The first is the town’s Antique history, testified by the Roman architectural remains, including: the humongous Arena, where – in addition to plays and concerts, corridas are still being held; a smaller open-air theater, which is currently undergoing restoration; the Alyscamps (Roman necropolis); and the Obelisk, located on the Place de la République.
The second is the relatively short period that Vincent Van Gogh spent living and working in and around the town between 1888 and 1890, during which he produced over 300 paintings. All over Arles, there are plaques embedded into the pavements, which take visitors on a walking tour of the spots, where Van Gogh set up his easel to paint some of his best known canvases, such as Starry Night Over the Rhône, The Café Terrace on the Place du Forum, Arles, at Night, and The Yellow House. Initially I thought the image on the plaques, somewhat inexplicably, represented a hiker with a backpack (oops!), though it turns out that apparently it is based on one of Van Gogh’s self-portraits The Painter on His Way to Work, which showed the artist walking on the road to Montmajour. (The painting used to be part of the collection of the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum in Magdeburg, but is unfortunately believed to have been destroyed by a fire in World War II.)
Arles was very much a delight to walk around in, not just on, but also off the tourist paths, over grey cobblestones and faded mosaics. We went to the enormous Saturday market; visited the Salon international des santonniers (the makers of the simultaneously very weird and strangely fascinating traditional “little saints” nativity scene figurines), which was housed in Arles’ former Hospital (where Van Gogh was admitted, following the infamous ear-severing incident and whose internal courtyard he captured in one of his paintings); wandered around La Roquette neighborhood, where our gracious hosts live and which – with its narrow, winding and deserted streets and colorful doors and windows, looked like a film set; and spent almost an hour in the shop&studio of Léon – the jeweler and international man of mystery, who was probably one of the most eccentric people I’ve ever met (though that’s a whole different story!).