What have the Romans ever done for us? Well, in the city of Arles there’s both a Roman Arena and a Roman theatre for tourists to see. The Arena was the largest Roman building in the whole of France and staged gladiatorial contests when 30,000 people would have crammed in to witness the spectacle. Looking at the Arena today, I found it difficult to imagine a third storey on top of the existing two, along with a canvas roof to protect the lower classes of Roman society from the vagaries of the weather, mostly the intense sun of the summer.
Sadly, the Arena in Arles is used for traditional bull-fighting where the bull usually ends up being killed unless it somehow shows immense bravery whilst staying alive in the arena. The only hope for the future is younger people don’t become interested in this awful spectacle and stay away. Bullfighting has been banned in Catalunya over the border in north-eastern Spain and hopefully this ban can be extended into France.
If people must go and see bulls and men in a contest, they should make sure it is the indigenous genre of bullfighting known in Provence and Languedoc as “course libre” or “course camarguaise”. This is a bloodless spectacle (for the bulls) in which the objective is for the men in the ring, known as raseteurs, to snatch a rosette from the head of a young bull with only a claw-shaped metal instrument called a raset. The men who do this have trained for many years as they have absolutely no protection in the ring. The stars of these spectacles are the bulls, who get top billing and stand to gain fame and statues in their honour. This type of contest seems to be descended from the bull-leaping feats practised during Minoan times in Crete around 3,750 years ago.
The Roman Theatre is not well preserved, in fact only one pair of columns are still standing along with some of the original seating. Most of the original stone was taken away to build local churches such as St Trophime, but this doesn’t prevent the theatre being an atmospheric setting for 3,000 people to see plays and musical performances.
Continuing down Rue de la Calade and turning left into Place de la Republique the visitor comes to the aforementioned Church of St Trophime, named after a 3rd Century bishop of Arles. This western doorway of the church is stupendously carved. The whole scene shows the Day of Judgement. Jesus is surrounded by symbols of the four evangelists. The 12 disciples are depicted underneath Jesus. On the right, those heading for Hell can be seen chained together. St Stephen is being stoned to death underneath them. In times when few people could read, the message was very clear. It is also the message modern day pilgrims see as they head away from Arles on the Way of St James towards Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. The scallop shell markers indicate the way.
Returning to Rue de la Calade and turning left before taking the first right brings the visitor to the Forum Square, where the Roman Forum was situated. The engineering genius of the Romans was tested here. At this point, Arles is sloping down towards the Rhone and therefore the Romans had to build foundations to make this main square of their city level. The statue on the square is of Frederic Mistral who won the 1904 Nobel Prize for Literature. He wrote exclusively in the local dialect and after his Nobel Prize victory, he championed the folk identity of Provence. The reason most travellers come to the square is to see Cafe la Nuit, the subject of one of Vincent Van Gogh’s most famous paintings although it is important to point out the cafe was painted yellow by recent owners to make it look like the painting.
Visitors can judge for themselves how accurately the cafe has been renovated by seeking out the easel containing a photo of the Cafe at Night painting. These easels are found at various sites around Arles where Vincent van Gogh painted some of his most famous pieces. None of the originals are in Arles.
This extract is from the book Travels through History : France by Julian Worker