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.