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Where Gumbo Was #11: The Arena of Arles and the World of Rome

Arles, from plaza 

For Where in the World is Gumbo #11, Gumbo traveled to the Roman arena of Arles, in southern France.


This puzzle produced a record number of responses…more than a score on the page where guessers went to great lengths to get it right, plus additional contributions through the e-mail slot. The contributions included quite a few pictures and a really great rundown on the geology of Roman arenas. You can see all that in the comments to the original Puzzle #11


Left, the puzzle picture. Right, the one that couldn't be because the sign is readable...

Arles 1 Arles 2

All that work deserves a good answer—I hope this meets the test.


It was obvious from the beginning that we were looking at Roman work…but that was only the beginning of the puzzle, because the realms of the Romans included so much of Europe and the Middle East. And where the Romans went, they built large venues for entertaining the masses with events ranging from chariot races and mock naval battles to brutal gladiator fights.


It’s also obvious, as you travel about, that they often worked from a familiar model, the Colosseum of Rome, built around 80 AD. But, as you can see, it’s not in the best of shape—largely because in medieval times, it was used as a cheap source of good stones by Roman builders.


A much better-preserved example, and a bit larger than Arles, is the Arena di Verona, at the heart of the city and home of its opera company and many other concerts and shows. The first picture shows you what the corridor in the Arles puzzle picture may have looked like when it was in better shape.

Verona corridor


The exteriors in Verona are also in significantly better shape, as you can see in these pictures.

Verona 1

Evening, Roman Arena Verona 


When we visited Arles, early in 2010, significant restoration work was underway, both for the Arena and the Roman theatre nearby. That’s not the first restoration, of course. The original construction, about 90 AD, was modified a few times in its first few hundred years, and then really changed in the Middle Ages.


In dangerous times, its high walls and solid construction made it look like a very good place to be safe. People began moving into the structure itself, bricking up the arches. Four towers (three survive) were built for defense. Soon, houses, shops and two churches were built on the floor of the arena. By the late Middle Ages, there were 200 houses and over 4,000 people living in this “village.”

1-Medieval Village 

It was only in the 19th century that it resumed its original role. Between 1825 and 1830, the houses were expropriated and demolished and repair work done; the Arena re-opened with a bull race celebrating France’s taking of Algiers. Concerts, plays, and especially bullfights were the order of the day. One of Arles’ most famous temporary residents visited it, and painted a festive scene in the stands in December 1888.

1-Van Gogh-Les Arenes 


Of course, the interior of the Arena is quite different from its Roman days; it no longer holds 20,000 and the stone seats are covered with modern metal seating (bring your own cushion!) This picture gives you an idea of how it looks, once you’ve passed through the tunnel from the box office to the seats.



The Arles Arena today mostly hosts plays and concerts in the summer; the two annual Ferias d’Arles highlight bullfighting season in southern France and draw over half a million visitors, and the Arena is the center of both the bullfights and many related activities. As a result, its interior layout is much like a modern sports stadium, while Verona’s, used more like a theatre, focuses in one direction, rather than on the center.

That crane in the picture, by the way, sits outside the Arena throughout the opera season; it lifts in the scenery which is stored on the streets outside!

Verona, Interior with Opera set

Verona, view from stage 


The nearby city of Nimes was also an important Roman town, with a well-preserved and active arena, as well as other Roman buildings. We hear the expression “Roman ruins” so often, we tend to forget how many Roman buildings are intact throughout the former Empire—and Nimes has several, including a well-preserved Roman temple, the Maison Carree, now housing a tourism office and orientation theatre.



A few blocks away is Nimes Arena; its main business is obvious from the statue in the foreground!


 Nime Exterior

Nimes, night view


But back to Arles, and to Van Gogh, who lived and worked in Arles from February 1888 to May 1889, producing 187 paintings, including some among his most widely recognized. Here are two versions of “The Bridge at Arles,” only months apart and painted from the same sketches.

Van Gogh Arles Bridge 1888a 

Van Gogh Arles Bridge 1888b 

And here’s the bridge as it stands today. This is actually not the one he painted; that one was destroyed in World War II bombing. It was one of eight identical bridges, constructed so they could be opened by hand from one side, lifting both spans. After World War II, when most of the other bridges were replaced by modern structures, one of them was moved to this location so travelers like me could take its picture.

Arles Bridge 


And here’s Mme. Ginoux, known as “L’Arlesienne” and her modern doppelganger, Ms. Gumbo. That picture was taken in a cafÉ near the Arena; it took me several years to realize why it seemed so right.

L'Arlesienne 18881-L'Arlesienne 2010 


And we’ll finish with  one of the best known: Starry Night over the Rhone. There are also a few extra pictures in the slideshow yourself!





Images (26)
  • 1-1024px-Arenes_de_Nimes_panorama
  • 1-1024px-Arlesarena
  • 1-1024px-Colosseum-Rome
  • 1-1024px-MaisonCarrée
  • 1-1024px-Starry_Night_Over_the_Rhone
  • 1-L'Arlesienne 2010
  • 1-Medieval Village
  • 1-Van Gogh-Les Arenes
  • Arles 1
  • Arles 2
  • Arles Bridge
  • Arles, aerial view
  • Arles, from plaza
  • Arles-modern seating
  • Arles-passage to seats
  • Evening, Roman Arena Verona
  • L'Arlesienne 1888
  • Nime Exterior
  • Nimes, night view
  • Van Gogh Arles Bridge 1888a
  • Van Gogh Arles Bridge 1888b
  • Verona 1
  • Verona corridor
  • Verona exterior
  • Verona, Interior with Opera set
  • Verona, view from stage

The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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Comments (4)

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The remains of Rome are great to see, it cannot be denied, but it's those lovely little bridges that will be the target when I go to Arles.  And I will, no doubt.


The village within the walls reminds me of the "anfiteatro" in Lucca Italy.  It was filled by houses until the 19th century when it was cleared, leaving the ring of buildings on the perimeter and creating the Piazza dell'Anfiteatro.  I had the good fortune of renting a large apartment in the perimeter ring of buildings, overlooking the piazza from every window.  Within the apartment, embedded in the newer walls, were intact pieces of the Roman walls that had been the amphiteater.  One of the 2 most memorable places I've stayed and the best, I think, in Europe.


More about Lucca's anfiteatro here.





Images (1)
  • 250px-Anfiteatro_Lucca
Last edited by PortMoresby

When you get to Arles, you may want to look at another bridge, this one crossing the Rhone. The clip below is from this website, which also has several other side-by-side comparisons of his paintings and today. The bridge here is modified or replaced, but the steps and the walk along the Rhone have not.




And here's another image from my visit, looking down the Canal d'Arles from near the Langlois Bridge (the official name of the "Van Gogh Bridge.")

Canal d'Arles, below Langlois Bridge

The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations


Images (2)
  • Arles
  • Canal d'Arles, below Langlois Bridge
Last edited by PHeymont
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