November 19th started as one of the coldest mornings so far this autumn. It might have been nice to stay in bed, but it was time for another train trip, this time to Arles, just inside Provence. We walked to the station, and after a short wait standing on the cold, breezy platform beneath the Gare Saint Roch, we boarded. It felt good to be on the train.
The morning sun, low on the horizon, shone brightly through the window and into our eyes, but it was warm. The train rocked gently between towns where people got on and off on their way to work, school, or shopping. We were going to Arles to visit ancient Roman monuments and be in the place where Vincent van Gogh painted some of his more famous works as he suffered his deepest depression.
Arrival into Arles came quickly, and it was back out into the cold morning. We walked briskly, and as we rounded a corner, before us stood the Roman amphitheater or arena. Slightly larger than the arena in Nimes, it was also a bit younger. Yet it also is an engineering and architectural marvel and as well as a thing of beauty. Like the arena in Nimes, it is still in use as for bull fights and other public events, but we would visit it later in the day when the light was a little better for photography.
Nearby was the ancient Roman theatre that dates back to the first century AD. It was easy to imagine the stone seats filled with people attending some form of entertainment greatly influenced by Greek theater; tragedies and especially comedies were particularly popular.
Walking about the site, I had climbed to the top of the seating rows to capture a few images. When I passed a couple who were commenting on the structure in English, I made a brief comment as I went by. A conversation ensued. As it turned out, they were American, from Florida, near Orlando, from Longwood – the same area we had lived before starting this adventure. Soon joined by Jeannie, we stood atop the 2000+ year old monument chatting with people just as has been done for centuries. However, the four of us had traveled almost 5,000 miles (7500 km) to meet there … by accident.
Such a coincidence warranted a longer conversation, so we all decided to have lunch together. We found a little restaurant nearby, and had a delightful lunch filled with conversation of life and travel. Afterwards, we needed to go in our separate directions, so goodbyes were said and Jeannie and I went off to see the arena and more of the town.
Built in 90 AD, the Arènes d’Arles is 136 m (446 ft) in length, 109 m (358 ft) wide, and features 120 arches; it was capable of seating over 20,000 spectators, and provided entertainment in the form of chariot races, gladiatorial games and wild animal fights for more than four centuries. Today, as in Nimes, the arena is used for plays, concerts and bullfights.
We had followed one of the walking tour routes through the city, seeing some of the subjects that inspired Van Gogh, the The Thermae of Constantine, and enjoyed strolling on the cobble-stoned streets through this ancient town.
Locating the Cathédrale Saint-Trophime, built between the 12th century and the 15th century, we had hoped to see the sculptures over the portal which are supposed to be quite impressive examples of Romanesque sculpture. Unfortunately there was extensive restoration work going on and the entire front of the cathedral was hidden behind tarps and scaffolding.
The adjacent cloister is considered an important combination of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. We wandered the rectangular porticos until we came to a door where 57th Salon International des Santonniers d’Arles was being held. Having no clue what santons were, we went into the free exhibit.
It is likely that if we had known that santons (crafted by santonniers) were small hand-painted clay figurines, it may have not attracted our interest, but we were truly impressed. The first santons were created during the French Revolution when churches were forcibly closed and prohibited from displaying large nativity scenes. These were replaced with home-sized versions which developed into a small industry to make the figurines. It was at this point that the santons appeared in Provence and became essentially a family craft passed down through generations. Today there are around one hundred workshops that still carry on the tradition of making the santons de Provence.
Originally, the nativity scene was limited to the characters in the Nativity itself; however over the years the number of figurines has increased to include a whole series of everyday characters from old Provence and their traditional trades. Indeed, the craft has expanded to include representations of art masterpieces and tales from other cultures all of which are remarkable in their artistry.
The night was approaching quickly and the temperature was dropping. We still had time to sit in a local bistro for a drink before heading to the Gare to catch our train back to Montpellier. We now have less than two weeks in Montpellier, and there is still much to do, but tomorrow is another day, things will wait.