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.
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.
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.
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…
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’.
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.
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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