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“Can you recommend a good place for dinner?” I asked Georges, the nice man behind the counter at the Hotel du Forum. I had just rolled into Arles, France after checking out the King’s second homes and managed to finally get to the hotel despite having a lot of trouble navigating through the narrow, old lanes in the heart of the ancient Roman town.
“Don’t go to any of the cafes or restaurants on the Place du Forum (the main square in town),” replied Georges. “They cater to the tourist crowd and are crowded, over-priced, and the food is not good.” Georges then gave me directions to a small street a couple of blocks away that had four small restaurants catering to the locals and the foodies in the know.
This was the kind of advice I liked to hear when traveling. Although it can be nice to sit in the main square of a European town on a spring or summer evening and people-watch, if you want good food you have to seek out other, out of the way places. I ventured in to two of the recommended restaurants during my stay in Arles, and had some of the best food I have ever had in France. It wasn’t cheap, but the freshness, preparation, and excellent taste of the food was worth the expense.
To a traveler, Arles, France is known mainly for two things: Van Gogh’s visit and the Romans.
Van Gogh moved to Arles in February 1888, hoping that the sunshine of Provence would help him feel better. Considering that he subsisted on bread and coffee, and excessive amounts of tobacco and absinthe, it’s doubtful that going to the south of France would make a difference.
Art critics contend that he painted his best work in Arles, including a famous painting called “Café Terrace at Night” of a café that he frequented. This café still stands today on the Place du Forum square, across from the Hotel du Forum where I stayed. He painted the café in a bright yellow color, although it wasn’t actually yellow at the time. Of course, today it is indeed yellow, and is called the Van Gogh café (what else?). I saw crowds of tourists stop by this café every day to hear the story of Van Gogh in Arles.
Apart from his art, Van Gogh is famous for cutting off his ear in a psychotic episode while in Arles. He had suffered from mental illness for years, possibly influenced by syphilis contracted from frequent brothel visits. What I didn’t see in Arles was the brothel where van Gogh is thought to have delivered his severed ear. Accounts differ; one says that he gave it to a prostitute to guard it for him, another that it was given to the brothel’s doorman. Either way I don’t think it was meant as a tip.
The Romans captured the town from the Phoenicians in 123 BC. Back then Arles was much closer to the sea and a canal was built to the Mediterranean Sea. For hundreds of years it was an important port and capital of the Roman Prefecture of the Gauls.
Among other things, the Romans built a theatre, a colesseum, and a bath house, the ruins of which can all be visited today. The old town is quite small and one can easily walk between the Roman sites and visit each one in an afternoon using a single museum pass. (Go here to see the ampitheater in Caesarea, Israel).
To escape the heat I went underground to experience the cryptoporticus, built in the first century BC. The cryptoporticus is a covered corridor or passageway, used as a semi-subterranean gallery whose vaulting supported portico structures aboveground. Because the subterranean parts were cooler, they were used to store perishable food and also included food stalls.
Today, the cryptoporticus is about 20 feet underground due to the building up of the town over the centuries. Some of the areas may have been used to house or confine slaves. It was kind of spooky down there, like being in an enormous cellar.
Back at the Van Gogh café on the Place du Forum to rest my feet, I had a cappuccino and ordered some soup. As I dipped my spoon into the broth, a strange object bobbed up and down in the large bowl. Is it a strangely carved potato? I don’t think so. Hey, wait!
“Garcon de cafe, il ya une oreille dans ma soupe!”
(Waiter, there’s an ear in my soup!)