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Footloose in Arles

From Caesar to Van Gogh, France's City of Beauty and Romance

September 13, 1987|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY | Beyer and Rabey are Los Angeles travel writers.

ARLES, France — Crystalline light from a relentless sun, lyrical landscapes blanketed with a panoply of herbs and Roman architecture very near the equal of its Mediterranean neighbors all combine to make Provence what many consider this country's most magical province.

While Arles, also considered one of the region's most fetching towns, was established as a Rhone River port and market village by Greeks in the 6th Century BC, it really began to flower as a post for Caesar's legions half a millennium later.

Not long after that a historian wrote: "All that the Orient, unguent Araby, luxurious Assyria, fertile Africa, Spain and fecund Gaul produce is to be found in Arles." Fairly heavy credentials to live up to.

Political and religious ups and downs caused upheavals in the town's fortunes, yet Arles' beauty and romantic appeal never wavered, drawing the likes of Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin to its sunny skies and marvelous filigree of narrow old streets and plazas.

Indeed, the wellsprings of France's Latin nature, temperament and love of the good life flow from Arles and other towns of the old Roman region.

Here to there: Air France flies Los Angeles-Paris nonstop, American, TWA and Pan Am with changes. Air Inter will get you down to Marseille. Or take French National Railroads' 165 m.p.h. TGV from Paris to Avignon, Nimes or Marseille, a local from any of those the short distance on to Arles.

How long/how much? Give the town two days, perhaps another for an outing through the nearby Camargue. French lodging outside the biggest cities always seems very moderate, superb dining from the same right on up to expensive.

A few fast facts: The franc was recently valued at 16 cents or 6.25 to the dollar. Summers are hot but dry with lovely evenings, winters pleasant enough to bring Frenchmen here on holiday, yet the mistral, a cold northwestern wind that hits frequently with a nasty bite, can chase you indoors. Less-frequent mistrals in spring and fall wash the skies of Provence to an azure brillance, a wonderful time to visit. Traffic is hellish but walk anywhere in the old city on the Rhone's south bank.

Getting settled in: L'Atrium (1 Rue Emile Fassin; $48-$68 double B&B low season, $68 high) is a new contemporary at dead center of town behind tourist office, the perfect base and very good value. Pool, garage and a dining room that is no less than outstanding.

Mireille (2 Place Saint-Pierre; $35 double B&B low season, $65 high) is on the opposite bank of the Rhone, five minutes from center, and a longtime favorite of ours. Pool and patio a cool and beautiful setting, contemporary bedrooms, more traditional restaurant and public areas. Owner Madame Jacquemin the friendliest and most helpful person you can imagine, her dining room mentioned later.

Saint Trophime (Rue de la Calade; $37 B&B) was a stable during the 18th Century, now made into a small hotel of considerable charm on a narrow street at village center. Breakfast only, tiny bar, many reproductions of Van Goghs on walls, plus a shop with fine selection of them in lobby. Rooms traditional, modest, medium size.

Regional food and drink: Arles is famous for its sausages, most loaded with Provencal herbs and very robust. A mind-bending selection at Au Roi du Charolais (11 Rue Reattu), a shop presided over by effervescent owner Pierre Milhau, who describes himself modestly as the creme de la creme of Arles' sausage makers, insisting that you try a sliver or two of his favorite saucissons. Take him up on it.

Rice from the Camargue appears on most menus, often prepared with liberal doses of saffron, and the region's fresh vegetables combine into hot or cold versions of that Provencal specialty, ratatouille.

Much lamb, rabbit and hare in imaginative dishes laced with herbs, Mediterranean fish ever present: loup, lotte and rascasse being particular favorites.

Hearty Rhone wines are always a bargain, at home or here, while almonds are turned into delicious desserts everywhere in Provence.

Moderate-cost dining: Grande Brasserie Arlesienne (14 Boulevard des Lices) is an indoor-outdoor cafe to warm your heart, right on the main drag with a no-nonsense menu of local specialties: filet de loup, lamb cutlets with ratatouille, excellent vin ordinaire. Very busy, very French.

Le Vaccares (Place du Forum) might catch your eye as the "Cafe de la Nuit" that Van Gogh painted in brilliant orange, yellows and greens under a starry sky. A statue of Frederic Mistral, Provence's Nobel Prize-winning poet and a Van Gogh contemporary, stands beneath plane trees across the delightful plaza.

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