3 DAYS IN ...

The view from the village of Les Baux looks out on a landscape of olive groves stretching to the Alpilles mountain range.

Artsy in Arles

Small-town charm meets urban
interest, making the perfect base
for seeing Provence

cover ISN'T it amazing how a destination can haunt the imagination for years before you actually reach it? Such was the case with Arles, which I'd heard praised decades ago by a University of Hawaii art professor who loved taking student groups there on photography tours. He claimed this was among his favorite places. After such anticipation, how could Arles match my dreams?

Well, thank you, Professor Rodeck, because Arles, in the heart of Provence, was everything promised, plus. For a modest-size community of 50,000, Arles has plenty of attractions yet retains a friendly small-town atmosphere and is a convenient gateway to the nearby towns of St-Rémy-de-Provence, Les Baux-de-Provence and Aix-en-Provence.

Ancient Greeks established the first significant settlement here 2,600 years ago because of the ideal climate, fertile soils and natural harbor. The town was later built up by the Romans under Julius Caesar, who in 49 B.C. rewarded Arles for its loyalty by making it the capital of southern Gaul; it maintained its status for the next thousand years.

Much of the town center was built during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and its stone buildings have been beautifully maintained, functioning today as apartments and modern shops.

Most of the medieval wall surrounding the town is intact, protecting the enclosed space from undue modernization, so the historic center looks as it did centuries ago.

Theoretically one could cover the entire pedestrian zone in 30 minutes; however, Arles is fun to explore and could keep you happily entertained for days.

The stone village of Les Baux-de-Provence is perched atop a rocky plateau. A natural fortress in the Middle Ages, the hamlet was renovated in the mid-1900s.

Day 1 map Start at the most prominent landmark, the Roman amphitheater called the ArŹnes d'Arles, one of seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites in town. With a capacity of 25,000 people, it is a smaller version of Rome's Colosseum, completed about 10 years earlier. The arena, once used by gladiators, is used today for concerts, bullfights and other festivities. During the Middle Ages, the arena was converted into a fortified village of 200 apartments, which have been removed. It opens for public visits at 9 a.m. (10 a.m. in the winter).

Next to the arena is a modern reconstruction of an outdoor theater created here 2,000 years ago for Emperor Augustus. Only a few broken columns are original, but the design is based on ancient Roman plans.

Main Square: From the arena, walk two blocks down the Rue de la Calade to the center of the Old Town, the Place de la République, which contains the city hall, ancient church and obelisk centerpiece with fountain, flanked by shopping lanes.

Enter the vaulted lobby of the old City Hall, built in 1675 according to plans by architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart, who left his mark throughout Paris. Next door, the former cathedral, Eglise San Trophime, is another UNESCO World Heritage site with a fantastic series of Byzantine sculptures. The interior is also Byzantine, older than the Gothic.

While there, find the Cloister of San Trophime, the equivalent of an open-air museum, including architecture and sculpture spanning a 300-year period, with Gothic pointed arches on one side and older, Romanesque barrel vaulting on the other. An open center court is surrounded by columns with detailed stone carvings, and corner columns recognized for realistic Gothic statues representing various saints. It's a calm and peaceful place.

The Museon Arlaten, established a century ago by the famed local poet Mistral, might also catch your eye. The folk art and craft collection includes clothing, furnishings, artifacts, wood carvings and more, spread through 30 rooms. Small Santons figurines, unique to the south of France, depict people in colorful traditional outfits.

If you're looking for a Van Gogh museum, forget it: There are no paintings by him in Arles, but the former hospital where he stayed has been converted into a culture center called Espace Van Gogh, featuring other art exhibits. The two houses he lived in from 1888 to 1889 were destroyed by American bombing in WWII.

Museum of ancient Arles: A 15-minute walk through Place Antonelle and along the Rue du Porcelet (soon to become Rue de la Roquette) leads you to the promising Musée de l'Arles Antique, displaying treasures from Arles' Roman period, including rows of richly decorated marble sarcophagi, or tombs, of the Romans and early Christians.

Elevated platforms enable you to look down on the large collection of mosaic floors from Roman homes with brilliant depictions of sea creatures, the zodiac, Nereids, the four seasons and people.

