Its most famous resident dreamed of Arles becoming a haven for artists. Today, Vincent van Gogh would be impressed with the artistic revival transforming this Provençal city into a prominent European centre for art.
Thanks to heavy investment in new and emerging art institutions, Arles is quickly becoming a centre for culture in France’s south. Tourists lured by the city’s ancient Roman ruins are soon distracted by the wealth of museums, galleries, and festivals.
Everywhere you look, these two personalities – the ancient Roman Arles and the artistic Arles – collide. Stroll the tree-lined Promenade des Alyscamps, a Roman necropolis, and you’re walking in the footsteps of van Gogh and Paul Gauguin.
Stop to admire the exquisite Roman temple columns embedded in the walls of the Hôtel Nord-Pinus. Then venture inside to savour pastries where matadors once toasted victories and where, many centuries later, Pablo Picasso, Henry James, Ernest Hemingway, and Paul Klee frequented.
Arles served as inspiration for many of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings (he painted roughly 200 works around town) and is the site of the famed psychotic episode in which he cut off his own ear. He recuperated in the Old Hospital of Arles.
The Fondation Vincent van Gogh stands as a tribute to the city’s most famous resident. This modern art space is set within a newly renovated 15th-century manse and exhibits van Gogh paintings alongside the artists he inspired, including Alice Neel and David Hockney.
A similarly significant art establishment is the 150-year-old Musée Réattu, housed in a delightfully renovated 15th-century Hospitaller priory next to the Rhône. The museum houses works by 18th- and 19th-century Provençal artists, along with works by Pablo Picasso and, naturally, Jacques Réattu. It also hosts curated, avant-garde exhibitions.
A new, 20-acre Luma Arles art complex is set to become one of the largest private contemporary art centres in France, backed by Maja Hoffmann. Luma Arles is housed within a repurposed, disused railway depot, where 100,000 square feet of exhibition spaces will be held in railway workshops. The complex will include 10 acres of public gardens, two restaurants, and bookstores and is scheduled to open in 2020.
Of course, a visit to Arles would be incomplete without appreciating the first of the city’s golden periods. A wander around the UNESCO-protected centre of old Arles reveals the vestiges of the city’s first heyday as a provincial capital of Rome. The 2000-year-old amphitheatre, Les Arènes, is an unusually well-preserved colosseum that would have once held 21,000 spectators. Les Arènes is still used for concerts, races, outdoor spectacles, and the corrida, or bullfighting, which is banned in most parts of France.
Tourists flock to the city in summer, when one of the world’s most important photography festivals, Les Rencontres d’Arles, takes over some of the town’s most interesting spaces.
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Set to be completed in 2020, Frank Gehry’s new 56-metre spiralling, reflective tower at Luma Arles is already a sight to behold. Gehry was inspired by everything from the town’s Roman history to the craggy rock formations near Arles. Van Gogh painted these formations in 1888, and Gehry’s work reflects the artist’s hauntingly beautiful depictions. From the top of the obelisk, visitors will be able to see it all: the clay-coloured ruins, the silky river Rhône, and the marshy wetlands of the neighbouring Camargue.