Ever since Vincent van Gogh spent over a year here, the town of Arles has been synonymous with the painter’s short and turbulent life. He arrived in February 1888, actually on his way to Marseilles to study painting there, but his train was stopped in Arles because of a snowstorm, and he had to find a night’s lodgings. Instantly falling in love with the town (which could hardly have been at its most enticing in the dead of winter) he decided to abandon his plans and stay, in the end for fourteen months, until May 1889, when he committed himself to the psychiatric clinic at St Rémy-de-Provence. During this time, in an extraordinary burst of creativity, he painted an astonishing 187 pictures, many of them among his most famous. He also presented a bit of his ear to a no-doubt astonished prostitute after a searing fight with his friend Paul Gauguin, who Vincent hero-worshipped, but who treated him abominably.
Van Gogh’s presence is everywhere in Arles today. Virtually every souvenir shop and tourist joint sells Van Gogh paraphernalia, from mugs to placemats to keyrings, and the cafe on the Place du Forum that he painted trades shamelessly on Vincent’s famous painting with bright yellow decor and signs indicating it is the ‘Cafe de la Nuit’; the food is very average and the prices exorbitant, in the usual cynical trade on the gullibility of tourists. It is unchanged in one respect, though, for it is likely that Van Gogh wouldn’t have been able to find the price of a drink there either, and probably never went in the place. There are tours that go in his footsteps of course (we took one of them) and virtually every spot where he painted an important picture is marked with a plaque and a reproduction of the relevant work. It’s fascinating and occasionally moving to stand where Vincent must have stood when he painted what have become some of his most iconic works.
Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum’, and the same cafe today.
The Hospital at Arles, as Van Gogh painted it, and today
The Langlois Bridge – actually quite a hike out of town!
But though the painter’s name is ubiquitous in the town, curiously none of his pictures have a permanent home here today. Perhaps that reflects the slightly ambiguous relationship that the city had with Van Gogh in his lifetime, for the good burghers of Arles did their best to have him chucked out at one point, for being a public nuisance. There is the excellent Fondation Van Gogh, which hosts annual exhibitions featuring at least one of his works, usually as a jumping off point for other artists who were influenced by him. We were lucky this year, as there were no less than seven paintings on display as part of their annual exhibition.
One imagines that in Vincent’s time, Arles was a fairly quiet little Provencal town, albeit one with a long and proud history. It is a diminutive place – you can easily walk across the old town in twenty minutes – but almost in the centre of the town there is a very grand monument that immediately tells you that Arles was once a much more important place than it is today: a splendid Roman Arena, virtually complete, and still in use as a bullring.
Arles was in fact once the important Roman city of Arelate, boasting, in addition to the arena, a fine theatre, a triumphal arch, and a chariot-racing circus located just outside the city walls, where the rowdies who frequented such events could be shut out if necessary. This was no minor Roman town, and it owed its prominence to the fact that it had the lowest bridge crossing the River Rhône (a wooden pontoon affair which has of course long disappeared, though there is a modern bridge not far from the original site). Arelate was also a major port, the mouth of the Rhône being much closer than it is now, and by the fifth century it was home to between 75-100,000 people, a good many more than the present population of 50,000 or so. It was important enough to have served as an imperial capital for a time, and was much favoured by the Emperor Constantine, who built baths there, substantial parts of which still stand.
After the Roman Empire eventually collapsed, Arles went through the usual ups and downs that most cities suffered in the middle ages. The city was depopulated, the monuments used as a quarry, and at one stage the arena was turned into a kind of mini-town, the exterior walls serving as fortifications and the interior being filled with houses, complete with a little piazza in the centre.
In the modern era, Arles gradually recovered its prominence as a major port on the Rhône, but with the arrival of the railway in the 19th century, it became the backwater that Vincent found so enticing in 1888. Since his time, though, the town has become a cultural hot spot: it was designated European Capital of Culture in 2013, it hosts an enormous annual photography exhibition, which was in full swing when we were there, and it is home to the French national school of photography. More recently, Maja Hoffmann, heiress to a Swiss pharmaceutical fortune, set up LUMA Arles, dedicated to fostering the work of new artists, and commissioned Frank Gehry to design a new building to house the foundation and its associated gallery spaces. Due for completion in 2019, the centre has a typically distinctive Gehry profile, and will no doubt give Arles a further boost as a cultural centre in Provence.
But even with all this artistic activity, Arles still retains the air of a quiet backwater, and even at the height of summer it is easy to find streets that are as deserted as those of any small village – though tree-shaded squares like the Place Voltaire, just a few metres from our apartment, tend to be busy until quite late in the evening, with diners and drinkers chatting merrily away in the late twilight, occasionally entertained by guitar-accompanied gypsy singers, all against the background of the constant hum of cicadas, the ubiquitous chorus that accompanies life everywhere in the south of France. In short, Arles seemed to us to be almost the perfect Provencal town – large enough to be interesting, historically fascinating, yet still laid back and accessible.
Arles also provides a great base from which to mount expeditions to other parts of Provence. We didn’t quite have the time to go and see the Camargue, the world famous wetlands to the east and south of Arles, nor did we get to Nimes (because of excessively difficult railway timetables), but we did do great day trips to Marseille and Avignon – for which I will do a short separate post.
So that’s it for Arles, a place we loved and will definitely come back to one day. From here, we moved on to Genova after a brief stop in Sanremo, which will be the subject of my next major post.