Arles and Les Baux

By Henry James


There are two shabby old inns at Arles, which compete closely for your custom. I mean by this that if you elect to go to the Hotel du Forum, the Hotel du Nord, which is placed exactly beside it (at a right angle), watches your arrival with ill-concealed disapproval; and if you take the chances of its neighbor, the Hotel du Forum seems to glare at you invidiously from all its windows and doors. I forget which of these establishments I selected; whichever it was, I wished very much that it had been the other.

The two stand together on the Place des Hommes, a little public square of Arles, which somehow quite misses its effect. As a city, indeed, Arles quite misses its effect in every way; and if it is a charming place, as I think it is, I can hardly tell the reason why. The straight-nosed Arlesiennes account for it in some degree; and the remainder may be charged to the ruins of the arena and the theater. Beyond this, I remember with affection the ill-proportioned little Place des Hommes; not at all monumental, and given over to puddles and to shabby cafes. I recall with tenderness the tortuous and featureless streets, which looked like the streets of a village, and were paved with villainous little sharp stones, making all exercise penitential.

Consecrated by association is even a tiresome walk that I took the evening I arrived, with the purpose of obtaining a view of the Rhone. I had been to Arles before, years ago, and it seemed to me that I remembered finding on the banks of the stream some sort of picture. I think that on the evening of which I speak there was a watery moon, which it seemed to me would light up the past as well as the present. But I found no picture, and I scarcely found the Rhone at all. I lost my way, and there was not a creature in the streets to whom I could appeal. Nothing could be more provincial than the situation of Arles at ten o'clock at night. At last I arrived at a kind of embankment, where I could see the great mud-colored stream slipping along in the soundless darkness. It had come on to rain, I know not what had happened to the moon, and the whole place was anything but gay. It was not what I had looked for; what I had looked for was in the irrecoverable past. I groped my way back to the inn over the infernal cailloux, feeling like a discomfited Dogberry.

I remember now that this hotel was the one (whichever that may be) which has the fragment of a Gallo-Roman portico inserted into one of its angles. I had chosen it for the sake of this exceptional ornament. It was damp and dark, and the floors felt gritty to the feet; it was an establishment at which the dreadful "gras-double" might have appeared at the table d'hote, as it had done at Narbonne. Nevertheless, I was glad to get back to it; and nevertheless, too--and this is the moral of my simple anecdote--my pointless little walk (I don't speak of the pavement) suffuses itself, as I look back upon it, with a romantic tone. And in relation to the inn, I suppose I had better mention that I am well aware of the inconsistency of a person who dislikes the modern caravansary, and yet grumbles when he finds a hotel of the superannuated sort, one ought to choose, it would seem, and make the best of either alternative. The two old taverns at Arles are quite unimproved; such as they must have been in the infancy of the modern world, when Stendhal passed that way, and the lumbering diligence deposited him in the Place des Hommes, such in every detail they are to-day. Vieilles auberges de France, one ought to enjoy their gritty floors and greasy windowpanes. Let it be put on record, therefore, that I have been, I won't say less comfortable, but at least less happy, at better inns.

To be really historic, I should have mentioned that before going to look for the Rhone I had spent part of the evening on the opposite side of the little place, and that I indulged in this recreation for two definite reasons. One of these was that I had an opportunity of conversing at a cafe with an attractive young Englishman, whom I had met in the afternoon at Tarascon, and more remotely, in other years, in London; the other was that there sat enthroned behind the counter a splendid mature Arlesienne, whom my companion and I agreed that it was a rare privilege to comtemplate.

There is no rule of good manners or morals which makes it improper, at a cafe to fix one's eyes upon the dame de comptoir; the lady is, in the nature of things, a part of your "consommation." We were therefore free to admire without restriction the handsomest person I had ever seen give change for a five-franc piece. She was a large quiet woman, who would never see forty again; of an intensely feminine type, yet wonderfully rich and robust, and full of a certain physical nobleness. Tho she was not really old, she was antique, and she was very grave, even a little sad. She had the dignity of a Roman empress, and she handled coppers as if they had been stamped with the head of Caesar.

I have seen washerwomen in the Trastevere who were perhaps as handsome as she; but even the head-dress of the Roman contadina contributes less to the dignity of the person born to wear it than the sweet and stately Arlesian cap, which sits at once aloft and on the back of the head; which is accompanied with a wide black bow covering a considerable part of the crown; and which, finally, accomodates itself indescribably well to the manner in which the tresses of the front are pushed behind the ears.

This admirable dispenser of lumps of sugar has distracted me a little; for I am still not sufficiently historical. Before going to the cafe I had dined, and before dining I had found time to go and look at the arena. Then it was that I discovered that Arles has no general physiognomy, and, except the delightful little church of Saint Trophimus, no architecture, and that the rugosities of its dirty lanes affect the feet like knife- blades. It was not then, on the other hand, that I saw the arena best. The second day of my stay at Arles I devoted to a pilgrimage to the strange old hill town of Les Baux, the medieval Pompeii, of which I shall give myself the pleasure of speaking.