An impressive 3-D model of Arles in ancient Roman times shows how sophisticated the buildings were. A large model shows how little the arena has changed over the millennia. Also on display are original glass works, tools, gold jewelry, small statues and a nice lineup of emperors' busts. The displays remind us that Arles was one of the largest economic centers in the Roman Empire, with a busy commercial harbor and an extensive urban core. Many Roman generals retired here and are buried in the Alyscamps cemetery, along with hundreds of their soldiers, in the south part of town.

Main square: Return to the center along the wide Boulevard Georges Clémenceau, Arles' busiest street. Stop at the Tourist Information Office a few blocks along on the south side for maps and brochures. Helpful agents can tell you about area attractions.

Cross the busy boulevard back into the historic center via Rue Jean-JaurŹs, leading into the Place de la République. This time, walk through the square and along the pedestrian lane Rue de l'Hôtel de Ville. A second left brings you into the Place du Forum, probably the most popular plaza for eating and drinking. Named after the ancient Roman Forum, which extended toward City Hall a few blocks away, Place du Forum has one of the only four-star hotels in Arles, the Grand Hôtel Nord Pinus. Arles' other four-star property is the Jules César, near the Tourist Information Office.

At least a dozen other small, comfortable hotels are in the historic center, including the cozy Hôtel Calendal, with the charms of a private house and the Roman Amphitheater as a neighbor.

Cryptoporticos: The Roman Forum was the center of social life in ancient Arles, and part of it has survived. Barrel-vaulted arcades, which served as storerooms and foundations for the main forum, are beautifully preserved in the underground Cryptoporticos Museum of Arles. Walking through these dark, musty basements is an eerie experience, with water dripping from the stone roof and fragments of statues and buildings lying on the floor. Mysterious side chambers lead to spooky dead ends in what had been a busy shopping mall 2,000 years ago.

Four police officers stroll amid holiday crowds at the pedestrian mall in the heart of Marseilles' downtown shopping district. Christmas lights hang over the street.

Day 2 Place Voltaire is a charming spot to watch the day begin, with a quiet stroll through a tree-shaded square. Several nice two-star hotels situated around the plaza, such as the Gaughin and Mirador, offer reasonable rates. Walk a few hundred yards west to the ancient Roman Baths of Constantine, which you can appreciate for free from the outside before breakfast.

St-Rémy-de-Provence: This small village, famous for its markets, and Les Baux-de-Provence, an unusual stone village, is less than an hour's drive away. If you can arrange it, arrive in St-Rémy on a Saturday, the main market day. Driving is the best way to get there.

The historic center of St-Rémy is just four blocks long and wide. Its Old Town was once surrounded by a circular wall that has been replaced by a modern street, but the effect is of a sheltered refuge, with many structures dating to the 15th and 16th centuries.

Tour sampler for armchair travelers

Dennis Callan will present a free multimedia program about Arles and Provence, with showings at 2 and 7:30 p.m. May 7 at Tenney Theater at St. Andrew's Cathedral, Queen Emma Square (across from the Capitol building).

Three projected videos that give the impression of being there highlight the historic sites, people, shops and natural scenery of Carcassonne, Arles, Avignon, Lyon, Cannes, Nice, Monaco and Barcelona, plus the small towns of Nimes, Annecy, St. Paul, Vence, Antibes, Grasse, Les Baux and St. Remy, photographed and narrated by Callan, president of the Hawaii Geographic Society.

No reservation is necessary. For more information, call 528-4411.

One of the main squares is Place Flavier, surrounded by ancient ivy-covered buildings. Adjacent, in the medieval center, is Hôtel de Sade, owned by the family of the Marquis de Sade. It houses a museum containing Roman artifacts excavated from nearby Glanum.

Place Pélissier is the other main square, and usually has some market stands selling local olives, breads and cheeses for a picnic lunch. Other local items to look for in the little shops and galleries are fabrics, ceramics, soaps, fragrances and potpourri. There is even a small Museum of Aroma, for this region provides countless flowers for the perfume industry.

