Arles, provincial capital of ancient Rome, major city of the Camargue and inspiration to Vincent van Gogh who lived here from February 1888 to May 1899. The time he spent in Arles became one of his most prolific periods, completing 200 paintings and more than 100 drawings and water colours. It’s also where he chopped his earlobe off. We visit.
We collect a van Gogh Walk map from the Tourist Office, and wander off to take a look at just a few of the places in the city where he set up his easel or sketchbook. It’s a place to saunter and so we do, through little alleyways and grand boulevards, past Roman ruins. One of these is the Arles Ampitheatre, built around 900 BC and still in use today for bullfights, plays and concerts.
We find the first site, where van Gogh painted The Staircase of the Trinquetaille Bridge. The tiny sapling on the right of the painting has now grown into a huge, mature London plane tree (Platanus x hispanica).
On to the Place du Forum and ‘The Café Terrace at Night’. The site was refurbished in 1990 to replicate van Gogh’s painting. Apparently today’s cafe isn’t very good. ‘Don’t go in. We get lots of complaints about the food’ says the man at the TO.
Toward the end of 1888 the first signs of Vincent’s illness became apparent, today recognised as a type of epilepsy that took the form of delusions and psychotic attacks. Back then he was Just regarded as a violent maniac. It was during one such episode that he cut off either part of his left earlobe or the whole ear (experts disagree on which it was.) The Garden of the Hospital in Arles (below) is one of two paintings created during his treatment there after the incident.
It’s a touching, thought provoking few hours. His genius, sensitivity, joyous response to the colours and and people of Arles…and then his terrifying, destructive episodes where he descended into despair and self harm. As we drive away I can’t get Don McLean’s beautiful song out of my head.
Notes for campers: We stayed at L’Arlesienne campsite, three kilometres from the city centre. Incredibly noisy as it’s in the middle of a large motorway network, and no cycle path into the city. We didn’t like the idea of taking our chances on the busy roads on bikes so stayed just one night and then moved on to the motorhome aire on the banks of the river in the centre of Arles. We decided not to stay the night there as there were lots of gypsies checking out the parked motorhomes but it was fine for a stopover for the day while we visited the city.