Saturday, June 11, 2011

A walk around Arles, Part One

Arles, formerly Arelate in Roman times, my current home town. The old stones glowing under a féerique light. The brusk haughtiness of red-eyed Gypsies in the streets. Girls with hair dyed too black, clothes too tight. Muscle men in faded Souleiado shirts pounding through the Camargue on horseback, chasing wild bulls. The flock of the world to discover, uncover the Rencontres International Photography Festival. Being blasted by rapid-fire gastronomical feats at L'Atelier de Rabanel, our Michelin two-star. Dancing under the rain during the Féria, the twice-annual bullfights or in the Amphitheatre to Massive Attack. Sitting at Mon Bar on the Place du Forum at sunset with 2€ glasses of rosé, trying to be patient as the heat simmers down. A passing car screaming local boys done good, The Gypsy Kings. The ringing bells of Saint-Trophime calling the faithful on a Sunday morning. Tai-chi stepping through the throngs of Provence's largest outdoor market. Closing the shutters, then opening them for a new day.

All of this is Arles, if just a tiny slice of the pie. But if anything, the Arles of my everyday is best experienced while walking with Ben, our Golden Retriever. Certainly on the Rhône, which makes its last sweeping curve towards the sea just yards outside my front door (and which I am so attached to that it calms the voice in my head that beckons me towards the chic St. Rémy). Strolling with my friend Frederique and her yippy-sweet mutt Galinette. Or alone, or with my companion, Remi, in all seasons. And since it has been far too long since I have written about my town, I thought that I would take you with us, especially as the day was as lovely as they come with a slight breeze puffing around mushy white clouds. So this is what I saw on one typical day but I will divide it up into two parts, to start, to leave a bit of room for the future.

Before we hop up the stone steps on the quay to breathe in the river, we pass the Thermes de Constantin. Built in the 4th century AD by the Emperor Constantin, the thermes or baths, were only uncovered in the 19th century and were a part of his palais or palace. Didier, the wood-carver on the corner, remembers playing in it as a child when it was still largely abandoned. Archeologists have come to realize that the structure stretches out across the neighborhood and originally included not only hot and cold baths, but a library and community meeting rooms. Personally, I prefer the architecture of the Musée Reattu that lines the quay. Formerly a Grand Priory of the Knights of Malta, the 15th century structure was saved by the painter Jacques Réattu after the French Revolution when such monuments were sold off to the public. It is currently home to an avant-garde collection of sound based art as well as a series of fifty-seven drawings that Picasso gave to the museum in gratitude for the wonderful moments that he had spent in Arles.  Gargoyles stand guard over the treasures.

I love this random arch on its roof and wonder if it previously held a bell for the priory. The street below offers the perfect balance of light, shade and protection from the Mistral winds. More importantly, it is also piétonne, or closed off to cars for most of the day. Ben knows this and usually kicks into one of his rabbit hops of delight just beyond the red light. Safe to run as he pleases. There are petitions that circulate every so often to close off the entire historic center of town, what a miracle that would be if it ever becomes law.

Winding away from the museum, we pass the gates of the Hôtel Montblanc. Remi and I wishfully tried to imagine squeezing into a small apartment that is for sale in one wing of this Renaissance monster with its courtyard stuffed with sagging orange trees. Alas, not possible but I really need to post photos of the front hall if I haven't already.

All roads lead to the Place du Forum. Two stately columns are all that remains of what was previously the entry to a sprawling complex that was the heart of Roman Arles. They are firmly entrenched in the walls of the extravagant Grand Hotel Nord-Pinus, famed for having welcomed the likes of everyone from Henry James to Stendhal to Yves Montand and Jean Cocteau. The fabulously sexy photograph of Charlotte Rampling sitting naked on a dining table was taken by Helmut Newton here as well, which says not a little about Arles itself. Speaking of celebrities, yes, there is also the Café Van Gogh, once represented by a certain Vincent in the painting Le café, la nuit. Charming as that might be, as I have voiced before, no, no, no. Don't be tempted by the shade of the plane trees nor the wily smiles of beckoning hostesses. Do not eat here. Or anywhere on the Place save for the new Chez Caro. Otherwise, a pastis, a glass of wine, ice cream if you must. Ben and I will keep walking.

I often turn up the Rue des Arènes as it is is lined by some of the finest hôtel particuliers in Arles. What  examples of grandeur remain in this fine city and I can only imagine what lies behind such finely carved doors. Exceptional details are everywhere. Best to walk slowly enough to take them all in.

