Thursday, May 16, 2013

Arles, France: 2,000 Years and Counting

The cruise barges along the banks of the Rhône were from Germany and Switzerland; the stickers on the backs of the cars in the parking lot showed that visitors from Denmark and England were joining us in the market as well. Arles continues to be a popular place to visit, especially for people interested in history. I wish my brother could be here with us, as he's a huge history buff. For me it's interesting to think about the lives of people living here so many years ago, but I don't have a good head for (or much interest in) remembering names and dates and events. Which is why I consistently failed my college history classes - of course one of them started at 8am, which didn't help. We dropped off our salami and cheese and olives in the trunk of the car and left again, after regretfully signing our intent to stay to the woman in the car who had trailed us there in hopes of finding a parking spot (désolée, Madame!) and walked down to the riverbank and along the quai.

The amphitheatre in Arles has been there since 90 BCE and is still used for public spectacles, including bullfights (loser gets to be salami!). Back in the day it would have been chariot races and gladiators. There's a series of horse shows scheduled for this summer, with the Cadre Noir military riding school team coming from Saumur, the Spanish Riding School and their Lipizzaner stallions from Vienna, and groups from Spain and Portugal. There's a smaller half-round arena/theatre with a triumphal arch, and blocks of carved stone scattered around. It's obvious from the lighting fixtures and scaffolding that this space is still used for events as well. Walking around town over cobblestones grooved with millions of footsteps, sitting on stone benches warmed by the sun and years of Roman soldiers' butts, feeling the breeze from the far-off sea that used to come right up to the edges of the city (and may still again, with the way the climate is going) - you don't have to read about history here, you just look around. While some of the older houses have inconveniences in terms of jury-rigged bathrooms and rickety narrow stairs and no parking, it would be worth it to be able to look out the window and see the immense arches made of giant stone blocks looming at the end of the street.

I know I say this with every post about skyscraping cathedrals or massive forts or sprawling châteaux, but how did they do it? No cranes, no power tools, no machine-cut identical pieces to fit together smoothly. Just talent and planning and sweat and lots of work, and lots of lives of workers, probably. We modern folk will be in sad shape when all the oil is gone and we have to build things by hand again. We'll probably be lucky to figure out how to make fire.

Apparently much of the town was actually inside the amphitheatre for several hundred years, it being easier to defend. The streets and towns stretch down to the riverfront now, narrow twisting alleys with narrow straight houses in soft pastels with bright painted shutters. I could live here, and shop for fish at the market, and open my shutters every morning to let in the air filled with the scent of the river and the dust of a thousand generations.

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