Arles: About Van Gogh

It is September and I am back on the road after spending a month in Canada, but I would be remiss if I failed to pay homage to the final city I visited in France, Arles, during the last week in July.

Provence, at last:

July was meant to be my month exploring different cities and villages in the French region of Provence, but for reasons that escape me, I ended up in regions outside of Provence more often than not. Determined to at least end in the right region, I picked Arles as my final stop.

Arles attracts tourists for 3 main reasons. First, it is a typical Provençal city, with an historic centre filled with stone houses sporting colourful flower pots, narrow winding alleyways, pretty squares where restaurants serve traditional Provençal cuisine heavy on fresh vegetables and meats infused with local herbs, museums, art galleries galore, the requisite pedestrian walkway through the old city center and oodles of French charm, all next to a meandering river, whose bridges had been medieval and quaint until the Allies bombed them during WW2. The surrounding countryside is also typical Provence; vineyards and sunflowers, stone farm houses and churches in the center of small towns built atop hills, where cobblestone streets are the norm, every restaurant has a large patio and bakeries adorn every block.

The Monuments:

The second reason to visit Arles is the monuments, six remnants from the Roman era. Standing in the centre is the Ampitheatre, the 20th largest such structure according to a plaque inside the entrance. Modelled after the much larger Colosseum in Rome, the Arles Ampitheatre could hold 20,000 spectators to watch gladiators fight and chariots racing. It has been revamped and renovated to hold bull races (bull fighting is no longer permitted) and concerts.

Inside the Arles Ampitheatre

About 2/3rds of the structure is original and after paying the entrance fee, I walked around it and up its tower to admire the views, before moving on to the next monument, the Theatre, a few hundred feet away.

Part of the Arles Theatre

Nice enough, but what intrigued me most was how the ancient monuments had been integrated into the medieval city. Find a parking spot, walk under an arch in the Roman walls, walk up a winding street barely wide enough for a car and run smack dab into an Ampitheatre or the remains of the Forum across from a cluster of restaurants or next to a shop.

From the Theatre, I made my way to the Crypts, located in a building beside the Hotel de Ville or city hall. Alas, my entrance ticket was only good for 2 monuments, a point not made by the original ticket seller and I was too cheap to start buying individual tickets to the remaining monuments, I walked to the Baths of Constantine and took photos through the fence, but gave the Forum and the Ramparts a miss.

Vincent Van Gogh:

The third reason to visit Arles is the artist, Vincent Van Gogh. I had become enthralled with his life and art at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and wanted to learn more about him. Arles is one of the best places to do it.

Some background here about Van Gogh. He was born to a minister’s son in The Netherlands in 1853. He tried to follow in his father’s footsteps but it didn’t work out, so he turned his attention to art. Dogged by ill health and financially supported by his art dealer brother, he moved to Paris at the age of 33 where he met the artistes challenging traditional notions of art. There, he developed his impressionist style of painting, dominated by thin brushstrokes and faithful descriptions of light and movement. Finding the Paris climate unhealthy, Van Gogh moved to Arles in February, 1888 and stayed for over a year. In Arles he cut off his ear off in a fit of rage after arguing with fellow artist Paul Gauguin. A year later, in 1890, Van Gogh discharged himself from a psychiatric hospital in nearby Saint Remy and committed suicide.

Van Gogh’s time in Arles was prolific. He completed 200 paintings, tons of sketches and penned numerous letters, many of which are on display in Amsterdam. In Arles, the tourist board offers a nightly Van Gogh tour, which I joined with 20 others. Our guide gave us a brief biography, then started walking us to different sights that Van Gogh had lived in, been inspired by or painted. Where Van Gogh had painted a subject, a reproduction and explanation of the picture was displayed. Thus, at the public park, we saw Entrance to the Public Park in Arles.

The Van Gogh cafe is the Cafe Terrace at Night, obviously having undergone a name change. and overpriced for the food according to the guide.