The street eventually narrows into a cobblestone alley that squeezes you out with a pasty-chef style plop, ? Where? At the Arena, of course! It is something to behold, isn't it? I'll leave you here to explore, picking you up soon, I promise, to tell you all about it and then continue our walk...


  1. Hello Heather:
    As we sit here in our Morning Room, glasses of chilled Cotes de Provence rosé [ another dinner guest gift] in hand, we have strolled with you through these most delightful mises en scenes of Arles which you have so beautifully presented us with today.

    Such drama of the Arena, such well-heeled splendour in the Rue des Arenes, such ancient foundations and such modern style. It all speaks of a thriving community, holding on to what is good of its past whilst also being unafraid to face the future. A quality of life to be admired and enjoyed. How fortunate you are to live amongst all of this.

    We have knowledge of Nice and the Cote d' Azur but, in spite of repeated invitations from friends in Beauvoisin have yet to explore Provence. Even after Part One, we feel that we are inspired to book the train to Zurich [gateway to Provence from Budapest] this very day.

  2. Were I as ambitious/close? as Jane and Lance I might be inspired to do the same, and what a house party you would have inflicted upon you! but as it is, I was inspired to google some of the many things you know that i do not, once again, given the gift of your life experience and more impressively, I was inspired to roust myself from under the down comforter on a California morning that might have inspired Twains "coldest winter" comment in order to take a walk of my own with a dog of my own and I'm doing it right now or I'd stay in bed all morning bouncing around Arles virtually speaking. xo trace

  3. Jane and Lance, Beauvoisin! That is a half an hours drive from my door! Maximum! Really, what on earth are you waiting for? Actually, hold that. I have dear friends that I haven't seen in over ten years coming tomorrow (!) but other than that, please think about it. Although, having an idea of what could be your preferences, I would highly suggest that you wait until September. After this week, when the weather is at its finest, the crowds come rushing in and it is no fun at all. And yes, we will be soon moving but! Something to think about and I am so glad that you both enjoyed the beginning of my little "tour". I know that this is a rather gimmicky post but if it brings friends from around the world to my door, all the better!

    And so Trace, yes, that also means you. But I know that I certainly don't have the means to hop on a plane to Cali otherwise I would have already been tempted to do so. And no, NO, you can't swing out Twain for any So-Cal morning, girly. Tsk-tsk, you have been living under the palm trees for too long!

  4. You have made visiting Arles very tempting. Thank you for the educational tour. It is always much more meaningful to view a town through the eyes of a resident.
    Wishing you a pleasant visit with our guests.

  5. I just love your town Heather and you describe it so well. Funny but your town has gargoyles standing guard and I have gargoyles in my studio guarding my textiles, I have this thing for gargoyles. I'm especially drawn to the stunning architecture on the buildings and the doors are fabulous! May I ask how many people live in your town? You make me want to jump on a plane and visit Arles, if only…….

    Have a wonderful Sunday evening Heather!
    Hug Debra

  6. Good evening Debra, come on over! :) Well, it is interesting here as Arles is the largest commune (town zone) in all of France because of the Camargue to the South--it is far larger than Paris in terms of acreage though far less populated, of course. The Historical Center of town has only about 52,000 residents. So that means that there is always room for another family (especially with another golden)!

    I am glad you appreciated the start of my little tour. The town itself is quite something as you have well seen...I never take it for granted.

    Bon soirée...

  7. Thanks for this lovely tour of Arles! Wish I was there.... sigh... Looking forward to part 2.

    ~ Clare x

    PS: Jealous that you got to play Ophelia haha! I hope to play her one day soon before it's too late - eek!

  8. Yep, that's how I remember it, with teeth chattering in the December mistral - brrrr!! Next time I have to come in beautiful weather; do you have room for me in your new apt? Thanks for the elegant tour, mon soeur!

  9. One of my favourite towns of all....lovely shots, xv.

  10. Dear Heather,

    Thanks for the engaging post.

    One of Louisa Jones's most admirably restrained comments concerned the Hotel Nord Pinus in Arles:

    "Their main contribution seems to have been a name that never ceases to puzzle and amuse American patrons".

