Our route back to Avignon from the Camargue took us right through Arles, so we decided to spend a few hours visiting sites we’d missed on our first flying visit. Our first stop was the Musee Departemental Arles Antique, which has a superb collection of Roman artifacts – and a unique survivor from that ancient trading world.
This Roman freight barge was discovered buried in Rhone River mud, still carrying its cargo, in 2014. The boat was excavated and the wood restored through an amazing feat of archeology and high-tech engineering. The museum has an excellent video on the boat’s discovery and restoration which you can view on line here.
Arles was a major city in Greek and Roman times, evolving into an industrial hub by the 5th century. All sorts of raw and manufactured goods were transported from Arles down the Rhone and out into the Mediterranean Sea for distribution to the other parts if the Roman Empire. Goods shipped included textiles, meat, olive oil, stone, glass and metal ingots (formed by melting down discarded statuary and ornaments).
The city had five guilds of boatmen to handle the trade. This little bit of carved pillar shows two boatmen loading cargo.
The museum also hosts a lovely collection of Roman-era mosaic flooring.
Its greater glory is a collection of sarcophagi from Les Alycamps, Arles’ historic cemetery (and our next tourist destination). In Greek/Roman days, any traveler headed to Arles on the Aurelian Way would enter the city through the Allee des Sarcophages, a long line of mostly long-gone mausoleums and sarcophagi.
The Museum latched on to some of the cemetery’s sarcophagi, offering a taste of the Allee’s former glories.
The cemetery-as-Christian-pilgrimage-site has its origins in the story of St. Trophimus, a Roman bureaucrat who was beheaded in 250 CE for refusing to write down an edict directing the persecution of Christians. Miracles occurred at his grave, so people flocked to be buried here (echoes of Osiris at Abydos). His bones were moved to a church built in his name in the 12th century, resulting in the cemetery’s decline.
Van Gogh was fond of Les Alycamps, capturing Arles’ 19th century bourgeoisie promenading along the Allee.
Green Guide gives Les Alycamps two stars – not! (in the opinion of this cemetery aficionado). The cemetery’s little church of Elise St. Honorat, rebuilt in the 12th century, provides the only bit of “cemetery atmospheric” remaining today.
Leaving the rental car in the care of the long departed (having scored a rare free parking space), we hiked up the hills along the Aurelian way-cum-major roadway into old Arles. We were just in time to witness a group protest in support of immigrants – where the police clearing the route almost outnumbered the walkers.
Winding through narrow medieval streets, we found our way to the church of St. Trophime, a lovely example of Romanesque architecture. Frederick Barbarossa (the first Holy Roman Emperor) was crowned here shortly after the church latched on to St. Trophimus’ bones.
Sadly, we arrived too late to see the cloisters, but were in time to enjoy a bit of medieval music in the square outside the church.
Our walk back to the cemetery took us through a park with a bit of something for everyone.