Posted on Jun 28, 2010 in category

Today is Arles day. We have been invited to Le musee departemental Arles antique by its Director, Claude Sintes. This museum is a work of art in itself. Opened in 1995 its triangular design symbolically represents the three objectives of this museum: presentation of its collection to the community, conservation and restoration (it has a mosaic workshop and archaeology laboratory) and finally education of the public in its many shapes and sizes ('moi').

Claude was the perfect host!!

On the way to Arles we thought we'd have a stopover at the Barbegal Mill site just out of Fontvieille. A quick taste of a local gruyere cheese in the small produce market followed by a cafe crème and a visit to the Tourisme office set us on our way to the ancient flour mill. We found the abundant remains of the Augustan aqueduct that led to Arles but no sign of the mill. The tourism attendant told us we will be able to see the site from the road; therefore, we kept driving towards Arles. Around a long bend there was the sign to the mill or 'meunerie' but it directed us to an overgrown bush track. Determined not to be beaten, we set off through the blackberries and thistles (Wendy was unimpressed!).

After hurdling heaps of grass and blackberries we finally found it. The mill site was built on the side of a steep limestone hill. Its seven buildings and 16 odd wheels (8 on each side) could produce 4.5 tons of flour per day. A second aqueduct linked up with the first at the top of the mill. There was another discovery too- if we'd followed the first section of the aqueduct that we originally found along its cleared path it would have saved us a lot of aqueduct angst(Wendy again was not impressed with my erring bush sense!).

The path we should have followed along the aqueduct!

Looking down from the top of the mill to 'moi'!

The aqueduct in the middle goes to the mill and the one on the right bends around to Arles

Wendy 'What a wife!' returning to the car through a 'chemin de bois'!

Claude was very forgiving about our delayed arrival time at the museum. Our guide Janice who has lived in Arles since the 1969 showed us the highlights of the museum's permanent collection on Arles' history. Arles was established as a colony in 46 BC by Julius Caesar for the veterans of his VI Legion. It was their reward for loyalty shown in the Civil War against Pompey. It was named 'Arelate' (the settlement near the swamp).

Janice is a great guide! Later we met her again at the amphitheatre with a large group of French tourists. "C'est bon!"

The permanent exhibition is based on themes such as the forum, theatre, circus, amphitheatre, religion and the economy to name only a few. There are a few references to the Celto-Ligurians' heritage. Here in Arles as elsewhere in most towns of Roman Narbonensis province, they experienced a stronger Greek influence (from the 7th century) and conquest much earlier than central and northern Gaul. Today people in southern Gaul think Roman rather than Celtic or even Gallo-Roman.

Augustus began a new forum construction project here too!

The mosaic display - many from AD 2nd century

The temporary exhibition that Janice also showed us was first class! It is based on marine archaeological discoveries both in the Rhone River and on the coast of southern France. In the last 20 years a goldmine of heritage has been discovered in the Rhone River. Seven metres of its muddy river bed has revealed a treasure trove of artifacts. It is impossible to excavate it all in the near future because of the cost, quantity and storage issues.

Strong currents of the Rhone tend to curl up the river bed in a wave shape revealing an incredible stratigraphy.

A model showing a tsunami of archaeology faced by marine archaeologists in the merky Rhone

It is not known how so many of these objects have ended up in the Rhone. Theories range from faithful Christians dumping their pagan past, the river being an ancient tip to just the simple fact that some boats do sink occasionally.

You are now looking at the latest version of Julius Caesar found in the Rhone!

Trust old Neptune to be found in the Rhone!

A bronze inscription defending boat corporations against corruption allegations in Rome

A gilded bronze Victory statue

A loooong steerboard ( rudder) diagonally on right; a massive anchor vertically on the left perhaps to help stabilise the pontoon bridge of boats that stretched across the Rhone at Arles. The river is very deep here and the riverbed is thick mud so building a traditional bridge was difficult even for the Romans.

A pleasant surprise was to be escorted around the museum's mosaic restoration facilities by Patrick. Patrick showed us photos of their restoration work and they were painstakingly working on mosaics belonging to the Louvre in Paris.

Wendy joked - "Two handsome men! Not often you get these compliments!

Claude Sintes farewelled us from his museum's office but not before we had a good yarn about 'Romanisation' in Arles, the Rhone discoveries and education in Australia. He gave us a couple of tips on Arles' more famous sites, plenty of excellent reading material (the suitcase is getting heavier) and unexpectedly, Claude presented us with an entry pass to all the major archaeological sites in Arles. French generosity and friendship demonstrated again!

Here are some sites in Arles that we were able to visit in the late afternoon on a hot day in Provence:


Constructed in Augustan times to hold 10,000 people



The stone used in Arles' arena is porous (sea-shells are visible) so the arena is not as well conserved as Nimes. However, it's smaller and I think has a better atmosphere. A bull ring event was coming up in July. Yes it's Augustan and has a capacity of 20,000 people.

The Cryptoporticus:


We welcomed this cool spot!


These underground stone corridors were once part of a tiered forum that was built on part of a hill. In order to level the forum three 90-60 m long x 10 m wide galleries were built. Two of the galleries were level with the forum in ancient times so shops were set up in them. Today the ground level is much higher.


There's not much left of Roman remains in Arles' forum except this small memorial and van Gogh's tourist trap 'Night Cafe'.



Arles is a lovely small city of 30,000 or so people. Its streets still have a van Gogh charm despite its share of tourism. People of all ages were out in the main square near the fountain enjoying the shade and its cooling effect. Our trip to Arles was a good way to end our sojourn in Provence.

An appropriate way to end our day in Arles-near a water fountain!


Tomorrow we return to Paris on the TGV after we drop off the car in Avignon. Au revoir sunny Provence!!

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