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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Bonnieux

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.

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Châteauneuf-du-Pape:

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