Arles In Provence, Between Nature And Architecture

Jerome Powell

Discovering Arles is like walking on a natural and cultural path in western Provence. Arles is a city on the Rhone river where it forks into several branches to create a large delta open onto the Mediterranean Sea. Arles is the open door to the Camargue. 

Discovering the Camargue walking, horse riding, or driving on the narrow roads and lanes is an experience not to be missed. Between wild landscapes and ancestral human work, the Camargue is composed of ponds, marshes where pink flamingos are flying like a pink cloud looking for their food.

You will see meadows dedicated to breeding bulls and rice paddies. The Camargue Regional Natural Park protects the migratory birds when they stop on their migration route from the North of Europe to Africa. 

Romans noticed the unique character of the site of the city of Arles very early. Between the 1st century BC and the 4th century, Arles was the main port of the first Roman colony. From Julius Caesar to Constantine, Arles was full of richness, thanks to numerous urban plans and the building of monuments which will mark the Romanization: amphitheater, theater, forum, palace, roman boat bridge -very rare and thermal baths. The Art Antique Museum is a mandatory visit to understand the entire heritage and history of the city. The Arena and the theater still stand in the center of Arles. Roman and medieval monuments are listed under UNESCO World Heritage Site. Also, The Sainte Trophime cathedral-built around the year 1000- is a masterpiece of Provençal Roman Art. 

In the 19th century, Arles by its location and its abundant heritage attracted painters Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. Van Gogh found in Arles the light, the mistral and the smell of nature that he was looking for as a source of inspiration. 

At the end of the 19th century, writer Frederic Mistral created The Museon Arlaten (“Museum of Arles” in Provençal) to save the heritage of the regional culture in which he had grown up. The renovation of the Museon Arlaten -which took ten years- has been an architectural and museographic project. From a spectacular staircase imagined by architect Michel Bertreux unifying the different levels to two immense walls celebrating the Camargue and Provence realized by Mr Christian Lacroix, the museum is located in an extraordinary place rich in history. Visitors will discover the daily lives of the Provençal people illustrated by over 3500 objects and will be immersed in the way the art of creating ethnographic museums has evolved since the 19th century. The new museum is scheduled to open in June depending on the sanitary and safety conditions. 

Arles is not only a city of museums. Every summer since 1970, Les Rencontres Photographiques have had a major influence in exhibiting the best of the world photography and in discovering the new photographic and contemporary artists. Founded by Arlesian photographer Lucien Clergue, writer Michel Tournier, and historian Jean-Maurice Rouquette, the 2021 edition will take place from July 4 to September 26 and is promised to be a constellation of nuggets.

On this occasion, Louis Vuitton will publish an updated edition of their Arles City Guide in partnership with the photo festival. Louis Vuitton will open a pop-up bookstore in a wine shop in the city during the time of the Festival. 

Arles is also avant gardiste with the LUMA Foundation, the brainchild of Art Collector Maja Hoffmann which is planned to open by the end of June. At its heart, Frank Gehry’s spectacular 15,000 square meter tower- a twisting geometric structure finished covered with 11,000 stainless steel panels. “We wanted to evoke the local patrimony , from Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ to the soaring rock clusters you find in the region. Its central drum echoes the plan of the Roman amphitheatre.” said Frank Gehry. His building will be home to seminar rooms, exhibition spaces, research facilities, an auditorium and a café while the entire Campus is also house to seven former railway factories, four of which have been renovated by New York based Selldorf Architects as exhibition and performance spaces. The surrounding gardens and public park are designed by landscape architect, Bas Smets.

So, where to stay? at the Villa Benkemoun

Located 10 minutes by car from the city center, the splendid white architectural villa is composed of five bedrooms surrounded by one hectare of nature and garden with a large swimming pool. A stay at Villa Benkemoun is like sleeping in an art piece. 

In the beginning of the 70s, the owners Simone and Pierre Benkemoun asked their close friend architect Emile Sala to create a wide open family house. The architect got his main inspiration from Le Corbusier. The architecture is geometric and curvy, alternating light and shadows. Extremely functional, each room of the house has been well thought: the kitchen with its functional bar, the intimate and very private bedrooms, cellar, sauna, Mediterranean patio. Already ahead of his time, the architect created a back  kitchen, an airy laundry room with a “claustra” with a direct access to the garden. No need to use tumble dryers. Protecting the environment was already in Emile Sala‘s mind. 

Inside the immense house, the inspired 70s design is in total harmony. From the orange color of the sofa and curtains, the patterned brown curtains, dark leather and white and transparent plastic mobilier, to the multitude of oval lamps, vintage accessories and old movie posters, the house is a masterpiece in itself. Note the fireplace is enveloped by an impressive chromed metal installation realized by designer Max Sauze. The house is open onto its green environment. A must stay for art and architecture lovers. Today, Brigitte Benkemoun and her husband let the villa and share it with passionates. 

Made in France skincare addict? Shop the inspired Arles brand Alyscamps. 

Pharmaceutical French Doctor Julie Faivre-Duboz founded her eco-friendly made in France skincare brand Alyscamps -meaning Champs Elysée in Provencal- which is an emblematic roman heritage of Arles- to show her love for her adoptive city. Before that, Julie was looking at the products used by her own family when she found certain elements were missing, most notably for her husband and daughter’s sensitive skin. She then decided to create a cosmetic line adapted to all types of skin. Inside, active ingredients are sourced mostly locally from olives, figs, sunflowers, almonds, apricots and the unique fragrance is made in Grasse. The packaging in glass and paper is fully recyclable and inspired by the colors of Van Gogh.

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