The Mistral was still howling at full force when we headed down to breakfast. It was yet another wonderful spread, made even better by good company and lively conversation. Dad was definitely developing a love for ‘le petit-déjeuner français’ and for French butter 🙂
Today our day would be almost solely dedicated to tracing the footsteps of Vincent Van Gogh. A well-known post-impressionist Dutch painter, Van Gogh spent his final years in Provence, where the bright light and vibrant colours of the countryside influenced him to paint in the style for which the world now knows to be distinctively Van Gogh. Plagued by mental illness, this tortured artist produced some of his most well-known works in the last 2 years of his life, while he was staying in Arles and St-Rémy-de-Provence. He died at age 37 from a gunshot wound, which is widely believed to self-inflicted.
We arrived in Arles in time to visit the weekly Saturday market. The market runs from Boulevard des Lices through to Boulevard Georges Clémenceau. It is one of the best markets in Provence. With over 450 stalls running over 2.5km in length, you can find everything from fruits and vegetables, to cheeses, to flour and spices, to meats and fish, to honey, to regional produce like olive oil, rice from Camargue, saucisson from Arles, to clothing, shoes, household goods… everything imaginable really.
The atmosphere was truly that of a ‘marché provençale’. The hustle and bustle of the market with the smell of food and spices in the air. There was so much to see, and so much more we wanted to buy.
We walked to the end of the market, until we reached the banks of the Rhône river. The Mistral was still blowing at full-force and we braved the strong winds to walk a short length of the river that inspired Van Gogh’s famous ‘Nuit Étoilée sur le Rhône’.
There is often confusion over ‘Nuit Étoilée sur le Rhône’ and ‘La Nuit Étoilée’. In fact, the two paintings could not be any more different. ”Nuit Étoilée sur le Rhône’ was painted when Van Gogh was in Arles, before his mental breakdown. The painting reflects the calmness of the river and his mental state at that time. This painting now resides at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. (We would see this painting later on in our trip.)
The more famous ‘La Nuit Étoilée’, which now resides in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, was painted when Van Gogh was a patient at the asylum Saint-Paul de Mausole in St-Rémy-de-Provence. This famous masterpiece reflects the mental anguish and turmoil of a tortured soul, which is in stark contrast to the other ‘Starry Night’.
Leaving the river, we headed back towards the town centre. Along the way, we stopped by at the Place du Forum. The café on the northeastern corner of the square is the inspiration for Van Gogh’s ‘Terrasse du Café le Soir’.
Our next stop was the Place de la République. The Église St-Trophime is a fine example of a Romanesque church. The church was built between the 12th and 15th century upon the site of the 5th century basilica of Arles.
Luckily for us, this was the weekend of ‘Les Journées du Patrimoine’. ‘Les Journées du Patrimoine’ was first introduced by the Minister for Culture in 1984. Throughout the weekend, all visitors, local and foreign, are offered free entry to heritage sites – from public buildings like museums and national monuments to private properties. It’s a great way to save on entry fees and a great time to visit well-known sites.
Our next stop was the Théâtre Antique. This paled in comparison to the one we saw at Orange the day before, so we didn’t spend much time here. We moved on to Les Arènes. Les Arènes is a two-tiered roman amphitheatre, capable of seating over 20,000 spectators. It was built around 90 AD to host entertainment events such as chariot racing and bloody gladiator fights.
Today, this amphitheatre in Arles and its more impressive counterpart in Nîmes still continue their bloody entertainment tradition with the staging of Spanish-style corridas or bullfighting, which culminates with the killing of the bull. Standing at the top of the amphitheatre, I have to say that it is very easy to imagine the bloodlust and cheering of the crowd, the adrenaline mixed in with fear of the fighters, and the deadly dance of death which is probably gruesome, yet strangely hypnotic at the same time. However, it is not my cup of tea.
Leaving Les Arènes, we headed back towards the market. By the time we got there, the market was winding down. Stalls were being packed up, and goods were being loaded back into vans. We quickly grabbed some food for lunch. Everything was priced cheap to clear. So our lunch ended up being a mishmash of roast chicken and potatoes, fried dimsims (yes, we managed to find a Chinese takeaway joint in the middle of the market, right in the heart of Provence… LOL), and some samosas. We lucked out on the paella as it was sold out by the time we got there. Sitting underneath the shade of a tree beside Boulevard des Lices, we had our lunch.
