Once a metropolis of Roman Gaul, Arles is home to a truly impressive arena and amphitheater, which dominates the centre of the city. This is where the modern day bull fights are held, the practice of which dates back to the Roman games in the first century. The Roman monuments of Arles are registered with Unesco and should be on your must see list if visting the town. In addition to the Roman monuments, the town of Arles is framed by houses and private mansions of the 16th and 17th centuries, the cloister of St. Trophime and the Hôtel de Ville.
There are a number of character filled bars and cafes to sample a pastis or a fantastic, dusky very pale rose. The Café Van Gogh, painted to look like his Night Café painting, is very touristy but there is something quite sweet and charming about it too. The Grand Hotel Nord Pinus, opposite the cafe Van Gogh is - as the name suggests, a Grand old dame of a hotel. It somehow seems to capture a wonderful 19th century belle epoque feeling admist its nude portraits of Charlotte Rampling, 1930s armchairs and Turkish lanterns. It also has a history of hip clients as Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Simone Signoret, Yves Montand, Fritz Lang, Henry James, Ernest Hemingway, Paul Klee, John Huston and Christian Lacroix, who described the hotel as "a temple of high society and bullfighters."
Arles is also the gateway to Camargue, land of the Gypsies and meeting place of the Camargue cowboys. It is a great spot from which to set out and enjoy the yearly Gyspy festival in the Camargue (which you can read more about here). There is a realness to Arles, which is the reason why I love it and often travel back. St Remy and many other Provençal towns are incredibly beautiful and offer that classic image that you would read about in a book - but for me it is that realness and sense of daily life that draws me back time again to Arles.
The market is probably the best place to see that realness of Arles in the flesh. Held weekly on a Wednesday and Saturday, this market is all about ordinary French people going about their daily life. It heaves with locals chatting, swapping news and gossip as stallholders gift an extra bouquet of herbs into their baskets.
The sense of a place, which can be found at a market is probably best described by Elizabeth David: "Well, plenty of tourists spend their mornings in museums or picture galleries and cathedrals, and nobody would quarrel with them for that. But the stomach of the city is also not without it's importance. And then, I wouldn't be too sure that the food market of a big city shouldn't be counted as a part its artistic tradition."
In the visual feast that is the Arles market, you can have everything from striped provincial fabrics piled high to market baskets in a rainbow of colours. There are enormous shallow paella pans to tempt you on the spot, every kind of goats cheese you could possibly imagine, duck, wild boar and even donkey saucisson, tubs of olives scooped and ladled next to vats of glossy rich, olive oil and pale rose colored vinegar.
The delight does not stop just with your visual senses, the savoury garlic aroma of the rotisseries strung with chickens will drive you mad and then you will be hit by the soft fragrance of pale pink peonies, the sweet melons of Cavaillon and then the dense, heady spices shaped in little towers.
After a Saturday morning at the market, with the contents of our baskets emptied on the large, wooden kitchen table, Mr K and I devised this great little canapé style snack - which is perfect at aperitif time, accompanied with one of Provence's pale, refreshing ( and very easy to drink) rose wines.
GOAT CHEESE SPREAD WITH LAVENDER HONEY
1 large log of chèvre (or a couple of small rounds) - a younger, less pungent chèvre is good for this.
A tub of lavender honey
Herbs de Provence (ground down to very fine texture - almost a powder)
Slice chèvre into rounds and place on slices of baguette. Drizzle over a small amount of lavender honey and sprinkle with the ground herbs de Provence. Grill lightly until just slightly melted and the edges of the baguette brown. Serve immediately.
Arles MarketEvery Wednesday and Saturday (the Sat market is larger)
Saturday morning on Blvd. des Lices and Blvd. Clémenceau
Wednesday morning on Blvd. Emile Combes
Get there early - the stallholders pack up around 12.30pm