bust julius caesar arlesPacked with must-see treasures, the Musée Arles Antique whisks you back in time to the Romans and beyond to give you fasincating insights into life in ancient Arles.

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musee arles antique exteriorEven the building is imposing. Pictured, it's located on a peninsula by the former Roman hippodrome just outside the centre of town - and right by the Rhône river, where so many of its exhibits have been found.

Built in 1995 by the architect Henri Ciriani, it looks sleek and ultra-modern from the outside. As its nickname, the Musée Bleu, hints, it's also very, very blue. The low, triangular façade is concrete covered by cobalt blue glass that glints brilliantly in the sun.

Inside, by contrast, it's the past that comes alive. The Musée départemental Arles Antique (to give it its full name) contains one of France's most important archaeological collections.

Although the museum looks like a dark sealed unit viewed from the front, the exhibition spaces are spacious, airy, luminous and accessibly presented.

In 2016 the Musée Arles Antique was awarded a coveted third star in the Michelin Guide. It's one of only 20 museums in the whole of France to hold this honour.

This is an essential destination for anyone hot on the trail of the Romans in Provence. But you don't need to be a passionate history buff to enjoy it. Whatever your age, you could easily spend at least half a day here. Budget at least an extra half day to visit the amphitheatre and the city's other big Roman sites: click here to read about them.

arles rhone 3The thrilling thing about this region around the Rhône delta is that it keeps throwing up new discoveries. One of the museum's star exhibits was found in 2008 just on the other side of the river.

Pictured top left, it's an imposing bust, probably of an ageing Julius Caesar: if this is indeed him (it's still disputed), it would be the only known portrait actually sculpted during his lifetime.

But the highlight is probably the Arles Rhône 3, pictured, a 31 metre / 102 foot long Roman barge which was discovered in 2011. This enormous vessel was once used to transport limestone.

It sank under the weight of its cargo and was buried in silt - a stroke of fortune which helped to preserve it. In fact it's the best preserved ship of its kind in the world. A new wing of the museum was built specially to accommodate it.

Don't miss the little 20 minute film (subtitled in English) relating how the Arles Rhône 3 was discovered and retrieved from the river bed: a remarkable feat in itself.

Computer graphics recreate how it must have looked as a working barge towed by slaves in the first century AD.

Further excavations in the Arles area continue in the Trinquetaille district on the right bank of the Rhône, a Roman settlement of luxury villas rich in frescoes and mosaics. And each summer a team of diver-archaeologists plunges into the river itself to see what they can see. Major new finds are announced regularly.

mosaics musee arles antiquesA whole wing in the Musée Arles Antique is devoted to intricately carved sarcophagi: this is the best collection of its kind in the world outside the Vatican.

Another very large area is given over to marvellously restored Roman mosaics: a raised platform, pictured, lets you get a good view of them from above. There are ramps up to this platform and the whole museum is wheelchair-accessible.

Watch out too for large statues of Augustus Caesar and Neptune, the god of the sea, as well as a vivid bronze of a Roman prisoner of war and a beautiful Venus with a dimpled bottom! Detailled scale models of Arles reveal how the city once looked in ancient times.

mosaic musee antique arlesThe Romans dominate the collection, inevitably. But the Musée Arles Antique also has ceramics, jewellery, tools and weapons from the pagan, Neolithic era, dating back to 2500 BC. The Greeks and early Christians are represented too.

The museum is well set up for children (you'll see armies of excited school kids here during term time).

They can pick up a free booklet of games and puzzles to guide them through the exhibitions and borrow a box of games to play in the adjacent Roman-style garden, Hortus, after their visit. (You'll need to leave a passport or ID card at the front desk as a deposit.)

As usual in French museums, most of the information and signage is in French only, except in the new extension for the Arles Rhône 3 barge, which has signs in Italian and English.

This is really a major downside to the Musée Arles Antique - though it is also true that the amazing artefacts speak volumes for themselves

The Musée Arles Antique also mounts a lively programme of lectures, tours and exhibitions. These shows are small but very good indeed, and entrance to them is included in the price of admission to the museum.

The current one is on "Luxury in the Ancient World" and has some stunning silverware, jewellery and other treasures on loan from the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. Until 21 January 2018. Another recent exhibition spotlighted Prince Khaemwese, an Egyptian nobleman seen as the "father of archaeology". Click here to read more about it.

hortus arlesOutside, next to the hippodrome, is Hortus: the name is Latin for "garden". It's set up as a green space for relaxation, with play and picnic areas.

Here too the signage is all in French only. When we first went there, in early winter, the garden was a rather unkempt state.

But, unsurprisingly, a return visit on a sunny June afternoon found it much more lively (and even serving locally brewed beer!) Note that Hortus may be closed on days of bad weather.

 

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

Where: Presqu'île du Cirque Romain, 13635 Arles. Website for the Musée Arles Antique

How to get there: The museum is a 20 minute walk from the centre of Arles. A free shuttle bus (route Navia A) comes here every half hour on a circular route that also takes in the train and bus stations and the other main tourist sights.

There's plenty of parking around the museum, including free parking areas and a charge point for electric cars. The busy N113 road leading east out of Arles passes close by (take exit no.5).

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The museum has no café or restaurant and there are no bars in the neighbourhood. However you can buy drinks and sandwiches from dispensers, or bring a picnic to eat in Hortus. The museum shop is an excellent source of classy presents and souvenirs.

Bulky bags are not permitted inside the galleries, and you'll need a coin to leave your bags in one of the luggage lockers. Seats within the museum are in short supply but you can borrow a lightweight folding chair for free to take around with you.

Insider tip for the Musee Arles Antique If you are planning to visit several museums or monuments in Arles, check out the combination tickets on sale at the Arles Tourist Office which will get you reduced price admission (and free admission for an accompanied child under 18).

And, if you schedule your visit for the first Sunday of the month, you will get in free (the museum will be very crowded). But the stand-alone admission price for the Musée Arles Antique is extremely modest, given the scale and quality of the collection.

The museum is closed on Tuesdays and some public holidays.

Photo credits (from top): © MDAA, Rémi Benali, SJ for Marvellous Provence (two images), MDAA (two images).

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