After lunch, we decided it was time to move on to St-Rémy-de-Provence. Our first stop was Glanum. It boasts two well-preserved Roman monuments from 1st century BC – a tower shaped mausoleum and the oldest triumphal arc in France, collectively known as ‘Les Antiques’. At the foot of the Alpilles, Glanum was first settled by the native Salyens in 6th century BC. It was an oppidum, or fortified town built around a sacred spring that was reputed to have healing power. In 2nd century BC, it became a Roman city. With the fall of the Roman empire, the city was subsequently overrun and destroyed, never to be rebuilt. Excavations around the monuments began as early as the 16th and 17th century but systematic excavation only began in 1921.
Next to Glanum is the Saint-Paul de Mausole, a still functioning psychiatric facility, where Van Gogh was voluntarily confined after his mental episode in Arles, which saw him argue with his housemate Paul Gaugin, cut off part of his ear and giving it to a prostitute. He arrived at the asylum on May 8, 1889, where he came under the care of the director of the institution, Dr Théophile Peyron.
This period of Van Gogh’s life was to be his most productive. He painted 143 oil paintings and more than 100 drawings in a little over a year. Many of his masterpieces were produced here, including The Starry Night, Cypresses, Pietà, Self-Portrait, Irises, Noon: Rest from Work… His brother Theo arranged for him to have two rooms, one to be used as his studio. Still, not all his time spent here was peaceful and happy. He had bouts of severe depression and seizures, which rendered him despondent and uninspired for weeks on end. We visited Van Gogh’s room while we were there, and they were tiny. They felt more like cells, really.
Both hubby and I found the place fascinating. There was detailed information on Van Gogh’s stay at the asylum, and the psychiatric treatment used in those days. Some were slightly more humane, like forced immersion in water for extended periods of time, intended to ‘shock’ and change a patient’s mood. Some were bizarre and crazy like the use of digitalis (more commonly know as digoxin), a cardiac glycoside now used to treat atrial fibrillation and heart failure. Luckily for Van Gogh, the 19th century saw a shift in the approach to mental health and psychiatry. The medical profession began to view mental illness as having an organic source and the mentally ill were treated as patients. The care and kindness Van Gogh received at Saint-Paul no doubt enabled him to continue painting.
There has been much speculation over possible diagnosis of Van Gogh’s illness – temporal lobe epilepsy or bipolar disorder are both likely candidates. His drinking and lifestyle no doubt exacerbated his condition. He was known to consume copious amounts of absinthe – ‘la fée verte’ as the French call it. Containing up to 74% alcohol, absinthe was the poison of choice for many other famous figures such as Hemingway, Modigliani, Oscar Wilde… Van Gogh suffered seizures and bouts of severe depression that were interspersed by periods of manic-like activity where he painted profusely, which makes bipolar disorder a definite possibility. Today, this facility still uses art as part of therapy for its patients.
Leaving Saint-Paul, we headed into the town of St-Rémy-de-Provence. St-Rémy is a wonderful walking town. We wandered down the streets, trying to decide on a place for dinner. I had a shortlist of restaurants but we wanted to check out the menus before we made a reservation. We liked the look of Le Bistrot des Alpilles so I went in to make a reservation for dinner. While not too big and quietly pleasant, St-Rémy was a little too touristy for me though. I did however find some wonderful cushion covers in one of the many homewares shops.
At dinner time we made our way back to the restaurant. We were greeted warmly and shown to our table. I was asked when I made the reservation if I wanted a table indoors or outdoors. We opted for outdoors as it was a beautiful night. The menu was only in French but we found our way through it without any difficulty. Girolles were in season so I ordered these yummy mushrooms fried in garlic and butter. They were oh so yummy. Hubby had sardines as an entrée and was amazed by the delicate flavours of the dish. My main was the gnocchi with prawns and it was beautiful – strong, earthy flavours accentuated by the sweetness of the prawns. Our entire meal was delicious and we thoroughly enjoyed it, especially when it was washed down by a carafe of lovely Alpilles Rosé. We returned to Maussane late in the night, sleepy but very satisfied.