By the Ampitheatre, near the ramparts, we could look into the distance and see the countryside, inspiration for The Oliveraie and Sunflowers. We walked to the river, the watery subject of Starry Night over the Rhone before finishing the tour at the former hospital where Van Gogh stayed recuperating from his ear slashing incident. Here, he painted the The Hospital in Arles.

Van Gogh tried to return to his former lodgings (the yelllow house, now destroyed) following his hospital stay, but the townsfolk, fearful of another of his psychotic episodes, signed a petition which compelled the police to shut down his house. He stayed with his doctor for a few months before leaving for the asylum in Saint Remy.

Immersive Art and Van Gogh

At the Carrieres de Lumieres in Les Baux-de-Provence, just a 30 minute drive from Arles, Van Gogh’s paintings are the star of an immersive art show, deigned to give the audience an holistic experience – seeing, hearing, touching – the art. In an old stone quarry with 40 foot high walls and much appreciated natural air conditioning in the +40 degree heatwave hovering over southern France, I sat down on a block of rocks and watched as giant reproductions of Van Gogh’s greatest works were projected onto the walls, the floors and the ceilings. Music accompanied the show, people walked around and touched the walls, children danced with the flowers and the stars in Starry Night twinkled above.

For an hour, I was completely bedazzled by the changing artwork and the haunting music, although the song Please don’t let me be Misunderstood was a bit too literal for my liking.

It was a good end to my month attempting to stay in Provence, basking in Van Gogh’s interpretations of the scenery, the farms and the flowers I had been enjoying first hand.

Next stop: Copenhagen

Avignon: Popes, Lavender and Wine

After months of bus and train trips, group tours and trotting, suitcase in tow, from hotel to hotel, I was looking forward to 10 days in an Airbnb in Avignon, France, about 100 kilometers north of Marseille. I picked up my rental car, after enduring an hour long line at the Avis/Budget hut at the train station, and drove to my apartment. It was still hot in Provence – between 35 and 39 every day – but I had air conditioning and a pool so everything was tolerable.

Of Popes:

Avignon served as the papal seat between 1309 and 1376 when 7 popes, all French, decided Rome wasn’t good enough for them and moved the papacy to Avignon, in the south of France. Granted, it was a bit more complicated than that, but the result was the same. Avignon became the hotbed of Roman Catholicism and built a palace fit for a pope, the Palais des Popes. Although begun in 1252, it was renovated and added to until 1364.

The Palace des Popes

Today, it stands as the largest Gothic structure in the world. I went in, with hundreds of others, beginning in the courtyard which was filled with ugly movable bleachers. A children’s assembly was taking place and us mere tourists were sheperded under the bleachers through makeshift aisle ways into the palace proper. We were outfitted with IPads, which, when pointed at the appropriate apparatus in each room, played a brief video about what the room looked like back in the 14th century. So in, for example, the mammoth dining hall, the video demonstrated foods and cooking techniques popular 600 years ago. The IPad was a nice touch, providing additional information and visual aids, but it also masked the fact that, other than the outstanding architecture, the palace was mostly bare, except for the tour groups. We walked from empty room to room – this was the chapel, that was the library- with little more than the size, the ceiling beams and the fireplaces distinguishing one from another.

An inner courtyard (without bleachers)

An hour later, I exited the palace and walked, literally, around the old city’s ramparts. Begun as far back as in Roman times, they were doubled and heightened to 8 meters to protect the popes. Some are original, others reconstructed, but they frame the old city, circling it for 4.3 kilometres with 7 gates offering entrance. Next to it, on the Rhone, dozens of riverboats beginning their Rhone river cruise were ferrying their passengers into the city.

A small portion of Avignon’s walls

Not only did the walls protect the Popes from all sorts of invaders, they currently act as a natural (or government issued) barrier to modern excesses like high rises and fast food restaurants. Inside the walls, a medieval feeling may still be invoked. Many of the roads were cobblestone, numerous palaces built to house the cardinals still line the streets and churches galore stand to be admired.

