Using Marseille as my base last October I had planned a daytrip to the nearby Provencal city of Arles and the village of St. Remy de Provence — places where the Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh had produced many of his masterpieces.
A morning train set me down in Arles where I had a few hours before catching a bus to St. Remy. For some reason I took an immediate dislike to Arles. That doesn’t usually happen when I travel and even less so, when on the surface, there is no reason to dislike a place. There is nothing particularly disengaging about Arles and how a place feels now is not necessarily how it felt a couple of hundred years ago, certainly, but, if it felt restless and rootless then, I could understood why emotionally it had not been a good place for Van Gogh. Arles is the city where he and Gauguin parted ways in bad blood and where Van Gogh’s emotional problems came to crisis point with the infamous ear-cutting.
Van Gogh’s great insight, personal awareness and artistic ambition, eloquently presented in his letters to his brother Theo, are often, historically, overshadowed by the state of his mental and/or physical health. It was in Arles that he had his breakdowns and at the hospital in St. Remy where he found comfort and some healing.
Arles seems to have a love/hate relationship with Van Gogh. None of his paintings are there as most are in Amsterdam and the rest scattered across the world. I had time before my bus to St. Remy to follow a self-guided tour (for which the city tourism board charged) to find some of the sites of his paintings, but in each case, after following the markers, I came to find nothing.
I didn’t know what to expect in St. Remy after being so frustrated in Arles and was relieved to find a picture-perfect Provencal village that treated its most-famous former habitant with respect — perhaps a bit too picture-perfect and self-conscious in its pandering to Van Gogh, but not so bad and unreal to be totally fake and without real appreciation.
But, as it is in France, the only bus that I could get into St. Remy from Arles arrived at lunchtime which meant that the tourism information centre was closed for an hour. However, St. Remy was also full of informative plaques with directions for walking tours. I was disappointed to see that the asylum seemed to be too far away to visit and return before my only bus back to Arles left in a few hours. I took photographs of some of the plaques so I would have directions and decided, as it was lunch, to have a proper meal in a French restaurant and spend whatever time I had left over to wander around the Van Gogh sites.
I often dine alone in restaurants and don’t feel so bad about it if I have reading material with me. But when in a foreign country with language differences and surrounded by diners in couples and groups, it can be an emotional challenge. I pretend I am local and that this is one of my favourite places to eat. In fact, pretending that I am local is often my coping strategy when presented with unknown territory. When we live in a neighbourhood we usually don’t walk in fear down its streets. We don’t see the boarded-up windows as a sign of potential thieves, but as the way the local shops show that they are closed for the day. We don’t see men on a corner as threatening, but merely as men on a corner having a chat. This isn’t always easy to do, but helps and gives me a mindset of confidence and familiarity rather than one of fear, which can be spotted. It seems to work, as surprisingly, even while on holiday I am usually stopped by a local asking for directions. Even while in Turin, while standing at a bus stop looking at a tourism map, I was asked for directions by some women speaking Italian. Anyway, I digress. My dining experience in St. Remy did not disappoint.
Most of the Van Gogh walking trail was out of the town on the way to the asylum, Saint Paul de Mausole (which still treats psychiatric patients), and though I would be tight on time, I decided to see how far I could walk it, and turn around when I needed to do so. The trail, on neighbourhood semirural roads, was lovely and idyllic, running by the backsides of flower-draped stonewalled properties, along private olive groves, by old barns and overgrown fields. It didn’t take a lot of imagination to see the beauty that Van Gogh saw when he took his canvases out into the area.
This walk affected me more than I ever thought or expected it would. Meeting schoolgirls from Asia, or another group of Van Gogh tourists, also making the effort to walk this countryside trail because of how they had been personally touched by Van Gogh’s work, felt like the spiritual pilgrimage that it was.
I made it to the ancient walled asylum just in time to spend a few moments there before having to head back to St. Remy. I am so glad that I made it there. It would have been nice to spend more time and visit inside but the walk had already given me more than I had expected.
On my arrival back in Arles, I had several hours to explore the town more before catching my train back to Marseille. It did seem like a different, more amiable town on my afternoon visit than it had in the morning. It has excellent Roman ruins and a lovely river walk on the Rhone. And, finally, I found a site of one of Van Gogh’s paintings, a very famous site — that of the yellow Café Terrace on the Place du Forum, Arles, at Night.
Marseille is not necessarily touted as a prime destination in Provence where many search out the more pastoral lavender-encompassed villages. It has a ‘reputation’, a port city rough around the edges that wears its sweat with pride. It looks south to Africa rather than north to Europe and it is this wonderful, heady mix of peoples of colour and traditions that make Marseille like the magnificent, boiling and simmering bouillabaisse for which it is famed. I have never been to New Orleans but I sense that the cultural mix that created its gumbo has a blood twin in Marseille.