    Of course, Henry James wrote (in the 1880's) of Arles's main square: "ill proportioned...not at all monumental, and given over to puddles, and to shabby cafes."....adding that there were only "two shabby cafes" both of which were so awful that, whichever one you chose, you were bound to wish that you'd gone to the other one.

    Vincent Van Gogh also (as youmight know) complained mightily and lengthily about the food in Arles in letters to his brother, Theo.

    I gather your opinion differs from theirs; but, then, this wouldn't be the first time your writings have indicated that you're neither a pompous, Anglophilic novelist nor a lunatic Dutchman.

    Oh...don't forget....

    The poets, Frederic Mistral and Alphonse Daudet, also deigned to grace Arles (and, in particular, the Hotel Nord-Pinus) with their patronage. they hated it (particularly the waiter), cl;aiming that it served "ridiculous" food meant for "traveling salesmen".

    In the 1970's, damned old, bile-filled, self-indulgent (if famous as a food writer) M.F.K Fisher also visited....and was crushingly disappointed to find that practically nothing and nobody managed to even approach living up to her expectations/standards.

    Not that I would want to spend an evening anywhere with any of the above-mentioned folks.

    Louisa Jones's marvellously entertaining and informative (if underservedly obscure) book "Provence: A Country Almanac" has three wonderul entries concerning Arles and the Hotel Nord-Pinus's "story".

    I should emphasize that I scarcely learned all of these facts while growing up in East Tennessee. I give full-credit to the very funny (I think) Ms. Jones and her good books.


    David Terry

  11. Oh my! Look at all of these wonderful comments! First off though, Helen Tilston, my apologies for not see your comment sooner. And yes, I just got back from a wonderful lunch and walk with them. I am over the moon.

    Clare--make it happen! I missed out on Viola and it kills me.

    Sister, there is ALWAYS ROOM FOR YOU! :)

    Hello Vicki, I love to hear that you appreciate Arles. It has such a different ambiance than St. Remy. My friend Sonny says that Arles is already Spanish while St. Remy is Provence. I think she is right.

    Mr. Terry, of course this all made me laugh! Because it is true! There is SO much that is wrong with Arles but that is what makes it all the more endearing. It is unique and uniquely beautiful. Now, I will be on the hunt for the Louisa Jones book, which I have never heard of. Many thanks for the recommendation. Jim Harrison, who is not as appreciated in the States as he is here, wrote swimmingly of Arles in his memoir: "Off to the Side". Also a great read.

  12. Oh Heather- I wish I had known you before my visit to Arles 2-1/2 years ago. You could have been my tour guide. As it was we enjoyed the beauty of the city but it was Sunday and much was closed. Clearly I need a revisit to Provence!!

  13. Dear Heather,

    Louisa Jones's "Provence: A Country Almanac" is readily available through Amazon USA. go to:

    I have two for myself and one for the guest house (it's a perfect "dip into" book). Bascially, it's a collection of short "travelogue" essays, with something in it to accomodate all interests. Jones obviously knows her food, art, architecture, gardens, and history. It's quite worth the read and is THE book I give to folks who want to visit or just know about Provence.

    Blessedly, it's not another of those silly "lifestyle" books, nor does it discuss Provence as though the region (and its customs/attributes) were some sort of wildly unique (Provence isn't, finally) dry-terrarium.

    Have you ever seen a copy of Taschen's "Living in Provence"? It's the most irritating book I've read in a very long while (which is too bad, since not one, but THREE, friends have given me copies for inexplicable reasons). The whole, pretentious book would be fine, I suppose, if it were something you were supposed to take from your room after staying some deluxe hotel. Flipping through the entries, one quickly realizes that practically every "home" is, actually, an actual hotel or For-Rent...or a showcase for one or another high-end interior decorator. It does have entries for the houses of Cezanne and Mistral....but, however great they were as artists, they don't exactly count as "living" in my own book, so to speak. All in all, a big bore...and irritating in its transparency.

    So, there you have favorite book on Provence AND my most-loathed.

    Now, you can proceed safely....

    Level Best as Ever,

    David Terry

  14. What a lovely tour of Arles!! Oohhh I wish I could visit you right away!!! Looks so beautiful!! Love the front doors you posted!!
    Thank you for sharing my dear!

  15. Thank you Greet! There is more to show and you are definitely welcome in Arles when you want. Not far at all for you! :)

    I am so excited to hear about your upcoming visitor and can't wait to hear all about it...


