“I am not an adventurer by choice but by fate.” Vincent van Gogh
For those prone to taking in traveling in tiny distant sips – there’s the arm chair, while cruising offers day trips and a bus ride. A sample it may be, with one’s senses straining to take it all in – but you can also take in a lot. I had a day in Marseille, while on a recent cruise in the Meditterranean and chose the excursion offered to Arles and St Rémy de Provence, where the brochure promised we would trace the footsteps of Vincent van Gogh in the area where he spent the last years of his life. Our first stop was Arles, which inspired his renowned Café de Nuit painting.
Driving from the port of Marseille takes you into the foothills of the Chaîne des Alpilles, and then along the plains that characterise the Rohne River delta, and which in many ways define the area. The river’s sediment has made the land fertile and it was highly prized by the various conquering peoples that make up the chequered history of France, who used its produce to replenish hungry armies. I visited in July – the otherwise fertile landscape dry and swept by the mistral wind, which bent the poplar and cedar trees that form pastural boundaries. The wind informs the shapes of the trees whose contorted stems speak of the struggle to withstand its unrelenting blasts.
As the leaves turned up in an effort to resist the wind, I could understand more about van Gogh’s paintings. The artist spent the last few years of his life here and was driven to reflect the light and landscape in all its colour and light. His trees are still here. The wind that sent to disturb and break them still blows, the summer sky still the same arresting blue and sun shines with the same unrelenting clarity. Small towns are pocketed within the countryside, not offering too much to the passerby – the odd church spire or fortress spelling their presence, enticing you to come closer. Arles was windy and caught me unawares. I expected a freshness to the air, instead I received cold and unpredictable gusts, so that even standing in the sunlight provided little solace. The mistral is a mean wind. Lulled by the baking Mediterranean heat, which accompanied us throughout the cruise, I was ill prepared in my light summary dress for the cold twists and turns that upset even the sturdy plane trees that lined the ancient streets, drowning the cicadas which are so prevalent that they have made the fridge magnet status in the region’s many curio shops.
The Roman ruins, comprising the amazingly well preserved circus or arena and the less so amphitheatre close to the centre of town were a surprise. Despite staying a short way from the ancient ruins, I don’t recall van Gogh ever painting the Roman ruins in the town, preferring instead to paint the Café de Nuit on the square, his yellow house and the surrounding countryside.
I discovered the same quirk at St Rémy de Provence at the sanitorium, where Van Gogh spent the last year of his life. Directly opposite the short drive to the entrance of the retreat stands a mausoleum dating back to first century BC and a Roman triumphal arch to the first century AD. These two buildings were part of the once thriving Roman market town of Glanum. Van Gogh chose instead to paint the sanctuary buildings, the nurses and the gardens as well as the olive trees situated in a field outside the entrance and directly opposite the ruins.
I was intrigued by the atmosphere of the place: small, intimate and simple with its white washed walls and aged stone stairs and terracotta tiled floors, belying some of the primitive early psychiatric practices to which van Gogh and others were subjected. Yet the artist found solace in the surrounding countryside with its bent cedar trees, wheat fields and olive groves. The gardens at St Paul still boast iris and lavender beds and the same textured limestone walls.
The crackling summer heat whipped up by the mistral wind brings other unpleasantries like the threat of forest fires. In fact, two had started nearer to Marseilles, while we were in port, and four fire fighting planes swooped down in waves in order to refill their water tanks close to the ship. The areas around St Rémy de Provence are highly prized, with many a well heeled out-of-towner buying summer homes here. It is a quaint place, and it was here that Nostradamus was born. Having thawed somewhat by midday, I particularly loved the character of the small towns in Provence and the language of the countryside boasting everything from medieval ruins, to the famed white horses of the Camargue, rice fields and the gentleness of an off-urban life. A bus ride it may have been, but it brought with it a life time of impressions.