The evening of that day, however (my friend and I returned in time for a late dinner), I wandered among the Roman remains of the place by the light of a magnificent moon, and gathered an impression which has lost little of its silvery glow. The moon of the evening before had been aqueous and erratic; but if on the present occasion it was guilty of any irregularity, the worst it did was only to linger beyond its time in the heavens, in order to let us look at things comfortably. The effect was admirable; it brought back the impression of the way, in Rome itself, on evenings like that, the moonshine rests upon broken shafts and slabs of antique pavement. As we sat in the theater, looking at the two lone columns that survive--part of the decoration of the back of the stage--and at the fragments of ruin around them, we might have been in the Roman forum.

The arena at Arles, with its great magnitude, is less complete than that at Nimes; it has suffered even more the assaults of time and of the children of time, and it has been less repaired. The seats are almost wholly wanting; but the external walls, minus the topmost tier of arches, are massively, ruggedly complete; and the vaulted corridors seem as solid as the day they were built. The whole thing is superbly vast, and as monumental, for a place of light amusement--what is called in America a "variety-show"--as it entered only into the Roman mind to make such establishments. The podium is much higher than at Nimes, and many of the great white slabs that faced it have been recovered and put into their places. The proconsular box has been more or less reconstructed, and the great converging passages of approach to it are still majestically distinct; so that, as I sat there in the moon-charm stillness, leaning my elbows on the battered parapet of the ring, it was not impossible to listen to the murmurs and shudders, the thick voice of the circus, that died away fifteen hundred years ago.

The theater has a voice as well, but it lingers on the ear of time with a different music. The Roman theater at Arles seemed to me one of the most charming and touching ruins I had ever beheld; I took a particular fancy to it. It is less than a skeleton--the arena may be called a skeleton; for it consists only of half a dozen bones. The traces of the row of columns which formed the scene--the permanent back-scene--remain; two marble pillars--I just mentioned them--are upright, with a fragment of their entablature. Before them is the vacant space which was filled by the stage, with the line of the proscenium distinct, marked by a deep groove, imprest upon slabs of stone, which looks as if the bottom of a high screen had been intended to fit into it. The semicircle formed by the seats--half a cup--rises opposite; some of the rows are distinctly marked. The floor, from the bottom of the stage, in the shape of an arc of which the chord is formed by the line of the orchestra, is covered by slabs of colored marble--red, yellow, and green--which, tho terribly battered and cracked to-day, give one an idea of the elegance of the interior.

Everything shows that it was on a great scale: the large sweep of its enclosing walls, the massive corridors that passed behind the auditorium, and of which we can still perfectly take the measure. The way in which every seat commanded the stage is a lesson to the architects of our epoch, as also the immense size of the place is a proof of extraordinary power of voice on the part of the Roman actors. It was after we had spent half an hour in the moonshine at the arena that we came on to this more ghostly and more exquisite ruin. The principal entrance was locked, but we effected an easy escalade, scaled a low parapet, and descended into the place behind the scenes.

It was as light as day, and the solitude was complete. The two slim columns, as we sat on the broken benches, stood there like a pair of silent actors. What I called touching, just now was the thought that here the human voice, the utterance of a great language, had been supreme. The air was full of intonations and cadences; not of the echo of smashing blows, of riven armor, of howling victims and roaring beasts. The spot is, in short, one of the sweetest legacies of the ancient world; and there seems no profanation in the fact that by day it is open to the good people of Arles, who use it to pass, by no means, in great numbers, from one part of the town to the other; treading the old marble floor, and brushing, if need be, the empty benches. This familiarity does not kill the place again; it makes it, on the contrary, live a little--makes the present and the past touch each other.

If I called Les Baux a city, it was not that I was stretching a point in favor of the small spot which to-day contains but a few dozen inhabitants. The history of the place is as extraodinary as its situation. It was not only a city, but a state; not only a state; but an empire; and on the crest of its little mountain called itself sovereign of a territory, or at least of scattered towns and counties, with which its present aspect is grotesquely out of relation. The lords of Les Baux, in a word, were great feudal proprietors; and there was a time during which the island of Sardinia, to say nothing of places nearer home, such as Arles and Marseilles, paid them homage.

The chronicle of this old Provencal house has been written, in a style somewhat unctuous and flowery, by M. Jules Canonge. I purchased the little book--a modest pamphlet--at the establishment of the good sisters, just beside the church, in one of the highest part of Les Baux. The sisters have a school for the hardy little Baussenques, whom I heard piping their lessons, while I waited in the cold parlor for one of the ladies to come and speak to me. Nothing could have been more perfect than the manner of this excellent woman when she arrived; yet her small religious house seemed a very out-of-the-way corner of the world. It was spotlessly neat, and the rooms looked as if they had lately been papered and painted; in this respect, at the medieval Pompeii, they were rather a discord. They were, at any rate, the newest, freshest thing at Les Baux.

