|From our arrival in Arles last night onwards we have been immersed in a rich blend of charming 18th century laneway architecture, massive and mindboggling Roman remains and marvellous museums. My ICOM (International council of museums) pass was burning hot as i flashed it to gain free entry to the Musee Reattu, which cleverly blended artworks from the past and present in historic rooms; Musee Departemental Arles Antique, which for me the highlight was the massive the longboat found in the mud of the Rhone River with a great doco video on its conservation; how I'd love to work as a conservator, documenting and washing all the pieces and sticking them back together with resin; then there was of course the popular Fondation Vincent Van Gogh Arles which actually doesn't own any Van Gogh's but borrows them and there were around 10 stunners on display alongside big name 20th century and contemporary artists (A Dolphine Monticelli, Pablo Picasso, Sigmar Polke, Giorgio De Chirico, Germaine Richier, Alexander Calder, Joan Mitchell and Etel Adnan) who responded to the theme of the sun, including African American hippy performance artist Sun Ra. I also enjoyed the upstairs exhibition Paul Nash: luminous elements, which elucidated his experience of early 20th century life and WWII in a metaphysical rather than literal sense.
The museums that are part of old town aren't huge by comparison to other European heavyweights but that fits in well with the charming domestic architecture surrounding them; imagine living next door to a museum in Arles; it's possible. This contrasts however, with the other public buildings that you suddenly find around a corner. And this coincided with increasing power of the middle classes during the 17th century. Towns such as Arles began to build big civic buildings on a grand scale. The Town Hall (or “mairie”) in Arles is a good example. It certainly achieved its goal of competing with the religious buildings that had been built before. But then there is the Roman Amphitheatre and Theatre Antique.
The two-tiered Roman amphitheatre was built in 90 AD, and could seat over 20,000 spectators, and was built to provide entertainment in the form of chariot races and Gladiator style battles. Today, it hosts bullfighting (!!?) and plays and concerts in summer. The Roman Theatre of Arles, which preceded its famous neighbour the amphitheatre by a century, is less well preserved. Constructed at the end of the 1st century BC, it dates from the first phase of urbanisation of the Roman colony founded by Caesar in 46 BC. From the major light system set up, it would appear that concerts are also held here; it once catered for 10,000 patrons.