My holiday last October to Provence and northern Italy was fraught with travel glitches and when I arrived at the Gare de St. Charles in Marseille after a day-long trip from Cardiff to London to Paris to Marseille, the train was about half an hour late — not very late, but the difference meant that I was arriving in the darkness of early evening. My hotel base for four nights was only about a ten-minute walk from the station and also only a ten-minute walk from the Old Port, but immediately I realized I didn’t know how to get there.
Google maps nothwithstanding, when you step out of a European train station, it is often difficult to tell in which direction you are facing, and more often than not the signs, if they are there, cannot be seen in the dark. With guidance from the man in the station’s information centre, who knew as little English as I know French, I set off in the direction he pointed, only to come to a curve in the road within five minutes. As I followed the curve down to what I thought was the Old Port I realized that the area was becoming less travelled than more so and, map-in-hand, with faltering francais walked into a well-lit tavern, its windows and doors open to the street. Sun-kissed men, tired from a day’s work, checked my map, argued various routes amongst themselves and sent me back in the direction from which I had just come.
Ten minutes later I was on the other side of the train station, facing a major, well-lit street lined with cafes and eateries, bustling with mostly men who looked more Middle Eastern than French, and I knew that the street that my hotel was on was just a turn away. Every couple of blocks I stopped into a busy takeaway and sought directions. The streets curved and spun off, and some forty-five minutes later, purely by chance, I recognized a street name I knew to be near to my hotel, and finally, voila. I had traipsed, pulling my luggage, in a wide circle.
I am not going to recommend my hotel. I only have myself to blame for not paying more heed to TripAdvisor ratings. The central location was ideal, the room clean (very important) and the bed good; it was on the corner of two very narrow cobbled streets, which one would think was fine, but actually proved to be its downfall. The weather was deliciously warm and a ceiling fan and open windows kept the heat at bay, but a Marseille sidestreet at night is remarkably noisy. The sounds of hosing water and the shifting gears of street cleaners and garbage trucks (going down each of the corner streets) and cars echoed off the stones and bounced around the walls of my room. The next morning the first thing I did was find a drugstore and buy earplugs, yet every night I could only sleep a couple of hours before being reawakened.
I wanted to go to the Noailles Market, also known as the Marche des Capucins, a boisterous North African market, only minutes from my hotel and buy my first meal of the day. I had read that some, if not many, of the people working or buying there, might not to want to have their photo taken for immigration reasons and to be sensitive to this: considerate advice. I love markets with their bustle and fresh foods. At a stall selling fish I gestured to the man behind the counter with my camera and he shook his head ‘no’ — I pointed to the fish, and he smiled ‘yes’ and stepped out of the photo frame. I sensed in Marseille and at the market a sense of relief and freedom among people, a ‘coming-home’ for many, of a new start. I saw the great pride of men of colour walking in various native North African and African garb along Marseille streets and was struck by North American prejudices which most often put these men in positions of inferiority.
Most of my dealings with people in Marseille were with men and they were wonderful, engaging men — complimenting me on my limited French, speaking to me in their bad North American slang. If I said, ‘Je ne parle pas le francais’ they would ask me which language do I speak? Spanish, Italian, English? (in that order) and they would be ready to speak to me in one of those languages. As a North American, my lack of languages is embarassing in Europe.
I found a stall selling paella for only five euros. It was a good-sized portion and I walked down to the Old Port to eat by the boats in the sun. There were no utensils with the meal but I soon found that a mussel shell makes an excellent spoon. It is rare for me not to be able to finish a meal, especially something so delicious, but I found myself sunbaked and sated with leftovers for dinner.
My plan was to spend a day in Marseille and take a daytrip to Van Gogh’s Arles and St. Remy on day two, followed on the third day by an excursion to Aix-en-Provence and its Saturday markets. Early Sunday I would leave Marseille by train to go across the French Riviera to Genoa, Italy. But Marseille gripped me. After my visit to Arles and St. Remy I decided to stay put in Marseille and leave Aix-en-Provence for another trip. So, on a gloriously sunny Saturday I revisited the Noailles Market, bought foods for the day and explored the old, arty Panier district, the stunning waterfront museums and more of the city and its coastline.
On one of my evenings in Marseille I ate at a local cafe, Saf Saf and had my first authentic couscous meal — a heady, chicken couscous with a deep, rich broth and found that couscous expands as you eat it. I ate and ate and every time I poured more broth onto the couscous, I seemed to be back at the beginning. For a second time in Marseille, embarrassed, I could not finish my meal.