arena arles smallThe small town of Arles was once a mighty Roman metropolis. And many of its ancient monuments survive, dominating the city and earning its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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This is a guide to the major Roman sites in the centre of Arles. Click here to read about the superb collection of ancient artefacts at the Musée départemental Arles antique on the edge of town.

Like many mediaeval and modern houses in Arles, these Roman monuments are built of local limestone and blend harmoniously into the city.

And two sites, the amphitheatre and the ancient theatre, are still at the heart of Arles' cultural life today. What better way to experience them than by catching a son et lumière show, concert, bull game, festival or other colourful event?

Insider tip for the Roman sites in ArlesMost of the Roman remains in Arles are within easy walking distance. If you are planning to visit several of them, 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) to the city's major museums and monuments.

Entrance to the amphitheatre and ancient theatre is free on certain special occasions, such as the Fête du Costume on the first Sunday in July - and you get to see a ceremonial show as well.

A THUMBNAIL HISTORY

bust julius caesar arlesArles was founded in prehistoric times, when it was already known as Arelate, a Celtic word meaning "surrounded by swamps" (of the Camargue). The Romans arrived here in 123 BC, expanding Arles into an important trading city.

At first Arles was at first overshadowed by the older, better located and more established coastal port of Marseille.

But that changed when civil war broke out among the Romans in 49-45 BC. Arles supported Julius Caesar while Marseille picked Pompey, his challenger - and the ultimate loser. Pictured: A recently discovered bust, probably of Caesar, on display at the Musée Arles Antique.

Marseille paid the price and its treasures were transferred to Arles, where the Romans now focussed all their energy.

Around 15,000 people lived here then, a third of the city's current population. Marseille, on the other hand, had little on the grand scale of Arles' ancient monuments.

The Romans stayed for six centuries until the Visigoths arrived in 476 AD. So they had plenty of time for some serious construction projects. In Arles, Caesar's ghost - which Lawrence Durrell explored so vividly - is vast indeed here.

WHAT TO SEE

If you only see one Roman site in Arles, it has to be the Amphithéâtre (sometimes referred to as les arènes).

rudy ricciotti corrida goyesqueConstructed in around 90 AD, it was the largest building in the whole of the Roman colony of Provence and could originally hold as many as 21,000 spectators (today, with more modern, comfortable, safety-conscious seating there's still space for 12,000).

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the amphitheatre fell into disuse and disrepair. Houses sprang up - some 200 of them - plus three churches and it became a miniature walled village.

But in the 18th century the rediscovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum in Italy triggered a general mania for antiquity and the ancient world, and the amphitheatre in Arles was refurbished.

In Roman times the amphitheatre was the backdrop for the slaughter of exotic animals, public executions of people and gladiatorial contests. Spanish-style bullfights weren't staged there, although they may have been pitted against other wild animals, and Arles' first corrida was held in 1830.

Today the vast arena regularly hosts bullfights and gentler courses camarguaises (bull games, in which the animal is not killed) between Easter and the autumn.

The year's highlight is the so-called "Corrida Goyesque" in September, at which a bullfight is framed with a lavish spectacle, music and sets by leading artists such as the fashion designer Christian Lacroix. Pictured: the 2013 Corrida Goyesque, designed by the architect Rudy Ricciotti.

Insider tip for the Roman amphitheatre in ArlesIf you are going to an afternoon show here in summer, arrive early and head straight for the seating to the right of the main entrance in order to avoid the full glare of the blazing sun.

arles penaThe area around the amphitheatre is a focal point for socialising, especially during the big Ferias (festivals) of Easter and September.

At these times of year the bars are jam-packed and peñas (small, local brass bands), pictured, come to tootle a jaunty serenade on the steps to the arena's main entrance.

And the amphitheatre (like the ancient theatre) is used as a venue for some of the spectacular free shows during Arles' Christmas festival, Drôles de Noëls.

If there's no show on, you can take a guided tour or simply wander around the arena and along the high, vaulted arcades, pictured, or climb up one of the towers which were added in the Middle Ages to enjoy an aerial view of Arles.

arles amphitheatre arcadesA few metres along the street, the smaller, less spectacular Théâtre Antique (Ancient Theatre) predates the amphitheatre by about a century. It was used primarily for theatrical entertainments and seated around 10,000 spectators.

Like its counterpart in Orange, the ancient theatre in Arles once had a back wall to enhance its acoustics and to enable the Romans to put on more ambitious shows.

