Spectacle and Glory Without the Blood
Arles, the former capital of Provence and best known as the city of van Gogh’s anguish, has bullfighting in its blood. Its extraordinarily well-preserved amphitheater, Les Arenes, dates from the 1st century B.C. and is marginally larger than that of Nimes, the other bullfighting center in Provence. Arles’s most famous monument (and the city’s star attraction) maintains its links with the past by hosting bullfights and celebrations of the Confraternity of Gardians (herdsmen) whose feast day, the Fete des Gardians on May 1, is proudly celebrated by young and old.
In a departure from the Spanish-style mise-a-mort, in Arles and the Camargue region the bulls are feted and adored and attention focuses on the grace and spectacle of the corrida, where the bull is not killed. The bullfighters are as celebrated as the beasts; at the landmark Grand Hotel Nord-Pinus, their signatures fill the guest book along with those of Hemingway, Edith Piaf, and Picasso.
Although newly renovated, the delightfully eccentric hotel is still dedicated to the cult of the bull, with old corrida posters gracing the walls and glass-encased matador costumes on display. Try for Room 10, where nervous toreadors spent sleepless nights before their appearance in the Roman arena, which seats 26,000 vociferous aficionados. Napoleon III occupied Room 10 in 1856, undoubtedly enjoying the three wrought-iron balconies overlooking the animated Place du Forum. Today, the hotel’s acclaimed restaurant sets up its tables there, beneath the shade of century-old plane trees.