Regrettably, my timing was not conducive to aimless wandering down the pretty streets. It was Avignon Festival time, with the main streets blocked to traffic and occupied instead by booksellers and artists and pop-up restaurants. The Festival is also a French fringe extravaganza, so erstwhile artists handed out fliers to their plays and pasted thousands of them on every available inch of wall, fence or post, thereby completely ruining most photo opportunities. Not unexpectedly, the Festival drew massive numbers of people to the old city, in addition to the regular tourists and school kids. It was crowded and in the +35 degree heat, not too pleasant for meandering.

Of Lavenders:

One of Provence’s attractions is the annual blossoming of lavenders, an event I was hoping to enjoy. To date, roses in Bulgaria and tulips in Holland had bloomed unseasonably early so I had missed the best of both. Lavenders are considered to be at their prime between June and August in Provence, giving me a wide window of opportunity.

I duly checked Google for the location of the best fields – they are not everywhere – and set off in my rental car for Luberon, one of the premier places for lavenders. On my way, I passed a few fields and took some photos; a preview for what was coming I hoped. But when GoogleMaps led me to the Luberon park, it failed to take into account a barrier blocking cars from entering the park and from me proceeding to the Luberon fields. I contented myself with returning to the fields I had already passed near the town of Bonnieux – they were marvellous – before carrying on to Gordes, one of the 15 or 20 prettiest towns in France according to Fodors and The Guardian. Yes it is pretty, but I was mostly interested in its Lavender Museum.


I entered the museum to find a line-up to buy tickets, which I patiently stood in for 10 minutes before paying and being directed to the demonstration outside. A young man standing next to a still waited for a large enough group before giving a 10 minute explanation how lavender essence is obtained, in both English and French. It was remarkedly similar to how rose oil, which I had learned about in Bulgaria, is obtained: put kilos of the flower into a pot, add steaming hot water, allow to seep, drain the liquid and separate the oil from the water.

The brief explanation identified the difference between lavendin and lavender. The former is the more common plant, grows at low altitudes and doesn’t have the advertised health benefits of real lavender – curing insomnia, assisting indigestion, reducing blood pressure, eliminating hot flashes, etc. – it is used exclusively in the perfume industry. With the explanation done, we were directed to return to the ticket seller to obtain our audio phones for the museum visit. Another wait ensued before the single person at the ticket area gave me some headphones and I entered the museum.

Unless you have an interest in various stills, which I don’t, the museum is a bit of a bust. It consisted of a room containing between 40-50 different kinds of stills, with an explanation as to the history and special features of each. I walked through it in 30 seconds, into a giant shop selling everything lavender-related. The one thing missing was lavender plants. For those, I was told I would need to go back towards Bonnieux to see the plants I had already admired or, if I wanted to see the real lavender plants,  to drive an hour into the hills near Sault.

So I drove to Sault, along a winding, mountainous road, past grape vines and stone houses until I arrived in the Sault Valley and was greeted with a view of patchwork fields, some green and others the telltale purple of lavender. I stopped, took photos, walked along the side of the road and enjoyed the majestic beauty of the lavenders.



The popes left another enduring legacy besides the palace in Avignon. About 12 kilometers from Avignon lies Châteauneuf-du-Pape, a region and a town famous for its wines; I’ve been drinking them for years. Begun as a summer residence for the popes, the popes also planted the first vineyards in the region. Today, the Provence and Cotes Du Rhone areas produce some of Frances most beloved wines.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape is another hopelessly pretty French town, with beige stone houses roofed with sienna coloured clay tiles, crowned by the ruins of the castle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Every second building was a wine tasting cellar or store. I stopped at the Brotte Wine Museum, only to find it closed between noon and 2:00PM for lunch. This is France after all. Since I was driving, I resisted the urge to indulge in a wine tasting and contented myself with a salad at one of the many patios in the town.

Next: Driving around France



The Shooting in Strasbourg

Strasbourg is renowned for its X-Mas market, often trumpeted as the best in the world and our primary reason for visiting. We (my friend Cathy has joined me) arrived on Sunday, checking into our Airbnb apartment located in Petite France, just 100 meters from Pont St. Thomas, one of the many bridges that crosses the Canal de la Marne au Rhin. The canal encircles and separates the Grande Ile, the medieval old city, from the rest of Strasbourg. Our apartment was housed in a 17th century building, atop a theater and restaurant; a traditional medieval house with dark timber frames supporting the structure and enough quirkiness to satisfy any odd taste.

