This is a Van Gogh fan alert. You need to head to Arles now.

On the Van Gogh trail in Southern France…

Your search for France’s finest scenic beauty will lead you to rural Provence. Here, charming villages dot the fresh countryside. Undulating oceans of vineyards melt into sweeping, fragrant lavender fields. Summer sunflowers blend into lush olive groves. And canopies of plane trees border the long, winding roads…this magnificent legacy of Napoleon has been providing shade and shelter since centuries. These breathtaking vistas once fuelled the creative genius of legendary writers like Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway and art masters like Cézanne, Picasso, including one of my personal favourites, Van Gogh. Follow the dreamy drive to the town of Arles, where the famed artist lived for a year and developed his inimitable style characterised by bold colours and dynamic brushstrokes.

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The walk into the walled city of Arles is a wonderful revelation, if you go minus predictable prep, like we did. A quintessentially Roman town, boasting of a theatre, baths, and aqueducts and sports arenas in the heart of Southern France will make you question your geographical status for a second. Entertainment had been lifeblood for the Romans, you will be forced to contemplate as you stare at the 2,000 year old colosseum with a capacity for 20,000 spectators on three tiers. Imagine yourself in a long linen toga and thick-roped sandals, ready to witness a Roman chariot race or a bloody gladiator battle. A shiver will run through your spine. Another day and age…or was it? Since 1830, Arles colosseum has been hosting bullfights…only slightly less brutal, but isn’t it the same bloodthirsty audience all over again? Togas have been replaced with leather jackets and the Roman sandals with Adidas shoes. Old habits die hard.

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Arles colosseum, France

Surprisingly, gladiator fights ended not because of moral reasons, but because they became too expensive to afford. Did you know that bullfighting (or corrida as French call it), originated in France, not in Spain and is still legit in some areas like Arles and Nimes? Difficult to digest that the same country which is home to chic Parisian high society, is home to a violent blood sport, a famed cultural tradition of France in which bulls are stabbed to death in front of thousands of cheering spectators!

Take a leisurely walk around the Place de la République, with its medieval town square, fountain and Roman obelisk. Survey the city hall (Hotel De Ville) with its unique vaulted ceiling, its tiny prison cells and the bench outside where the judge used to give judgement in public once upon a time. Stop by Christian St Lacroix’s very first boutique…his tribute to his hometown! Stroll by the many craft shops, cosy wine bars, shuttered houses, inviting restaurants and galleries.

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There must have been something truly magical about Arles to have inspired Van Gogh to create more than 300 paintings and drawings of everything from local cafes to the Provençal countryside in just 18 months. Ultimately, he had also famously cut off part of his left ear here, after a dramatic tense episode with his friend Gauguin. Visit the location of his famous ‘Courtyard of the Hospital at Arles’, where he had been treated for his partially severed ear. The copy of the painting on the concrete easel displayed in the courtyard captures the scene exactly, even today. As though Van Gogh had just painted it recently. Except for the taller bushes and trees, the cafe and the souvenir stands around! Time goes on, but time stands still…

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Arles L'Espace Van Gogh, France

Garten des Hospitals in Arles by Van Gogh, Courtesy: Wikipedia

Stop for a touristy picture of the ‘Cafe Terrace at Night’, the yellow house where Van Gogh had lived for few months. Take a short walk along the quiet riverside quay. What a departure from the flurry of activity this place must have seen in the 19th century, when the Rhone river used to be the centre of commerce. One night when things were calmer, Van Gogh would have set up his easel here and painted the ‘Starry Night Over the Rhone’.

