I know that most people have a soft spot for Vincent Van Gogh, and I am certainly no exception. I’m staring at Cafe Terrace at Night, which hangs above my fireplace, as I type this, and my old bedroom at my parents’ house has a celestial theme, dominated by a huge copy of The Starry Night hanging above my bed. I named my life size poseable skeleton Vincent (and his pet skeleton cat is called Theo), and I can’t listen to that Don McLean song without tearing up (I completely lost it at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Like full on ugly crying in public). Hell, I even have one of his paintings tattooed on me, so I guess it’s fair to say that I take my fondness for Van Gogh further than most people, and one of the reasons I wanted to go to the south of France was to retrace his footsteps and see some of the places that inspired him.
Van Gogh moved down to Arles from Paris in 1888, hoping the climate would improve his health, and was deeply inspired by the Provencal landscape, entering a very prolific period of work. Unfortunately, when his friend Gauguin followed him down there, his mental health took a turn for the worse, and he ended up cutting off his own ear (probably, I think the jury’s still out on what exactly happened), requiring him to move into a hospital to recover. Today, Arles is home to a Van Gogh gallery of its own, but as far as I could tell, they don’t actually own any of his paintings – they just borrow some to put on their annual exhibition, which changes every year, and only contains a few of Van Gogh’s works (the rest being by other artists on a Van Gogh-inspired theme), so I decided to skip that in favour of the Van Gogh Walk, which is meant to take you past a number of Van Gogh related sites.
We drove into Arles, and obtained parking on the street. Because we hadn’t had much luck finding food that morning (I was holding out for panisse and chichi fregis from this village near Marseille, only it turned out that all the food stalls there were closed on Monday, so I ended up eating nothing), I was pretty cranky, and Arles would not improve my mood. To start with, very little was open here either, except for some super touristy cafes in the forum (everything in France appears to be shut on Sunday and Monday (and Tuesday in some cases)), so I ended up falling back on some not very nice crisps we’d bought the night before, in case of food emergency (the French do not excel in the art of the crisp, I have to say), and was still exceedingly cranky. This meant that I was unwilling to walk out to where he painted Starry Night over the Rhone (a different painting than the more famous The Starry Night), since it was far and I didn’t see much point in looking at it in broad daylight. Most of the other sites on the list also turned out to now look completely different from what Van Gogh painted, so weren’t even worth photographing. However, I was keen to see the yellow cafe portrayed in the aforementioned Cafe Terrace at Night, since I look at the painting every day.
This is still a cafe, but other than the colour, it looks very little like what Van Gogh painted, and has been turned into one of the super touristy cafes I just mentioned (it’s actually called Van Gogh Cafe), so it was quite a let down. In the end, we took a quick look at the outside of the Roman amphitheatre (which still hosts a form of bullfighting, gross) and hightailed it out of there, hoping nearby Saint-Remy-de-Provence would prove more fruitful.
Initial impressions of Saint-Remy weren’t great either, since I really had to pee by this time, and the only public toilets we could find were squat toilets that were absolutely filthy, and I was wearing sandals, so wasn’t willing to put my feet in there. I decided to hold it in until I could find somewhere more suitable (like a secluded tree), and we instead headed into the touristy centre of town to look for food. Fortunately, unlike Arles, there were appetising looking shops open, so we were able to at least get a baguette, and probably the most delicious pastry of the trip – a caramel and almond tart from a patisserie we stumbled across (and a very nice little financier type cake, but the tart was the highlight), so I was less hangry. Therefore, we decided to do the Van Gogh trail in Saint-Remy, which takes you from the centre of town up to the mental institution where Vincent voluntarily committed himself after his breakdown in Arles.
The trail itself was a bit lame, since it just consisted of pictures of Van Gogh’s work, with a brief explanation of each, plonked down at random intervals on the road to Vincent’s old hospital. I think it would have been a lot better if the trail was actually through the places where those pictures had been painted, rather than just an ordinary street. Still, I loved seeing The Road Menders featured here, which is my favourite Van Gogh painting at the Cleveland Museum of Art, and reading the caption to Almond Blossom, which included a letter from Vincent to his mother explaining that he had painted it for his nephew, his brother Theo’s son, did make me a little choked up. This trail was mainly remarkable on account of the cicadas that are apparently everywhere in Provence, and were so noisy they actually hurt my ears (the sound also fills me with dread because it reminds me of the locust years in Cleveland, but these cicadas, whilst gross, weren’t quite as horrific, in that they didn’t actively attack my head like locusts do).
We arrived at the hospital, called Saint-Paul de Mausole and still used as a psychiatric hospital, and were asked to pay 5 euros for entry to the hospital and grounds, which of course we did, because I was most keen to see the recreation of Van Gogh’s bedroom (also I was hoping there’d be a toilet). We found this rather touching statue of Vincent holding drooping sunflowers just inside the grounds, and paid a brief visit to the hospital chapel, which contained an interesting small sound and light show in one corner that was activated after we deposited 20 cents in a box (we did it with no idea of what was actually going to happen. I was hoping for automata).
I then hightailed it out to the garden, as I had spotted a toilet sign, and indeed, there was a non-squat model out there (albeit lacking a seat and soap, but still); however, there was just one for everyone, so I had to queue for about ten minutes for my turn (with all women – I suspect the men did just find a suitable tree, like my original plan). Thus relieved, I was free to explore the gardens, which contained small patches of both lavender and sunflowers, so that I felt I was getting a bit of the Provencal experience at last (the good Provencal experience, rather than the squat toilets, cicadas, and extreme heat). Van Gogh painted the gardens here, and loved the local cypress trees, which feature in many of his paintings, like The Starry Night, which he also painted during his stay here.
Finally, we headed up to see Van Gogh’s re-created bedroom (I wasn’t clear on whether his bedroom was actually in this area of the hospital, or they’d just picked it for the re-creation because it was out of the way, but it would have been interesting to know, given that he painted variations of the view from his window twenty one times), which was filled with very wordy signs (with English translations) on what Van Gogh’s medical diagnosis may have been today (no real consensus, but possibly bipolarism). His bedroom was quite depressing, as you might expect (this wasn’t the one he famously painted, that was in Arles), and it was sort of a relief to head down into the shop, which contained a number of artworks done by current patients of the hospital in addition to the expected Van Gogh stuff (he was given a ground floor studio at the hospital, which is where he did the actual painting (he could only make sketches in his room), but I’m not sure if this is where the shop is now, or another area entirely). I think 5 euros was a little pricy for what we got (there was apparently meant to be a museum somewhere in the hospital about the period Van Gogh was living here, but we never found it if it was there. There was a small gallery near the entrance with some wooden sculptures in it, but there were no English captions and they were extremely abstract, so I’m not sure what they were meant to be), but the gardens were lovely, and I’m glad I got to see some of what Van Gogh would have experienced, so in the end it was worth it.
I don’t think the trail gave me any special insights into Van Gogh’s mental state, but seeing the cypresses and fields up close did help me better understand the composition of some of his paintings, and it’s always a pleasure to look at his work, even if it’s just mounted by the side of a busy road. It wasn’t as moving as the Van Gogh Museum was for me, but I still felt myself getting emotional at times, and I don’t regret doing it – I just wish Arles had been more fulfilling and less of a tourist trap (my advice if you have limited time would be to skip Arles and just head straight for Saint-Remy). To end on a more cheerful note, I’ll leave you with pictures of some dogs we encountered on the trail (I got really excited when the one on the left followed us for quite a while, thinking I had a new best friend, but it turned out he was just returning to his owner who worked on a building site).