I remember going round to the church, after I had left the good sisters, and to a little quiet terrace, which stands in front of it, ornamented with a few small trees and bordered with a wall, breast-high, over which you look down steep hillsides, off into the air and all about the neighboring country. I remember saying to myself that this little terrace was one of those felicitous nooks which the tourist of taste keeps in his mind as a picture. The church was small and brown and dark, with a certain rustic richness. All this however, is no general description of Les Baux.

I am unable to give any coherent account of the place, for the simple reason that it is a mere confusion of ruin. It has not been preserved in lava like Pompeii, and its streets and houses, its ramparts and castle, have become fragmentary, not through the sudden destruction, but through the gradual withdrawal, of a population. It is not an extinguished, but a deserted city; more deserted far than even Carcassonne and Aigues-Mortes, where I found so much entertainment in the grass-grown element.

It is of very small extent, and even in the days of its greatness, when its lords entitled themselves counts of Cephalonia and Neophantis, kings of Arles and Vienne, princes of Achaia, and emperors of Constantinople-- even at this flourishing period, when, as M. Jules Canonge remarks, "they were able to depress the balance in which the fate of peoples and kings is weighed," the plucky little city contained at the most no more than thirty-six hundred souls. Yet its lords (who, however, as I have said, were able to present a long list of subject towns, most of them, tho a few are renowned, unknown to fame) were seneschals and captains-general of Piedmont and Lombardy, grand admirals of the kingdom of Naples, and its ladies were sought in marriage by half the first princes in Europe.

A considerable part of the little narrative of M. Canonge is taken up with the great alliances of the House of Baux, whose fortunes, matrimonial and other, he traces from the eleventh century down to the sixteenth. The empty shells of a considerable number of old houses, many of which must have been superb, the lines of certain steep little streets, the foundations of a castle, and ever so many splendid views, are all that remains to-day of these great titles.

To such a list I may add a dozen very polite and sympathetic people, who emerged from the interstices of the desultory little town to gaze at the two foreigners who had driven over from Arles, and whose horses were being baited at the modest inn. The resources of this establishment we did not venture otherwise to test, in spite of the seductive fact that the sign over the door was in the Provencal tongue. This little group included the baker, a rather melancholy young man, in high boots and a cloak, with whom and his companions we had a good deal of conversation.

The Baussenques of to-day struck me as a very mild and agreeable race, with a good deal of the natural amenity which, on occasions like this one, the traveler, who is waiting for his horses to be put in or his dinner to be prepared, observes in the charming people who lend themselves to conversation in the hilltowns of Tuscany. The spot where our entertainers at Les Baux congregated was naturally the most inhabited portion of the town; as I say, there were at least a dozen human figures within sight. Presently we wandered away from them, scaled the higher places, seated ourselves among the ruins of the castle, and looked down from the cliff overhanging that portion of the road which I have mentioned as approaching Les Baux from behind.

I was unable to trace the configuration of the castle as plainly as the writers who have described it in the guide-books, and I am ashamed to say that I did not even perceive the three great figures of stone (the three Marys, as they are called; the two Marys of Scripture, with Martha), which constitute one of the curiosities of the place, and of which M. Jules Canonge speaks with almost hyperbolical admiration. A brisk shower, lasting some ten minutes, led us to take refuge in a cavity, of mysterious origin, where the melancholy baker presently discovered us, having had the bonne pensee of coming up for us with an umbrella which certainly belonged, in former ages, to one of the Stephanettes or Berangeres commemorated by M. Canonge. His oven, I am afraid, was cold so long as our visit lasted.

When the rain was over we wandered down to the little disencumbered space before the inn, through a small labyrinth of obliterated things. They took the form of narrow, precipitous streets, bordered by empty houses, with gaping windows and absent doors, through which we had glimpses of sculptured chimney-pieces and fragments of stately arch and vault. Some of the houses are still inhabited; but most of them are open to the air and weather. Some of them have completely collapsed; others present to the street a front which enables one to judge of the physiognomy of Les Baux in the days of its importance. This importance had pretty well passed away in the early part of the sixteenth century, when the place ceased to be an independent principality, It became--by request of one of its lords, Bernardin des Baux, a great captain of his time--part of the appanage of the kings of France, by whom it was placed under the protection of Arles, which had formerly occupied with regard to it a different position. I know not whether the Arlesians neglected their trust; but the extinction of the sturdy little stronghold is too complete not to have begun long ago. Its memories are buried under its ponderous stones.

As ve drove away from it in the gloaming, my friend and I agreed that the two or three hours we had spent there were among the happiest impressions of a pair of tourists very curious in the picturesque. We almost forgot that we were bound to regret that the shortened day left us no time to drive five miles further, above a pass in the little mountains--it had beckoned to us in the morning, when we came in sight of it, almost irresistibly--to see the Roman arch and mausoleum of Saint Remy. To compass this larger excursion (including the visit to Les Baux) you must start from Arles very early in the morning; but I can imagine no more delightful day.

[33] From "A Little Tour in France." By special arrangement with, and by permission of, the publishers, Houghton, Mifflin Co. Copyright, 1884.