Art feeds mythology, and mythology stirs art. For half a century, the world’s best photographers descended each summer upon Arles, but not in 2020 as like most group gatherings in the world, the Rencontres de la Photographie were cancelled. Still, now that Arles is tautted as one of the most exciting art destinations of Europe (like Athens), it’s time to ride the bull, literally. Beyond the cruel tradition of bull fighting that Picasso was keen on, still active in the vast Roman Arena of Arles, its ancient core is fascinating to observe in all shades of day and night or angle of light. Van Gogh was smitten to stay a while luring Gaugin in, while the Occitan poet Frédéric Mistral revived the local Provencal language and later the Southern wild wind that blows as far as in Monaco on the Italian border was named after this Nobel Prize awardee.
Shifting perception: deeply historic and contemporary transformations of Arles
In some aspects, Arles reminds me of Marrakech in its much cleaner and orderly French incarnation. Bright skies, heat warms the dusty and rocky soil, even palm trees soar from the courtyard shades of the tight-set town. This ancient Roman cum Romanesque and Gothic heart of Arles I describe is enlivened by the cafés-embroidered Place du Forum. My favourite people-gazing is from the tables at the awarded Glacier, licking indulgently his artisan ice cream I revel in the spirit of Arles. A few steps away, passing provencal azure shutters, flowers-spilling balconies and cosy shaded patios here and there, the imposing Republic Square with a towering Roman obelisque, brightens and widens the space.
One feels calm in the chaos of life in its core. I found such an artistically nurturing bohemian, creative and spiritual lure in the hometown of the Gipsy Kings. Next to nature only very old towns inhabited by artists and free minds can wield such a draw. Empty monasteries, imposing cathedrals and deserted catholic churches share a profoundly religious story of its not too distant glorious past. The Roman Catholic Church of St. Trophime (photo bellow left) is a sublime edifice of elaborate art merging with Roman simplicity towering towards the blue sky. I would not take a map or followed any digital navigation in Arles, for it is small enough to find all that can absorb you by its wowing beauty.
Now, there are no crowds gazing at the forget-me-not-hued shutters and crumbling facades that are so St Tropez before the world flooded in.
The Grand Hotel du Nord Pinus hides inside the most prominent local character. Here, countless legendary photographers lodged during their Southern summer encounters. The rooftop suite makes an authentic Arlèsienne sejour and I will never forget the buzz at night I heart from its balcony or the early morning church bells luring me out to observe the sunlit rooftops. In a tight passage near to the Place du Forum a bullfighters’ bar wields a similar nostalgic passionate lifestyle of the cultured locals.
The South, as in the charming 60s French movies, that’s Arles in the 21st century. Savvy artists recognised that and are still imprinting their legacy around its Roman walls. West to East, from The latino MANUEL RIVERA-ORTIZ FOUNDATION for documentary photography and film to the Japanese Tadao Ando transforming a romaesque townhouse for his Korean artist friend’s Lee Ufan foundation Arles scheduled to open in 2022.
I have been coming to eat and wander around the stone-clad heart of Arles for years. Something attractively bohemian gently sways through its narrow cobbled streets with bright Southern blue shutters and the welcoming shade from June till October, it is art. This is my Prague of the South. Too small to become hip setter, the town is authentically inspiring. Go now.
The old town’s permanent gallery space has been also expanding recently, but the big game is behind the Roman city walls. One cannot miss the stark LUMA Arles Complex twisting in its aluminium-plated helix by the Pritzker Prize awarded Frank Gehry. Commissioned by the Swiss collector Maja Hoffmann, who is rocking the town by adding a boutique design hotel in a former ducal palazzo embellished by her Latin American artist friend last year. This newest addition to the extremely limited local hotel scene, L’Arlatan is a lesson in ducal architecture married with creative openness in the bright pictorial art of Jorge Pardo. His art suits the birthtown of Christian Lacroix, the French designer whose colorful pattered fabrics brightened fashion. The handmade tiles spark energy on the floors and the bathrooms of the dark former palace, while hand pained wardrobes and dressers transform each unique suite into an art gallery. I enjoyed a pre-dinner drink and a lunch at its superb casual restaurant courtyard revealing a majestic staircase. Overseen by the local Michelin stared chef Armand Arnal of La Chassagnette (a protegé of Hoffmann), the plates are small, inspired by his organic garden and sustainable Franco-Italian Mediterranean produce. Each summer, invited chefs create “four hands” meals inspired by each other’s cuisine. This concept of creative collaboration has expanded across Arles over the past decade.
