Re-inventing Arles

I’m reading a rather lovely travel book about the Midi at the moment which was published in the early 1960s. In some respects, rien ne change. In others …

… having just described the antiquities of Arles, the writer comments, ‘today it lies smiling and sleepy, full of memories’. Well, I’m here to tell you they’re rebuilding the joint, adding a new layer of architectural history and it’s so noisy, there’s little chance of a nap.

I’ve come to town to visit a major exhibition of the work of Annie Leibovitz: The First Years 1970 – 1983 which is being held in the new Parc des Ateliers. No-one I’ve spoken to knows where the Parc is so I’ve consulted a map. Thus, I know I must turn left at the traffic lights on the delightfully named Boulevard des Lices (look it up if you don’t know what it means – it’s worse than you think). The good news is that the Parc is signposted. The bad news is that the route is barred and, with a load of traffic behind me, I’m forced to push on and dump the car in some huge commerce place. Now on foot, I’m instructed to cross a make-shift bridge across the main railway line, negotiate two building sites and assorted dumper trucks and cranes, before collapsing at the first bar I find which is adjacent to the view in the above photo. They seem to be building on something old. What was here before, I ask the waiter? Nothing, comes the informative reply. Well, clearly there was something, I don’t say.

I walk for ages down the road to nowhere but, when I reach an entrance, I carry on for I think, unexpectedly, that I know where I am. It’s the canal which I believe borders the Roman necropolis, Les Alyscamps. I haven’t actually seen it before but I’ve felt the venom of its mosquitoes.



I’m right! Tracing the bank, I can just see the enigmatic church of St Honoratus through the trees, along with a couple of Roman sarcophagi. And here we have the ultimate juxtaposition of ancient and modern. On one side of the road, a necropolis so famous that bodies were floated down the Rhone just for the prestige of being buried there; a place where, more recently, Gauguin and Van Gogh wandered with their paint boxes. And on the other side …

… admittedly, behind a stone wall, the main exhibition galleries of the Parc des Ateliers. WOW. These are all past SNCF buildings which have been transformed into something amazing. I don’t know if I like it but they probably said the same about Constantine’s Baths at the beginning.

The Leibovitz collection is extraordinary. The photographs – and there are literally hundreds of them – manage to make the glamour of the USA look dirty and sordid. Here are Jagger, Springsteen, Dylan, and just about anyone you can think of from the 70s and 80s music scene, drunk, stoned, tired and ugly in their dingy dressing rooms and hotels, all looking in need of soap and water and sleep. Here are Warhol and Liberace, ridiculously disarmed and precarious as Leibowitz catches them off pose.

And here are the politics of America, as far removed from the sanitised House of Cards version as is humanly possible. Numerous stills show Ted Kennedy ever smiling and professional but with a less than attractive entourage. Badly dressed men, and always men, ‘doing the business’ on planes, in offices and generally behind the scenes, looking shady and untrustworthy. The placards pronounce, effectively, ‘the other two died for you so you’d better vote for Ted’. Leibovitz captures an interminable sense of squalor on so many levels. In the end, one is so overwhelmed by both the brilliance and ghastliness of it all that it’s just too demanding.

The Parc des Ateliers is sadly lacking in the eating department. There’s a sort of canteen where people queue up to purchase plastic food which is then consumed at long tables with a bunch of people you don’t know. I suppose they think it gives the place the modern look; actually, it reminds me of a motorway service station. Back up the long track there’s a burger joint which is equally disenchanting. However, across the road, on the building site, I manage to acquire a rather nice steak with Roquefort sauce. That’ll do nicely thank-you.

P.S. The book I’m reading is called West of the Rhone by Freda White.