We crossed the bridge to the Grande Ile, to be stopped by two security officers wearing bright yellow jackets. They checked inside our bags and waved us in. The old city was decked out in its holiday attire, living up to its nickname of the Christmas Capital of Europe. All over were over-the-top X-Mas decorations: teddy bears hanging from windows, gingerbread men strung across the street, giant X-Mas trees, reindeer pulling Santa Claus, everything except a nativity scene (there was one in the Cathedral). It was bright and joyous, a visual treat.

The highlight of the Strasbourg X-Mas market are the 300 or so wooden stalls that are clustered in the streets, at the main Kleber Square, beside the majestic Strasbourg Cathedral, occupying every vacant spot. Gingerbread cookies and cakes, Alsatian sausages, chocolate creations, mulled wine, dough men and crepes dominated the food stalls; snow globes, handcrafted jewelry, clothes, jostled to be bought by the thousands of people milling about.

I purchased a glass of the hot, cinnamon flavoured mulled wine and walked about, loving the colourful decorations and the wonderful architecture of Strasbourg, rooted so clearly from medieval times.

We returned again on Monday, enjoying the market in daylight. On Tuesday, we took the train to Colmar, an even better preserved medieval town, to enjoy its X-Mas market. Much smaller than Strasbourg, the buildings and their X-Mas dressings were even more magical than Strasbourg.

Upon returning, we decided against going back into the old city for dinner and instead chose to eat at a restaurant right down the street, immediately across the bridge from Grande Ile. Midway through the meal we started to hear sirens, not just a few, but dozens and dozens. We looked out to see ambulances and police cars racing both ways down the road outside. As the sirens continued, we surfed the internet to see if something was happening. There, we first learned of the shooting in the Place Kleber.

Just then, a couple in their 60’s came in and sat down. The lady asked if we spoke English. When we replied affirmatively, she  yes explained that they had both just come from the old town, where they had seen a man on the ground, bleeding profusely, with his wife screaming for someone to help him. The couple had been quickly ushered away from the area by the police, and once they crossed the bridge from the old town, the now much larger security presence would not allow them to re-enter so they came to the restaurant for dinner and a carafe of wine.

Next to us sat a local Strasbourg gentleman, Philippe, his daughter and a friend and her daughter. He too started talking to us in English, confirming that his twitter account indicated there had been a shooting in the X-Mas market and at least 2 people were dead. The Grande Ile was on lock-down, he advised, with no one being allowed in or out. Restaurants had pulled down their shutters and locked their doors. Hotels were shut tight, stores dark. People were lying flat on the floors, waiting for instructions. The manhunt for the shooter was underway.

We talked with the couple, Paul and Carolyn from Victoria – we had introduced ourselves by now – and they were understandably rattled. The security wall that now surrounded  the old town meant they couldn’t return to the old city, or their hotel, so they told us they planned to make their way to the train station and wait out the night there. Cathy and I invited them to spend the night at our place which the maitre d’ and Philippe had indicated was safe to walk toward. Phillippe’s information now advised that the shooter had left the old city, was injured and was holed up in an apartment on the south side of the city, but he warned this was just the latest rumour and might not be accurate. We decided to take our chances. As we left the restaurant, a heavily armed soldier stood outside – he had not been there earlier. The 4 of us walked quickly and safely to our apartment.

We spent the next few hours glued to the French 24 Live news station, watching the  broadcast live from Strasbourg. The news reported that the death toll had reached 3, then 4, then back to 3; that the shooter was surrounded, that he had escaped, that he was known to police as a 29 year old Strasbourg native, but never his name. The lock-down continued and police urged people to stay inside and open their houses to people displaced by the lock-down. By midnight, we were mentally exhausted and fell to sleep.