Dining: casual or gastronomic, Arles has all that your belly craves
Arles is happening right now and it is not. Less travellers globally in 2020 means so much more space to admire its beauty. While the pandemic prevented the annual Photographic Encounters for the first time since its conception in 1969, the local dining as much as its permanent art scene are booming. Try the Arlèsienne cuisine, in which the most typical is the bull meat from the fights in the ancient Arena. The unmistakably local character and two Michelin chef Jean-Luc Rabanel serves it tender and smoked at his L’Atelier. I am not so keen on his cuisine, but his bistro delivers local fare more reliably than the lavishly-decorated fine dining restaurant. For a gastronomic meal in Arles, I much prefer La Chassagnette.
The casual and contemporary seasonal chefs pop-ups at Chardon Arles have, so far, never disappointed. Each spring and summer we fork into the carte blanche degustation by a chef from Australia, Denmark, or some young French chefs, while sipping affordable, superb and sensible selections of natural wines by its sommelier. Mostly local ingredients are transformed under a globe-trotting eye of each chef.
The Grand Hotel du Nord Pinus also invites various chefs to rotate in its kitchen. Arles offers a truly international culinary inspiration, notably present for its size. A Mexican taco pop-up in an open sky photo gallery space last year was fun, but as the area is being currently transformed, I hope this latin concept will be transferred somewhere else in town.
Do not miss the hyper-local specialities like the Camargue red rice, the crispy chickpea Panisses a local version of potato fries or the fresh local goat cheese. Fad’Ola sandwiches made with olive oil and “love” bring a fast casual spark into Arles. The best quality in the hands of a couple that also rolls some maki sushi into their menu. For a quick seafood fix lounge at Du Bar a l’Huitre tucked in a corner of the vibrant Place du Forum.
Hands on creativity in Arles
Next to the recent contemporary twists on the face of Arles, the small town is still quirky and artisanship is hived in its DNA. The Van Gogh Foundation is opened only one day each week, most of the galleries also welcome visitors just on weekends. Some creative spaces operate more seriously though. Le Main Qui Pense, a ceramic studio cum boutique where I find each time some beautiful local clay even Camargue salt meets hands in her pottery. Some is custom-made for the nearby three Michelin stared Oustau de Baumanière restaurant. Along with many other creative spaces, she organises pottery workshops, hands on. Small design stores and even tailor-made apparel offer unique pursuits.
The Arles Summer Photography School is renown, plenty of cultural programming at the local cinema meets book store and the event space attached to the Foundation Van Gogh nurtures any type of a curious creative soul. Vincent (outdoor light seeker) invited Gaugin (atelier primitivism-inspired imaginator), his friend prior to his neurotic bouts and Absinthe-clouded aggression, to his den in Arles and they painted side-by-side colour saturated scenes. A book festival each spring and a recording studio in the old town broaden the scope of arts practiced in real time.
Arles has a very varied shades of life. The young creatives sip their artisan beer in some hidden bars, while the socially hip found the Arlatan catering to their taste. The Bourgeoise is not welcome in the free-spirited, left-leaning town. Culturally diverse, in the outskirts and during the weekly market the Arabic community swarms around the city walls, making you feel you are in Northern Africa. The market is vast, not as charming as in Montpelier, Senas, St Tropez, Cannes or Nice, but way cheaper.
The cafe culture still swells with live, yet you can find moments of monastic solitude and peace here. Whether you wander in the tight clasps of its streets or dwell inside the stocky walls of the hotels particuliers, Arles feels the retrograde of time, which today may take up a positive meaning in its slow paced, egalitarian and simple soul.