ARLES in the frame: Jly 2023

The city of Arles in the south of France presides over the Camargue river delta, a region renowned for its cobalt skies, flat horizons, strong Mistral winds, roaming white horses, wild bulls – and as a place of pilgrimage, for gypsies, artists and art photography lovers.

Each year, gypsy communities from across Europe gather at the church of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, on the edge of where the marshes meet the sea. Their pilgrimage marks the finding nearly 600 years ago of the relics of Mary of Clopas and Mary Salome, both disciples of Jesus. 

The biblical story goes that the two Marys, together with Mary Magdalene, had sailed across the sea to the Camargue to escape Christian persecution in the Holy Land. And here they stayed for the rest of their lives, endowing the Camargue beyond their own lives with a special magical spirit.

Vincent Van Gogh was enticed to Arles by the light, colour and harmony. He wrote to his brother Theo in 1888: “I am painting with the gusto of a Marseilles eating bouillabaisse”. Other artists and writers followed, not least Ernest Hemingway

More recently, thousands of worshippers of fine art photography from around the world make the pilgrimage each July to this UNESCO-listed city for the opening week of Les Rencontres d’Arles photo festival.   



A pilgrimage is about coming together (plenty of partying at Les Rencontres d’Arles), rejoicing (awards and celebrations) and honouring (the great photographic artists of today and yesterday). 

The rituals range from strolling down the narrow limestone streets, bumping into familiar faces, whether from Berlin to Paris; loitering around the bars in the Place du Forum; playing pétanque down by the Rhône river; and, of course, soaking up the artwork, housed in the town’s many historic buildings.

For Arles is a town of connections, as well as a town of art. We’re in the south of France here. And here are some of my favourite places to eat, drink and relax…  


Coffee & Cakes

Bar & Restaurant Le Tambourin: Arles can verge on chi-chi, with so many Parisians in town, so an early morning coffee at Le Tambourin, just off the Place du Forum, is a light relief. I love to sit at the bar, read the local newspaper, catch the latest football results on the TV in the corner, and listen to the banter of the locals, their faces wizened by the winter-to-spring Mistral winds. For later in the day, the daube de taureau (bull stew) is said to be excellent.

Boulangerie Patisserie Poudevigne: One of the best bakeries in Arles, off the Place du Forum, like most things in Arles. My go-to place for bread, morning croissant and patisseries. Favourites include the raspberry millefeuille and black forest cake. For coffee I stick to Le Tambourin.


A special lunch in Arles

Chardon, in the rue des Arènes, leading up to the Roman amphitheatre, is famous for its chefs-in-residence. Beware. It’s only open on Thursdays to Mondays, and not in low season. For my July 2023 visit, the chef was Yorkshireman Daniel Morgan, who I had first met in London, then in Paris, and now in Arles.

My starter: Coeur de boeuf tomatoes, pickled sardines & gremolata (chopped parsley, lemon zest & garlic) & raspberries. Main dish: Monkfish, peperonata (sweet pepper & tomato sauce), Paimpol beans (from Brittany) & green sauce. Dessert: Verbena crème brulée with poached peaches. All for €35. Plus a glass of wine. 



L’Épicerie Moderne – good food in Roquette 

This restaurant-grocery store overlooking the Place Paul Doumer in the trendy La Roquette neighbourhood is my go-to place for lunch.  To take away, I also buy their olive spread and Les Gardians beer, a local rice beer named after the riders who herd the bulls and horses in the Camargue. For wine, a local red from Kreydenweiss in Alsace never goes amiss. 


L’Arlatan – cocktails in the courtyard

A room at Hotel L’Arlatan is hors mon budget (beyond my budget), so for a cheaper option I go for a drink in the hotel’s Courtyard. From here, cosseted between the old limestone facades, I love to gaze up at the (normally) blue sky, sipping a glass of Camargue rosé and munching on a grignotage of local chickpea humous and smoked sardines on toast

The interiors of this boutique hotel near the Place du Forum are designed by Cuban-born artist José Pardo. Colour, intrigue and texture are everywhere. I was particularly taken by the  3D-printed lights made out seaweed, or so I was told. 

The hotel is owned by Swiss art patron and entrepreneur Maja Hoffman, who grew up in the Camargue.  Maja also owns Hôtel du Cloître, a converted convent, 


Year-round art in Arles 

Maja Hoffman is most famous in Arles for the Frank Gehry-designed LUMA Arles ‘creative campus’, opened in 2021.    

A short stroll away from the town centre, there’s always lots on at LUMA. And the ice cream is good. I went for scoops of apple & almond milk sorbets with ginger syrup at one of the restaurants on site, the Terraces des Forges.

The gardens are designed by Bas Smets (the Belgian landscape architect appointed to work on Notre-Dame in Paris), but in July the sun is strong, so I tend to dart from the shade of one campus building to another. 

Other smaller foundations have popped up in Arles since the opening of LUMA, helped by the town’s excellent rail links with Paris and Marseille, and its location near two local airports. On my list for next time is a visit to the Lee Ufan Foundation, opened in 2022 by Korean artist Lee Ufan


Spa & relax in Arles 

It might seem counterintuitive but the best escape from temperatures hovering at 35°C is to escape to somewhere even hotter – the hammam. 

My favourite one in Arles is Hammam Chiffa, ensconced behind the book shelves of  Actes Sud, down by the banks of the river Rhône. A 45-minute body  scrub and massage comes out at €70.  


Shopping in Arles 

How do you dress to not look like a tourist in France?  Wear a “single strategically chosen accessory … one at a time”, advises Vanessa Friedman in The New York Times

Naïs, a small jewellery and accessories shop is good for that. The shop is named after its creator, Anaïs, born in the mountains but whose home is now on the plains of Arles. I also liked the clothes’ shop on the corner opposite.


Look out! I’ll be updating this post after my 2024 pilgrimage to Les Rencontres d’Arles. 


More to discover in Arles & the Camargue…

From Les Éditions Papier guide on Provence:

  • Le Colláteral – a bed & breakfast with four rooms in La Roquette district. 
  • La Chassagnette – a Michelin-starred restaurant 20 minutes’ drive south of Arles, in the Camargue. 


More to read….

Arles & Camargue (updated 2022) by A Week Abroad

Letters from My Windmill by Alphonse Daudet – a collection of short stories set in 19th century Fontvieille, near Arles. 


 

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