Almost nothing of the original statues and décor remains (though you can see some on display at the Musée Arles Antique).

arles ancient roman theatreBut two pillars survive: pictured here, on a rather overcast winter's day, they're known locally as the deux veuves, or two widows.

And you can still see some rather fine marble tiles in the VIP seating area at the front of the stalls. In a corner on the right as you enter the theatre, a short video with English subtitles explains more about the theatre's history.

The Antique Theatre is used today for dance and music shows. It hosts the Fête du Costume in July (when locals turn out in the elegant traditional costume of Arles), as well as events such as a peplum film festival in August.

It's a three minute walk from here along the rue de la Calade to another key site: the Cryptoportiques are three huge vaulted underground tunnels in the form of a "U".

They were hollowed out in order to create a level foundation for the Roman forum on the sloping land above them.

In fact the vaults in the furthermost tunnel were originally not under the ground at all, but arcade shops opening at ground level on to a lower square.

This is one Roman site where a guided tour is strongly recommended, as it's not easy to identify the important bits and visualise how the whole structure relates to the buildings around and above it.

arles cryptoportiquesYou enter the Cryptoportiques, pictured, down a steep narrow staircase in the corner of the lobby of the Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall) on the place de la République: the visit is not recommended for anyone with restricted mobility.

And, since there's only one exit, only 50 people can tour the Cryptoportiques at a time for safety reasons.

So, as you rattle round the dark, musty, echoing, almost empty subterranean galleries, a visit here is a rather eerie experience, though also a most unusual one.

Head towards the Rhône river to find the Thermes de Constantin (the thermal baths). They were built by the Emperor Constantine the Great much later than the other sites, in the fourth century AD.

Surrounded by more modern buildings, they're not in use as baths today. But you can get a partial view of them from the outside, or take a guided tour through part of what was once an enormous spa complex.

Most of the Roman ruins in Arles are clustered close together. But the fifth main Roman site, the Alyscamps, is a necropolis and, like many Roman burial grounds, located a little outside the main centre.

alyscamps van goghIt's a 20 minute walk from the thermal baths. You can pick up the free shuttle bus (route Navia A) to get there, though it does take a rather roundabout route.

Les Alyscamps were a burial ground for 1,500 years. The plots were highly sought after and lavish coffins would sail up the Rhône river to reach this final resting place.

In more recent years the site has been looted and damaged, and many of the finer sarcophagi are now on display at the Musée Arles antique.

But it's a peaceful place to visit, with a pretty mediaeval church and memories of Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, who both came to paint the scene. Pictured: Chute de Feuilles (Falling Autumn Leaves) by van Gogh, 1888.

Les Alyscamps, by the way, is the provençal word for Champs Elysées (Elysian Fields).

ALSO OF INTEREST

Each summer in late August Arles celebrates its Roman roots with a fun, educational and highly family-friendly festival set in and around its amphitheatre and called Arelate.

arelateMany of the events and activities are either free or offered at a small charge. Arelate runs for around ten days and, unsurprisingly, has proved immensely popular: some 25,000 people have attended in previous years.

These Roman celebrations started life as an annual film festival organised by peplum enthusiasts who staged open-air screenings each summer of classic sword and sandal epics such as Ben-Hur in the Ancient Theatre.

Eventually in 2007 this spawned a full-blown Roman festival, with all sorts of other things going on (the Peplum Film Festival itself continues as a parallel event).

Almost every town and village in Provence seems to have some sort of historical festival. But the Roman one in Arles is on a much bigger scale.

And it's not about kitschy sentimental folklore: Arelate makes it a point of pride to mix historical accuracy in with the entertainment. Those Roman monuments provide an unrivalled backdrop to it all.

What to expect? The festival is likely to feature a big procession of chariots and gladiators through the streets, a Roman-style circus and pop-up catering by the Roman cuisine specialist Mireille Chérubini (formerly of the Taberna Romana in Saint Rémy de Provence).

Arelate features plenty of workshops for children too, where they can learn how to fight like a gladiator, create a Roman costume, see a war machine in action, make clay jewellery and mosaics, play Roman games or write in Greek and Latin. Or they can go on a Roman treasure hunt or take a guided tour of one of Arles' monuments designed especially for kids.

If you want to dig deeper into history, Arelate also has guided tours and scholarly conferences. Best of all, the association that runs the festival organises activities all year round. Check their website for the current programme.

 

Photo credits (from top): © Arles Tourist Offiice, MDAA, Arles Tourist Office, SJ for Marvellous Provence (three images), Véronique Pagnier for Wikimedia Commons, Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, Festival Arelate.

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