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Cafe Terrace at Night by Van Gogh, Courtesy: Wikipedia

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Starry Night Over the Rhone by Van Gogh, Courtesy: Wikipedia

And if you’re looking for full closure, continue to the nearby town of Saint-Rémy, where the artist spent his last year at the psychiatric establishment of Saint Paul of Mausole Monastery. Roam around the peaceful haven that inspired his 146 oil paintings and 150 drawings. From the iron grilled windows of his austere bedroom, look out at the wheat fields beyond. Van Gogh had found these beautiful enough to paint 14 times over! Copies of his famous paintings are displayed on easels at various spots in the natural surroundings around the hospital which he had sketched and painted…in the fields, near the olive trees, close to the famous irises and flowering trees. What a life he must have had in France, this tortured soul, an artist par excellence, ranked as one of God’s gifts to art even today, thanks to his complete fascination with Provencal light and its landscapes.

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Van Gogh bedroom at Saint-Paul Asylum, Saint-Rémy, France

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On the way back, notice the tiny villages with small, traditional tile-roofed houses facing east to beat the gust of the region’s infamous severely cold Mistral wind, that sometimes blows continuously for several days at a time at velocities of 100 km. Trees in Provence are forever bent in the direction of this fierce wind. While the Mistral is inhospitable, it also clears and dries the atmosphere and is a blessing for all the agricultural produce. Picture Van Gogh standing by his studio window, painting the swirling blue and yellow colours of ‘The Starry Nights’ on his easel, glancing at the Mistral wreaking havoc outside. He’s long gone, but she will stay forever, shaping the Provencal landscape for posterity.


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On the Van Gogh trail in Southern France…


88 thoughts on “This is a Van Gogh fan alert. You need to head to Arles now.

  1. This is amazing. I knew nothing of Arles before but now I think it is getting added to the bucket list. To see where Hemingway & Van Gogh walked would definitely be something we would want to do. But I too would love to see the Roman Ruins. To walk through all of the history and witness the arena would definitely be a highlight.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ok, I’m convinced! 🙂 I loved how you put the original sites and motives of Van Gogh’s paintings next to the photos of his actual paintings. And really, it looks like hardly anything changed. I do hope to visit Provence soon enough, and then I’ll definitely be sure to wander the streets of Arles as well.

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  3. Wow, the side by side photos with painting really gives the artwork context. I can only imagine what it would be like in real life. I didn’t have Arles on my tourist radar, now that I see and hear all of this I really want to take this trip myself.

    Thanks for sharing. Keep travel blogging. Adventure is better shared with friends!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. What a lovely little town with so much of heritage. The painting of the hospital where Van Gogh was getting treated tells you that when the artist is in his element – he is unstoppable. What is the painted Roundel telling us? Is that a story related to the town?

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  5. Thats very interesting to read about. Never knew about this particular connection. Though art isn’t one of our strong interests, visiting places which served as major inspirations for someone is always interesting to say the least.

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  6. Awesome post! I’m so inspired to read up on Van Gogh and make this trip. Absolutely love when history comes alive as it has here!

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  7. We love the Provence area of France. We drove through Arles and did not know that this area enticed Ban Gogh. Although I can understand why! The Cafe Terrace painting is remarkably like the view today. You did a great job of painting a picture of the life of the artist in this area. We are always surprised to see the Roman ruins in France. Many seem to be in relatively great shape. And I did not know that bullfighting originated in France.

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  8. Such great photography guys!

    I’ve been to Arles and I adore Van Gogh. Have you seen the film about Van Gogh using only his paintings? It’s called “Loving Vincent” and is the world’s first fully painted feature film! I saw it when it premiered. It was simply quite marvellous!

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  9. What a beautiful place. I had no idea (don’t know why) that Roman towns like this existed in France. I love the way how your writing really makes me feel like I’m there. I’d love to explore Arles someday and see that arena. Wow, I got goosebumps looking at the Van Gogh painting in contrast to the real place. I really need to do that myself!

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  10. What a cool path to follow. The places are beautiful and I would definitely want to go to the same Cafe and the places that inspired Van Gogh and others. I have to say I’m always impressed with your pictures of each city and your passion for history! The more I travel myself, the more I’m learning to love history as well. 🙂 Hope to visit this area of France one day.

