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The Best of Southern France: Arles!
A Different Experience
Are you tired of tourist-infested cities in France? Have you been to Paris and thus think you've seen everything there is to see about French culture? Think again. Welcome to far southern France, where Arlesiens seem to spend their days talking, laughing, and eating outdoors in antiquated cafes. Arles, France, is alive with a spirit and love of life that has not been seen in the rest of France for a century and a half.
I am an American student who has just returned to the US after living for almost two months in Arles. Having been to Paris, Lyon, Marseille and Bordeaux, I thought I was reasonably well-informed about what exactly it was to be a French citizen. Then I visited Arles, a tiny town near Avignon, with the Little Alps in the background and the lush greenery of Provence surrounding you.
This is also the city that Van Gogh loved, and where he painted his famous "Starry Night Over the Rhone" and "Cafe Terrace at Night," a cafe in Arles that continues to be in business and serve lunch and dinners to residents and tourists until this very day. The Arlesians do not seem to realise how blessed they are to be walking among living history, along the same cobblestone streets that the Romans walked on 2000 years ago, and the same structures that people built over 500 years ago. Coming from the relatively short history of the United States, I was continually awed by the modesty and grace the Arlesians exhibited through their day to day lives in Arles, France.
An Ancient Influence
The Romans actually made it even farther west than Arles, but I was surprised enough to learn that the Roman Empire had a heavy hand in influencing how Arles looks today. Both a Roman amphitheatre and a Roman arena are still used today in Arles, and though they have obviously been updated with wiring and handrails at the very least, the spirit of Arles' Roman heritage endures.
Two beautiful old churches are also necessary for visitors of Arles to see, the most prominent of which is the Church of St Trophime, worked with elaborate Romanesque architectural details. The Alyscamps are also a world-famous Roman necropolis that are open to tourists and are also available to see in many of Vincent Van Gogh's paintings, created during his days in Arles.
Plaza in Arles
Language in Arles, France
Though of course the citizens of Arles speak French, it is very different from the Parisian French that most American students learn in their French classes. Because Arles has such a relaxed pace of life, the rate of speech is also slower. The final letters on the ends of words, such as chose (ie: SHOZ-ah), grave, or fille, are often pronounced, while you would not hear a Parisian say them. While it may seem like this would make it easier for someone who is not fluent to understand them, I found I had a few problems in the beginning because I would hear the pick-up at the end of words and think the speaker was saying the beginning of the next word, instead of just the ending of the previous.
Arles is located fairly evenly between Spain and Italy, though I saw/heard only a few Spanish visitors. Many Italians come to Arles, but they also seemed to speak good French, and I saw very few Italian translations at the museums or on the cafe menus. There were a good amount of English-speaking tourists from all over the world, including Asian tourists who used English as a common language to communicate with the waiters, hotel clerks, museum guides in Arles. And then there were a surprisingly large number of Germans who came to Arles, and also were the only nationality that was comparable to Americans, in their complete ignorance of the French language.
Why I Wrote This Guide
Arles was one of the best experiences of my life. I got significantly better at speaking French, and I learned what it was like to live in a traditional French town in Southern France, and become more than just a tourist. If there is any more information I can give you about Arles, please let me know what you would like to know in the comments section.