Some of the most beautiful features of Arles are the Roman architectural buildings that still exist in the town today.
It’s truly amazing to be able to walk amongst genuine, beautiful, Roman history, reaching back 2000 years into another age and culture.
To touch a hand-carved stone crafted by an artisan two millennia ago brings with it an awe-inspiring wonderment that never fails to impress me. To descend stairs worn down by countless footfalls over time and witness evidence of the daily life in a bygone era … I find this fascinating. Coming from Australia, where architectural examples are limited to the last couple of hundred years, it’s probably the thing I love most about visiting France (apart from the language, bien sur), and especially Arles.
It is literally marvellous to witness the incredibly impressive and partially restored Roman Amphitheatre, the Théâtre Antique, and Cryptoportique in the heart of Arles.
The Amphitheatre in Arles has a rich history.
Built in 90 AD, and once celebrated as a centre for public entertainment in the region, the magnificent structure welcomed crowds of over 20,000 people, there to witness chariot races, gruesome spectator sports, and the inevitable gladiator battles, for more than 4 centuries.
After the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, it became instead a fortress to protect the settlement inside its walls. Over 200 houses and several churches were built inside the fortifications – a complete and thriving village – and it remained in use like this even until 1825, when the structure was declared a national historical monument.
In current times, it draws smaller crowds for bullfighting during the Feria d'Arles, as well as plays and concerts in summer.
Extensive restoration works have been undertaken on the structure.
This is evident in the newer stones which sit beautifully next to their older brothers. It’s not only beautiful to see the careful salvation of such a national treasure, but is an absolute necessity for the safety and modernisation measures which have been necessary to safely support up to 12,000 people for the displays of bullfighting that still happen in Arles. Not my cup of tea, but for a concert, it must be marvellous!
Visit the nearby Théâtre Antique d'Arles.
Buy a ticket for 9 Euros to see both monuments. The Théâtre is used today for plays and musical performances and the like, just as it may have been across the Millenia.
The Théâtre Antique d'Arles was built during the reign of Emperor Augustus. During the Middle Ages, the magnificent stonework of the Théâtre was quarried and used as material for other local buildings, to the extent that today there is significantly less of the original structure remaining than the neighbouring Amphitheatre.
I think the thing that amazed me the most was the amount and quality of carved stone corbels, friezes, and decorative pillars that are literally laying around on the ground around the site. It feels a bit like a supermarket with beautiful relics literally laid out for selection to take home. I wish …
The Théâtre was listed as a National Historic Monument in 1840 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981. Today, especially in summer, it is used for theatrical performances with modern lighting and seating – potentially – for thousands of people. What a sight that would be!
If you have seen any performances at either the Théâtre or the Amphitheatre, let us know in the comments what it was like, and if you would recommend them. I’m sure our community would love to know.
I'm Louise Scott
Editor, Photojournalist & Tour Director at All Things French
10-day Tours to the French Riviera
Small-group Tours for Women staying at Villefranche sûr Mer on the Côte d'Azur
Stay in the *heart* of Villefranche sûr Mer. Discover the Côte d'Azur: the hilltop village of Èze, over-the-top Monaco, gentle Antibes, vieux Nice, artsy St Paul de Vence, and more. Lunch at Beaulieu sur Mer, visit Villa et Jardins de Rothschild and the divine Villa Kerylos, explore medieval Italy, and dine in any of the fabulous restaurants in Villefranche.
Go touring and experience those fabulous Mediterranean views, and have lunch in Italy. Breakfast at the celebrated Welcome Hotel, dine by the harbour, and relax in a beautiful apartment in the old town.