  16. Whew, thanks for the warning, David. Well-heeded! I will definitely look into the purchase of the former and avoid the latter. I DO have Taschen's Provence Interiors which has a well-written forward by Christian Lacroix.

    And Q, yes, I wish I had known you then. Sunday in Arles is verry tricky. All the more reason to come back. :)

  17. Oh, Miss Heather..... I wouldn't pay too much attention to my opinions if I were you. Like all too many other academics who've spent years lecturing captive audiences of folks under the age of 25?... I probably don't spend enough time wondering whether anyone ASKED for my literary opinions.

    In any case, I just came in for lunch and, thinking that I might have been more than usually a complete bitch in my assessment of Angelika Taschen's "Living in Tuscany", did a quick tally of the book's contents. Turns out that the contents comprise 9 actual homes, four sorta/maybe-homes (designer showcases, I gather), and six official hotels/b&b's.

    So, it's close to an even split between folks who "live" there and folks who will gladly SELL you something if you come there with a lot of money. duhh.

    Still, the book would have been more accurately named if the title were "Provence Interiors", "Decorating in Provence", "How to Spend a Buttload of Your/Someone's Cash in Provence", etcetera.

    Since getting that book, I've stuck with Flammarion editions. They meet my expectations, which all I ask of the world these days. That's not too much, don't you agree?
    Level Best as Ever,

    David Terry

  18. Good morning Mr. Terry. Well, I am not going to tumble (or dive) into the pitfalls of your last question. Namely as I have not yet embided enough coffee to give you a deservingly witty response. 'Expectations' is a verrry dangerous word.

    I think that Taschen's editorial line is often about allowing folks to dream or fantasize (they offer an entire category called "sexy books" ). There you have it. Their success says a lot about what people are looking for these days...

  19. Dear Heather, I know, I know....

    Given my remarks about Taschen's books, I might as well tune into the QVC channel and then begin disingenuously complaining to anyone-who'll-listen "I hate this channel! They're just trying to SELL you something! They don't fool me one BIT!"

    Duhh. I probably won't be awarded a Pulitzer for in-depth, investigative online-journalism anytime soon.

    dispiritedly yours as ever,

    david Terry

  20. Chin up, Mr. Terry! For if not a Pulitzer, you have been awarded the "Most likely to make me Laugh outloud" Award. And for that, I thank you.

  21. thanks for the compliment, Heather.

    Now, for a deep and dark secret of mine?....

    I think that, if you sign on to someone's blog and start making comments? need to act as though you were invited to some lady's party, and your job is to try to make it more fun for everyone.

    I have no idea why you don't have hundreds of blog-followers (I think you need to connect with; have you tried to do so?). It's good to read that you are widely-published. I forward your posts to Herve when they arrive, and he reads them at lunch. He agrees with me that yours is an extremely well-written, engagingly sincere, and plain-fun "blog".

    We'll take you and Remi (we want to see the work in person, so to speak, and I want the hippo-swarm pitcher) out to lunch when we're next in Provence. We were to have been there this month, but too many old-lady friends and relatives have had strokes. So, we'll be here to settle & help with matters... and the usual, long June trip will happen in September (to be immediately followed by the French in-laws' annual THREE-week visit in October).

    Am I a patient man, or what?....

    A New Fan of Your Writings and Remi's photographs,

    David Terry

  22. Truly David? I had to get up and walk away from the computer, I was so...well, see? I still haven't digested it...delighted, surprised? what you wrote. Thank you most, most kindly.

    No, I haven't done a thing to try and put this blog out there more. It was Remi actually, who pushed me to start it--undoubtedly tired of me complaining about not having assignments! Herve might be able to confirm for you that travel writing in France is NOT personal. I could maybe get away with a "we" did this or felt that at best. So, I am trying to work towards writing differently here. Funnily enough, I am going from backwards to forwards. Not always arriving but trying.

    The biggest gift has, of course, been those of you that check in and write regularly. That is why I don't dare to ask for anything "more" because I being in contact with such a truly, frankly amazing group of people is already such a huge gift. But I will think about it and again, thank you.

    As for your coming with Herve to Provence!! !!! !!!!! Just let me know when. And September here is positively glorious. All the same, sending my best for those that are healing, my goodness.

    Ps. The Hippos. I love that photo and think it exceptional. Yes, they really were so squished and it was rather stinky but we couldn't take our eyes off them...Please send me off to the Serengetti, right now!


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