Arles in the Afternoon

“It’s noon now – be back at the bus at 3:30. Have fun!”

Those were the parting words from our program leader before letting us run free in the old Provencal city of Arles. How do you get to know a city in three and a half hours? Is there anything you can really get to know in such a short time span? When considering different programs for study abroad, this is something to consider. The Summer in Montpellier program is great in that many field trips are incorporated into class time and arranged by the program director, but that also means you have to do everything within a set time frame. Contrastingly, many longer study abroad programs have less sponsored actives, but when doing something on your own, you can plan it to your own tastes and time frames. Ultimately, I think I prefer the way the Montpellier program is set up, because I do not have to be concerned with figuring out how to travel to hard-to-reach places, and once we arrive, though we have a set amount of time, we are free to do what we please. 

My two friends and I decided to take advantage of Arles’ famous, kilometer long market, that boasts things from fruits and veggies, to cheeses and cured meats, to clothes and Provencal fabrics, and a hundred things in between. We could not resist the fresh loaves of bread and the heaps of cheeses; we bought a few things and settled in a nearby jardin (garden) for a picnic. There’s something wonderful about the idea of a picnic of bread, cheese and veggies. Maybe movies are to blame, but picnics are romantic; by that I mean picnics, to me, symbolize a utopian summer fantasy which we easily romanticize from our study spots in Hagerty Library. Restaurants can be alluring, especially when it’s famed French cuisine, but take my advice: picnics are the true French experience. Not only are they budget-friendly, but you can to make a mélange of all your favorite things and eat it wherever appeals to you. 

Arles is probably most known for its ancient Roman ruins. Though well-established almost 700 years prior to Roman acquisition, it is the Roman ruins which have remained prominent within the city. The largest of these is the old Amphitheater, which served the same purpose as the Roman Colosseum, and looks similar as well. I was most intrigued, however, by the Cryptoportico, the vaulted subterranean gallery that lies beneath what used to be the Roman Forum. It is awe-inspiring that such an architecturally challenging feat could be completed with none of the modern machinery available to us today. If the idea of a vast, underground tunnel system does not excite you, perhaps the cheap student tickets as well as the cool, cave air – a welcome change from the hot summer sun – will tempt you.

I’d be lying if I said I reflected about this day trip on the bus ride back from Arles; in reality, I fell asleep in the minute I sat down. But now, one satisfying nap and hearty dinner later, I’m thinking about how Arles exceeded my expectations. It manages to retain a small-town atmosphere in a relatively active cityscape – it’s the best of both worlds. In fact, Montpellier is a similar city: markets overflowing more wares than people in front of the backdrop of old structures, chock-full of history and monuments – a city that manages to maintain a homey, local atmosphere. 

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