the arena, the Roman theater and the cryptoporticus – date back to the first century BC.

During the fourth century Arles had a second golden age, as evidenced by the remains of the baths of Constantine and the necropolis of Alyscamps. In the 11th and 12th centuries, Arles became one of the most attractive medieval cities of Provence. Within the city walls, the Saint-Trophime church, with its beautiful portal and cloister, is one of the most important monuments of Romanesque art in Provence.


In 1981, Arles was included by UNESCO in the list of world heritage sites, 7 are the monuments of Arles registered by UNESCO: the Roman amphitheater (Les Arènes), the Ancient Theater, the Cryptoporticus and the Roman Forum, the Baths of Constantine, the walls of the Roman Castrum, Les Alyscamps, the Church of Saint-Trophime and the Roman Exedra (Muséon Arlaten).

The Roman amphitheater of Arles (Les Arènas) is certainly the most important tourist attraction in Arles. The structure measures 136 meters in length and 107 meters in width, has two arches formed by 120 arches. It was built in the first century AD and could accommodate over 20,000 spectators. During the Middle Ages, the building was transformed into a fortress, which housed two chapels and 212 houses inside. For a beautiful view of the city, it is better to climb the tower above the entrance of the Amphitheater.

Not far from the amphitheater is another interesting building of the Roman Arelate: the Roman Theater. Built under Augustus, between 27 and 25 BC, although heavily looted during the past centuries, it still testifies the importance of the city in the imperial era. The theater has a diameter of 102 meters and could accommodate 12,000 spectators.

From the theater we can move to Place de la République in whose area are the church of Saint-Trophime, the Lapidary Museum of Pagan Art (Musée Lapidaire d’Art Paien), the Lapidary Museum of Christian Art (Musée Lapidaire d’Art Chrétien ) and the Cryptoporticus.


The church of Saint-Trophime is a jewel of Romanesque-Provencal art. It was built between the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Undoubtedly the splendid portal is the attraction of the church. It was performed before 1178, the carved scenes represent the Last Judgment, the Twelve Apostles, the Annunciation and finally the Nativity. The interior of the church is majestic and contains many works of art.

But the church’s cloister is the second most admired work in the complex. It was built between the XII and XV centuries in the Romanesque-Provencal style. The figures carved on the capitals of the columns and on the pillars are wonderful, representing the Resurrection of Christ, the Annunciation, the Adoration of the Magi, the Entrance to Jerusalem, the Glorification of the Patron Saints of Arles.


Also in the Place de la République is the Lapidary Museum of Pagan Art (Musée Lapidaire d’Art Paien). Located inside the deconsecrated church of Sainte-Anne, it preserves statues, sculptures, sarcophagi and mosaics found in the remains of the Roman city of Arelate. A short distance from Place de la République are the Lapidary Museum of Christian Art (Musée Lapidaire d’Art Chrétien) and the Cryptoporticus. The museum is located in an old Jesuit chapel and houses paleochristian marble sarcophagi. The Cryptoporticos which can be accessed from the museum were built at the end of the 1st century BC. Next door is another museum, the Muséon Arlaten, a museum dedicated to Provencal life and culture. The Museon Arlaten indeed contains a collection of art, ethnology and history of Arles.

Among the other museums worth mentioning: the Musée de l’Arles et de la Provence Antiques where the archaeological collections of the city and its territory are displayed. The Musée Réattu with works by the local painter Jacques Réattu, and a collection of drawings by Picasso. The Fondation Vincent van Gogh with a permanent exhibition of painters paying homage to van Gogh. Finally the Musée de la Camargue located in Mas du Pont de Rousty, about 10 km from Arles on the road to Saintes-Maries- de-la-Mer, displays the human and geological history of the Camargue.


A few kilometers from Arles, in the direction of Avignon, do not miss a visit to the Romanesque Abbey of Montmajour (11th-15th century). In the surroundings of Arles worth a visit: the necropolis of Les Alyscamps, the Roman circus, the Romanesque church of Saint-Honorat, the Langlois bridge (the bridge painted in some of his paintings by Vincent Van Gogh). 15 km from Arles is the village of Saint-Gilles with its Romanesque church with a characteristic facade and crypt.

The climate of Arles.



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