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  11. Sadly, I think a lot of times the reasons humanity ends some immoral behaviour is for economic reasons rather than doing the right thing. But as long as the right thing gets done, it’s a step forward. I didn’t realise Alres had so much Van Gogh history. We skipped this city on our trip to France, but I would love to go back and visit.

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  12. What an interesting read about Van Gogh and Arles. I’ve driven by, but didn’t get the chance to stop and enjoy the region. So, it’s good to read about it and see the stunning scenery. I always wondered about the mistral winds, thanks for the context as to what they signify!

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  13. I haven’t explored much of France beyond Paris, and hadn’t heard of Arles before. I’d love to check out more of Van Gogh’s works in this town, and it would be amazing to be able to see the yellow cafe in person. It looks like Arles has a lot more to offer as well, seems like a perfect place to spend a few nights!

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  14. Oh, I was amazed by the south of France and how every little town seemed to be linked to some great artist! I’ve actually stopped at Arles on my way to the Riviera. The reason was van Gogh, of course. 🙂
    So, I can so relate to your excitement regarding the town and its heritage! Isn’t it great that you can stand in the same spots where van Gogh himself painted his famous work! Fascinating! 🙂

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  15. I have been to Paris and thats it. I really do want to explore the countryside and such beautiful small towns. It is definitely sad and hard to believe that bullfighting still continues. Great pictures and I am sure any fan of Van Gogh will be delighted exploring where he once lived and painted.

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  16. Wow so many nice sceneries…I am not an exceptional fan of van Gogh, but following his footsteps and places where he got inspiration must be pretty cool! Just another way to see a place!

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  17. Beautiful photographs and being a road tripper iw oudl to explore rural Provence on a self drive road trip only to enjoy breathtaking vistas. Now I know the inspiration behind the work of Van Gogh. I feel the town has a lot to offer to History and heritage lover. Would love to be there and explore colosseum. Intrigued to know that Bullfight originated from France. Its such a charming town with so much heritage value.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. I am a Van Gogh fan and I would love to follow in his footsteps! We have a nice Van Gogh collection here in NYC and I’ve seen his work in Philadelphia, Paris, and of course Amsterdam, but Arles would be something special. And I absolutely love how you matched his work to your photos. It definitely made me want to go to Arles!

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  19. Yes, of course, Arles and Van Gogh are practically synonymous. What a delight to be able to see the places that he has made famous in his paintings. But, I was also interested to see so much Roman history and architecture in the town. What a surprise to learn about the bullfighting in France. It’s not a sport that I can easily stomach, but it’s still interesting to learn that history.

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  20. Just like you I thought that bullfighting is originated in France, not in Spain. Anyway, truly Arles is such a great place to visit. There are really interesting place and things to do here, that probably won’t want me to go back to my home country. I would be very happy to see those 300 paintings and drawings if I get the chance. Thank you so much for sharing this with us.

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  21. Amazing concept to share how Van Gogh’s paintings compare with how Provence is today. I’ve heard so much about this quaint little town and would love to visit it to take in its sights and sounds for myself. Thanks for sharing!

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  22. Really amazing narration. I could almost feel as if I was in the arena watching the gladiators fight in days of yore. I also enjoyed how you built the links between places and Van Gogh’s paintings.

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  23. Wow, what a beautiful region. Nothing quite like wandering those curved tiny brick or cobblestone walkways of Europe. Years ago we had a guide take us to the Colosseum but remember nothing much else. I can see why Van Gogh was so inspired to paint this lovely area. The side by side comparisons was a bonus.

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  24. I am totally impressed by the work of Van Gogh. Theres a museum dedicated to his work in Amsterdam. Sadly I couldnt visit it when I travelled there. But your trail looks all the ,more excitingI would definitely like to embark on it when in France next time.

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  25. Amazing! I’m a fan of Van Gogh and knowing the place where he lived is something I want to see in person. Honestly I didn’t know about Arles, thank you for this… I’ve learned something new. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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