St-Rémy is also famous as the place where Van Gogh recuperated after slicing off his ear in his last year of life. You might recognize the knobby trees he included in some of the many paintings and drawings he created here. The most famous of St-Rémy's residents was Nostradamus, who foretold the distant future. A fountain and street in the heart of the village are dedicated to the scholar.

St-Rémy is the archetypal Provenćal village. While it might not house spectacular monuments or ancient ruins, it possesses charm. You might remember your brief hours in St-Rémy as some of the most enjoyable of the trip.

Beautiful Les Baux: Drive about 30 minutes to the unique stone village of Les Baux-de-Provence. It's a remarkable sight, perched atop a rocky plateau 750 feet above the surrounding landscape. This naturally fortified hamlet dates to the early Middle Ages, when it was created as a refuge from the frequent battles between Franks, Catalans, Saracens and marauding bandits. Nearly 3,000 people lived here at the peak of occupation, in the 1300s and early 1400s. Sitting on a rocky spur surrounded by vertical cliffs, it was easy to defend, which explains why traces of earliest human settlement date back 6,000 years. During the early Renaissance, it continued as a thriving village with a grand palace at the highest point, now in ruins after being pulled down in the late 15th century.

By the early 20th century, Les Baux was falling apart, but it was renovated in midcentury under the leadership of André Malraux, then minister of culture, who was responsible for preserving landmarks throughout France. The village is now in beautiful condition. The cobbled pedestrian lanes lead like a time tunnel into the Middle Ages.

At the end of the main lane is a small museum providing entry to the Citadel, with a wind-swept plateau and lofty castle ruins perched on the highest point. Walk to the cliff's edge for a panorama of olive groves and farms far below, then stroll through the ruins of what had been the inner fortress. Note the caves carved into the limestone cliff that once served as housing.

Also on view is a full-sized trébuchet sling and a battering ram like those used during the Middle Ages for the siege of villages. The sling could send rocks as heavy as a small car flying 200 yards through the air.

It's very peaceful here in the off-season, October through April, but in summer these quaint lanes take on an entirely different character, chockablock with visitors.

An arched gate is all that remains of the fortified wall that surrounded the village of St-Rémy, less than an hour's drive from Arles. The town is known for its market, best on Saturdays.

Day 3 Move on with a day trip to Aix-en-Provence, followed by a short visit to Marseille on the way back to Arles.

The train station is two blocks north of Arles' encircling wall. There is no direct train, so you'll have to travel 50 minutes to Marseille, change trains and continue another 30 minutes to Aix. You can stop at Marseille on the way back, as it's best to explore Aix while you have time and energy.

Aix-en-Provence: Various French surveys have deemed this the most desirable city in which to live, for its ambience. A modest population of 150,000 gives Aix-en-Provence a small-town charm, yet it's big enough to provide all the necessities and comforts of urban living. Nearly 30 percent of residents are university students, lending an air of youthful energy, culture and enthusiasm.

The large pedestrian zone is an idyllic urban landscape of pretty low-rise buildings three and four centuries old, crisscrossed by tranquil pedestrian lanes lined with shops and cafes. Plazas with fountains and benches often accent street intersections. This is French living at its best.

You'll spend most of your time in this oldest part of Aix -- easily reached via a 10-minute walk from the train station, up Avenue Victor Hugo leading away from the station. Walk six blocks to the giant fountain, La Rotonde, set in a busy traffic circle, and stop at the Tourist Information Office for a free city map and other guides. Take a right on Cours Mirabeau, the broad street established in 1651. Simply called the Cours, it is considered one of the most attractive of France's boulevards, lined with shops, outdoor cafes and restaurants, with magnificent trees towering overhead and three moss-covered fountains in the middle of the street. Its most chic cafe is Les Deux Garćons, at No. 53.

The historic pedestrian center is "Le Vieil Aix," the old neighborhood north of the Cours. About a half-mile square, it's easy to cover in a few hours but offers enough variety to spend an entire day exploring. Even if you run out of time for Marseille at day's end, it's no great loss.

Walk a few blocks along the Cours, turn left on Nazareth or Clémenceau and plunge into the magic of Le Vieil Aix. In two short blocks you arrive at Place d'Albertas, one of a half-dozen small squares.

