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Arles, France report

We have been using Rick's guides and watching his program for many years now and have often taken his advice in our numerous trips and have usually found them very helpful.

Last summer (2015) my family (me, wife, and 2 teenagers) made our second trip to France. This time we spent a week and a half in southern France (along with the ubiquitous stay in Paris and trip to Normandy). We decided to spend about half our Southern France stay in Arles, which Rick strongly recommends (or at least highlites) in his books and programs.

While we found Arles to be well situated as a home base, and contains a great antiquities museum, we felt it was not an ideal destination or place to stay. We found Arles town itself to be dirty with lots of garbage strewn about on streets and sidewalks, and graffiti all over. In addition, we encountered many younger men lounging around, apparently jobless/idle, in some cases trying to look menacing to an obviously American family (at 6'2" 200 lb, these guys didn't particularly worry me, but given the demographics of Arles and the racial and religious tensions in France in general, travellers need to be aware). I have pictures of the garbage and graffiti (in one case, I found it ironic that a sign pointing to the local tourism office was covered with graffiti).

Admittedly, Rick's advice about Arles may be dated and based on his experiences from some years back, and Arles may have gone downhill since. And to be fair, I should be clear that beyond feeling a bit uncomfortable being sometimes stared at with apparent hostility, we had zero issues and we did find good, but not outstanding food....and the evening walks along the Rhone were a highlite of our trip. That said, as a current destination to stay, I would not return and I should note that we found both Nimes and Avignon (which we daytripped to) to be much cleaner and lacking the large numbers of lay-about young men trying to look menacing, though both cities are a bit "touristy".

Posted by
1189 posts

At 6'2" 200lbs, maybe you were a worry to those guys!

Arles, at first blush, is not at the top of my list of provencal cities either,
but I've come to realize that my negative label of it is due mostly to one
unpleasant hotelier in particular (whom other people have had similarly rough run-ins with)
and a particularly bad transport connections incident that had me frazzled at the time
I was gathering my first impressions.

Once I get past those bits of bad luck, I realize that some of my favorite southern French experiences
happened in and around Arles.
Maybe you're also letting a dark incident or two cast a shadow over your memory of the visit?

I think you'll find that if you look with an objective eye on any city in Provence (like using Google Street View) there is plenty of graffiti just about everywhere. How much notice you take of it is more a measure of your own engagement.
Give Nimes and Avignon more time than just a daytrip, and you'll have a chance to appreciate their street art and layabouts just as well. I think both of those cities are less 'touristy' than Arles is. All three have major site renovations in progress or recently completed, yet they also have significant business and commerce that is not focused on the tourist trade.

It's not just that one traveler's trash is another traveler's treasure, it's also that the very same traveler (I speak for myself) can feel hounded one day and worshipped the next even though the kind of attention he's getting hasn't much changed.

Posted by
2229 posts

I agree with much of avirosemail's comments, but I do wish to add that I don't think graffiti there means what it typically means here in the States. It's more accepted (or not feared) in Europe, and I have seen some truly artistic graffiti-in particular in Italy. Point being, I don't think graffiti equals potential danger as it can here. I wonder, is there a word other than "menacing" that could work, was it really menacing? Or is it someone noticing, and looking at, a group that is obviously not local? Also, France has a significant Muslim community, especially in the South; it's part of the look and feel, part of what makes it interesting.

Posted by
1189 posts

Dave's comment brings to mind an inspiring graffito that I was lucky to see and get photos of on the holy hill in Lyon -- if you don't take Rick's advice about using the funicular to get back down, but instead use one of the staircase paths for the descent, there is a Latin inscription in red cursive on a sidewall that matches the huffing and puffing moment perfectly:

Dum Spiro, Spero.

It's funny because it's true. :-) There's also a little bit of British/French rivalry implied, since long after the Greeks coined the phrase, various English, Irish, and Scottish families adopted it as their motto.

I can easily see someone who doesn't know the phrase tromping by it and thinking that some guy named Spiro is a real dummy for tagging a stairwell in a historic district. That Spiro must have been a nattering nabob of negativism, if you ask me.

Posted by
11613 posts

I visited Arles as a daytrip from Nimes, I enjoyed my day there but it did seem like a daytrip tourist destination, probably because so many people like me do it that way.

Posted by
2229 posts

Thanks for that...

dum spiro spero..."while I breathe, I hope"

Speaking of graffiti in Lyon, here's a not-frightening bit, a lyric from a French rap artist, seen on one of those stairways-I finally looked it up!

colorer le monde sans le souci du bien fonde...

"color the world without the worries of the merits"

So again, point being, our reaction to graffiti at home is possibly out of place elsewhere.

Posted by
16769 posts

It's been a while since I was in Arles, and I did enjoy it and return to it, despite some vandalism to my rental car. This past fall, I stayed three nights in Nimes - enjoyed it, glad I went, but these were the portions of my experience which made me consider it not better than your description of Arles:

  • So many panhandlers asked me for money!
  • A full block of condemned buildings near my hotel and yes, a few guys hanging around a dark area that was not otherwise hopping in the evening.
  • Fenced-off carrousels added to the dreary aspect on Thursday night, but opened on the weekend.
  • Not many restaurants are open for dinner (as noted in Rick's book).
  • Some very disappointing gelato. Don't be tempted to try mojito flavor.
  • Lots of suburbs to drive through, so not as handy a home base as I had hoped by car. Next time, I might try Uzes or St. Remy.

I'd say that the scourge of graffiti is pretty widespread in Europe. Maybe less in the heart of Paris, but often on trains and near rail lines.

Posted by
3696 posts

When I think of staying in Provence I cannot imagine anything more enjoyable than St. Remy....
I have stayed in Arles one night, and while it was fine, it was really busy. Stayed in Nimes and just did not care for the ambiance of the town, especially compared to so many other charming villages and towns. Avignon is such a busy city.... it's like Tuscany for me... when I think of Provence or Tuscany it means a quaint, beautiful village not cities with lots of chaos.

Posted by
12103 posts

On the above comment that France has a large Muslim population especially in the south....that's why a good number of towns in the south have far right National Front mayors or are National Front strongholds. That is also why the National Front finds it easy to attract votes. I saw National Front political stickers pasted on the back of street signs and the like in Toulon in 1999.

Posted by
13 posts

Although I agree that Arles is somewhat gritty, I disagree that it is somewhere that should be overlooked. Having spent a week in Arles as our home base. I truly enjoyed the people, culture and history of the region. During our stay we were completely emeresed in the art and the Roman ruins. The Mediterranean influence combined with the Italian culture was an interesting mix of Provanical life that we found intoxicating. While in Arles we experienced some excellent food as well as some ok food to be honest. We found that some of the small markets offered some great food for picnic opportunities and some really good restaurants for fine dining. As always with traveling don't judge a book by its cover, dig a little deeper and you will find a hidden gem.