Carolyn and Paul struggled to get any sleep. Their kids back home were anxious to talk to them and the sight of the bleeding victim weighed heavily. Sunrise came at 8:15. The news said the lock-down was over, even though the killer had not been caught. Their hotel had reopened and they were free to return.

Later that day, Cathy and I returned to the X-Mas market area. Security was noticeably higher. No longer was each bridge guarded only by civil security officers checking bags. Now two police officers, each toting automatic rifles, patrolled behind the security officers on each bridge. Half a dozen Gendarme vehicles lined the walkway to the museum and soldiers, in full camouflage uniforms and more automatic rifles, walked the streets in groups of 4 or 6.



The streets were nearly deserted. We knew from the news the X-mas market was not re-opening on the Wednesday, but the museums were also closed and at least half the shops and restaurants remained shut. Only the Cathedral was open, with an additional security officer, but unlike the previous days, there was no line up.

A few locals were around, some tourists, but mostly security personnel and journalists, filming their broadcasts. We walked to Place Kleber, which had just re-opened after the investigation had concluded, to see the start of two makeshift memorials, with the phrase, loosely translated, “We stand united against the terrorists” hand written on pieces of cardboard. Two other memorials, lined with candles, marked spots where people had been wounded. People just stood there staring at the candles, shaking their heads.


There was nothing to say, nothing to do, just look with a heavy heart at the candles and leave, saddened that such a horrible tragedy marred this wonderful city.


WWI Battlefields: Flanders in France and Belgium

My son joined me for a short visit in France. I had asked him to choose an area of France he would like to see and he picked WWI battlefield sites. Thus, we arrived in Arras one cloudy afternoon, picked up our rental car, programmed Google Maps and set off for our first destination, Vimy Ridge.

Vimy Ridge 

After a short 15 minute drive, we started seeing signposts with Canadian flags directing us to the Visitor Center. The land at Vimy Ridge, where both the memorial and the Center are located, was gifted to the Canadian government by the French shortly after WWI. Today, Veteran Affairs Canada employs bilingual Canadian students on 4 month stints to act as greeters and guides at the site. 

Vimy Ridge holds a special place in the heart of Canadians. Between April 9 and 12, 1917, 4 divisions of the Canadian Corps of the first army battled the German army in an effort to capture the high ground of Vimy Ridge. They succeeded, despite the loss of over 10,000 men. Vimy Ridge remains a symbol of sacrifice and heroism, but also one of national pride. It was the first time the Canadian regiments had fought as a separate unit and their strategy, tactics and perseverance were widely regarded as being instrumental in their victory.

Trevor, a recent graduate from the University of Ottawa and heading to Immigration Canada, gave us a private tour of the tunnels. I had seen photos and reenactments of the trench warfare – most recently via Mathew’s WWI travails on Downton Abbey – but nothing prepared me for the real thing. Despite the day being overcast and wet, the trenches (most of which are re-creations) were dry and protected from the wind. But it was easy to imagine the horrors – trying to race across the muddy ground with heavy packs, barbed wire everywhere and German soldiers firing at anything that moved. Even staying in the trenches would be awful; they easily flooded in the rain, bringing dampness and the rats. The tunnels were a relief- warmer, dry and dimly lit.

Trevor described the 3 lines: the front line was nearest to the Germans and no man’s land (sometimes only 100 meters apart), then there was the support or observation trench and finally, the reserve trench, containing reserve soldiers if those on the front line faltered. Linking the trenches were the tunnels, providing storage and communication between the trenches. Sometimes, tunnels were cut under the German lines and explosives detonated, resulting in the giant craters which still exist today. But most of the pocks in the landscape are the result of grenade attacks.

After the tunnel tour, we went to the Visitor Center. It provides excellent commentary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, the combatants, its outcome and its importance, along with shelter from the elements, clean toilets and good wifi, with commentary from polite, enthusiastic Canadian students. We ended the day with a trip to the memorial:


The Somme: Beuamont-Hamel and the Somme Museum:

Our second day in Arras began with a quick trip the center of Arras and its advertised “baroque style central square” with market. It was definitely Baroque style, but completely reconstructed due to its total destruction in WW1 Sadly, the vista was lost on us as most of the square was taken up with a combination X-Mas and weekly market. Ferris wheels and giant slides do not evoke Baroque architecture, nor do the clever cheese trucks and other market mainstays.