Continue north along what is the main pedestrian lane of the old section, at first called Aude, then changing names to Foch, to arrive at the prettiest of all squares, Place de l'Hôtel de Ville. Drop anchor at the terrace cafe to absorb the grand sights of Baroque city hall columns and triangular pediments, punctuated by a tall clock tower, sheltering trees and constant parade of people. The Neoclassical grain market, now a post office, completes the scene with a matching pediment of sculpted allegorical figures.

If you go ...

Here are some places to stay while in Arles:


» Le Calendal: 5 Rue Porte de Laure; call 33-4-9096-1189; fax 33-4-9096-0584; e-mail contact@lecalendal.com
» Hotel d'Arlatan: 26 Rue Sauvage; call 33-4-9093-5666; fax 33-4-9049-6845; e-mail hotel-arlatan@wanadoo.fr
» Gaughin: 5 Place Voltaire; call 33-4-90961435; fax 33-4-90189887
» Grand Hotel Nord Pinus: 14 Place du Forum; call 33-4-9093-4444; fax 33-4-9093-3400; e-mail info@nord-pinus.com; www.nord-pinus.com
» Jules Cesar: 9 Boulevard des Lices; call 33-4-9052-5252; fax 33-4-9052-5253; e-mail julescesar2@wanadoo.fr; www.hotel-julescesar.fr
» Mirador: 3 Rue Voltaire; call 33-4-9096-2805; fax 33-8-2518-5807; e-mail hotelmirador@tiscali.fr; www.hotel-mirador.com


» www.tourisme.ville-arles.fr
» www.arenes-arles.com
» www.arles-antique.cg13.fr

Another attractive square two blocks west is the Place des Cardeurs, with pastel facades enhanced by a row of outdoor restaurants. Cardeurs is frequented by university students, so it's a prime budget lunch location.

Among the most enjoyable places to admire the food, flowers, antiques and local life are Aix's many outdoor markets, open Saturday morning and to a lesser degree on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The main market takes place in front of the Palais de Justice on Place de Verdun and Place des Prźcheurs, then continues on back streets all the way to Place Richelme, whose food market has been operating daily since the Middle Ages.

That main pedestrian lane continues north, changing names to Rue Gaston de Saporta, and leading to Aix's main church, the Cathédrale St-Sauveur. This ancient Gothic, Romanesque and Baroque building has a peaceful cloister that closes at midday for siesta, as do many of the shops.

After exploring the old section, return to the train station with a walk on the south side of the Cours, the Mazarin district. This rectangular grid, five blocks long and wide, has a series of attractive mansions now divided into private apartments, along with the Musée Granet, exhibiting a broad range of prehistoric art through works by Aix's most famous native son, Paul Cézanne. You'll probably see some street musicians, who would appreciate a little gratuity, of course.

Marseille: You're changing trains here, so you might as well have a look for an hour or two. Upon arrival, take a 25-minute stroll downhill from the train station, six blocks along Boulevard d'AthŹnes, turn right at McDonald's and continue along the main boulevard, La CanebiŹre, for five blocks to the waterfront, where you will find a large, picturesque harbor filled with expensive pleasure boats.

The tourist office offers a detailed walking-tour map, efficiently keyed to a red stripe painted on sidewalks throughout Marseille. They are trying to help visitors, but don't bother: The red route doesn't take you anywhere worth going, except to the waterfront.

Before its destruction during World War II, Marseille had a lovely old town on the hill behind the waterfront. Unfortunately, bland apartment buildings now stand there.

Catch the metro at the harbor to get back to the train station to avoid walking uphill for your return to Arles.

On the cover: Leaves float in a fountain in the Palais de Justice in Aix-en-Provence. Aix has been rated the most desirable city in France for its ambience combining university town with historic city. The town center is an idyllic landscape of centuries-old buildings crisscrossed with tranquil pedestrian lanes lined with shops and cafes.

Dennis Callan is president of the Hawaii Geographic Society and frequently leads tours through Europe, Canada and the United States. He produces the "World Traveler" TV series airing at 7 p.m. Tuesdays on 'Olelo, channel 53, and writes "Three Days in ..." the first Sunday of each month, explaining how to get the most out of the world's great places. Past articles are online at www.tourvideos.com.

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