Friday, November 12, 2010


I love the messiness of Arles, the unperfectness of it. When we first visited in 2003, there were dozens of cats skittering through streets topped with flapping laundry hanging between windows, à la Sicile. At that time there were more houses that were closed up, abandoned-looking, than alive. Things have changed. And while our scruffy town doesn't resemble the pitch perfect pastels of some our neighbors, it is growing up at a rapid pace. Work teams are everywhere, pounding and shaping, revealing and polishing. 

The renovation of the Arena is an on-going and at times, hotly debated issue. As the last quarter of scaffolding is raised, there are plenty who prefer it as it was, as if wreathed in the smoke of a million Gauloises. But better to let it stand a few thousand years more--on that we can all agree. The "hotel particulier" or bourgeois mansion across from it was put up for auction last year. I had heard at the time that despite its beautiful facade, there was at least an equal amount to the asking price (starting at something like 700K if memory serves) needed to make it habitable. "Oui," nodded the mason that I asked as he mixed his cement. From "A à Z" he confirmed, the floorboards to the attic.

It is not just time but history that has taken its toll on these old stones. Buildings in certain neighborhoods have iron bands like yawning "y"s to hold together their sides, put in place after my fellow Americans did such a shoddy job of bombing the bridge during World War II (they even destroyed Van Gogh's house to boot, something that you will never, ever hear the slightest complain about here).

The roof tiles below are not far from the ancient "jambieres", translating to something not far from leggings (!) as they were originally molded on a mans thigh. As I have mentioned before, Arles is protected as a World Heritage Site and the Batiments de France is very picky about what type of materials can be used and has a final say in all of the work that is done down to the color of the shutters (however jobs done at midnight, in August, well, amazingly they seem to slide by unnoticed).

The architect that bought this exceptional town house hounded the previous owner for years to sell it. Over the course of a year he has managed to reveal its great bones and presence. I passed the day that one of his assistants used a mini jack-hammer to lift off thick layers of cement encasing the ground floor exterior. He plans to turn that space into a gallery/antique store.

All of this to suggest that it is wonderfully positive to live in an environment that is perennially changing. There is movement here in so many ways, not only in cleaning up the past but in shaping the future as well--but of that, another time. As if on cue, even the leaves outside my front door have burst and tumbled, preparing themselves for the winter and then, a renouvellement, another type of renovation, as the French would say.


  1. My favorite post! The little imperfections and crumblings are what make Arles so beautiful; so glad they rules to renovate stuff without letting the city become generic and modern!! I remember from my visit there; it is awe-inspiring to be in the presence of such antiquity: the arena (shown in your great picture), the churches - all of it! Glad the economy has picked up enough there to allow renovations - it is hopeful! And aren't we all in renovation? I know I am! And I like the Arles way - fix the broken stuff while maintaing the essence.


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