Our objective today was the Museum of the Somme in Albert, but as we were driving toward it, we saw more maple leafs and signs pointing us to Beaumont-Hamel, a battlefield made famous by the Newfoundland regiment. As Newfoundland was an independent dominion until joining Canada in 1949, it provided its own soldiers and fought under its own flag as a battalion of the British Expeditionary Forces.

As we learned on our tour of the grounds, on July 1, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the Newfoundland battalion pressed forward into no-man’s land, but the more experienced German infantry had advance warning of the attack thanks to a mine detonation and the Allies’ flares signalling the start of the assault being confused by the combatants. In less than 30 minutes, 670 of the 780 Newfoundlanders were dead, injured or missing.


We were again guided through the site and the battle by another Canadian student. She provided excellent commentary about the build-up to the battle, the strategy, the shortcomings of the Allies’ attack and their ultimate defeat on July 1, 1916, as well as leading us around the site – through the trenches, the cemeteries and the memorial. We finished at the Visitor Center, where more information about the battle and its impact on Newfoundland was provided. Sadly, the battle effectively wiped out a generation of Newfoundlanders, leaving the Dominion economically strapped and dependent on Britain.

Newfoundland Memorial at Beaumont-Hamel

We drove to the town of Albert where the Somme Museum is located in a 13th century tunnel. Dioramas portray aspects of life in the trenches, for soldiers, communications, medics; a video highlighted many of the memorials, and plaques explained the Somme battles in a broader context. Very simply, the Germans were seeking to arrive at the Atlantic on the Western Front, a 700 kilometer stretch of land from Belgium south through France, and the Allies were trying to push them back. On July 1, 1916 the Allies began an offensive against the Germans lasting 114 days. The Battle of the Somme was largely inconclusive in terms of victory or defeat, but both sides suffered heavy casualties. Estimates range as high as 1 million dead or wounded on both sides.

The Tunnel at the Somme Museum


The following day, we went to Ypres in Belgium, another significant battlefield along the Western Front. The nearby area resonates with Canadians for 2 main reasons: Flanders Field and Passchendale. In Flanders Field is the poem written by Canadian physician John McCrae, who was inspired to write it during a funeral for a friend when he noticed how quickly the poppies grew around the graves of those who had died near Ypres. A memorial to McCrae stands at the well preserved Advanced Dressing Station, a medical triage center, where McCrae served as a medic:

Memorial to McCrae. The poem is on the right.

A few miles away is the town of Passchendale, near a ridge overlooking the entire area. Its strategic location high above the land made it desirable by both sides. The Germans had dug in there with deep, well defended trenches. British forces had unsuccessfully tried to retake the ridge. In July, 1917, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force ordered the Canadian corps, a formation over 100,000 strong, to capture the ridge. While the Canadian commander objected owing to his concern for the potential loss of lives, his protests went unheralded. In mid-October, the Canadians began their onslaught on the ridge. By October 26th, they had captured the ridge, earning a reputation for bravery under horrendous conditions, but at a cost of 15,654 dead. A Canada Gate honours their achievements and those who were injured or died in the battle.


Concluding Thoughts:

Touring the battlefields and nearby towns strikes home the awful reality of WWI – the trenches, the devastated towns, the gigantic cemeteries – and the memorials ensure that the lives lost will not be forgotten. I have two lingering memories. As we were driving through the fields toward Passchendale, our guide stopped at the side of the road to point out a shell recently uncovered as a farmer tilled his soil. “This” he said, “was a weekly occurrence. There is still a bomb disposal unit which comes around once a month to pick up all the shells. Most are duds, but two years ago, a live one exploded.”

Rusted shell in the field

I also thought the memorials and Visitor Centers do Canada proud. The sculptures are moving, thoughtful commemorations, the Visitor Centers informative and the guides, all bright-eyed, polite, bilingual Canadian students, are great ambassadors for the country.