Wander in the footsteps of van Gogh in Arles

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Hello, I’m Sandra. I was born and grew up in Munich, Germany, to Czechoslovakian immigrants. So, I was predestined from the very beginning to grow up in a multicultural environment, speaking Czech with my family and German at school. I witnessed Czechoslovakia in communist times and was grateful to live in a country where freedom of travel was granted. Ever since I can remember, I have been curious about what life is like in other countries. I’m trying to satisfy my curiosity by visiting at least one new country (or city) per year. I’ve lived in Germany, Australia and on the Isle of Man before finally settling in Prague in 2006.

Me with street art, Fondation Vincent van Gogh

I’ve dreamt about visiting Arles ever since I read the book “Lust for Life” by Irving Stone at the age of 20. This novel is based on the letters Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother. He spent a year in Arles (1988 – 89) and produced some of his most vibrant and famous pieces of art during this time. Unfortunately, it was also here where he suffered a serious mental breakdown and famously cut off a part of his ear. I wanted to see where he had lived and visit the original settings of his paintings. It was not meant to be, as I went on to travel to other destinations, until finally, this year, I got the opportunity to fulfil my dream!

From left: Vincent van Gogh’s “Bedroom In Arles”;” The Yellow House”; “Field With Flowers Near Arles”

There are quite cheap direct Ryanair flights from Prague to Marseille. A round trip cost 160 EUR (plus 59 EUR for extra checked-in luggage) and took just under 2 hours. From Marseille Airport, there is a free shuttle bus which brings you to Vitrolles Train Station within 10 min and from there you can take a train to Arles. The trains leave approximately twice every hour and costs 12.50 EUR one way. The train ride only takes around 35 min.

I am not a fan of hotels and usually book my accommodation on Airbnb. However, this year, I went one step further and did a flat swap via HomeExchange. We stayed in a lovely 2-bedroom apartment located directly in the old part of town, the perfect base for exploring Arles. I was especially fond of the terrace with a comfy day bed, where we could enjoy a glass of wine after a busy day and watch the stars 😊.

We spent an entire week in Arles and saw a lot. I picked out the highlights, otherwise this article would become far too long!

Panoramic view from the Amphitheatre

The Atmosphere. Arles is a small town (approx. 54 000 inhabitants) in the region Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur. It used to be an important city in Roman times, and its Roman and Romanesque monuments have been included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. I loved the narrow streets with its houses in various hues of ocher and brown, the churches, the little cafés and the art galleries. There are also new buildings of course, the newest addition being the LUMA Arles centre by Frank Gehry. I thought the combination of old and new architecture worked really well, there is no eyesore in Arles.

Old meets new: Street by the Amphitheatre, image: Pixabay; LUMA Arles, image: Flickr

The Event.
Every year from July to September, Arles is the scene of the Recontres d’Arles, an international photography festival held in the city since 1970. There are photography exhibitions in churches and galleries all over town. You can either buy an all exhibitions pass or pay for individual venues. We picked out a few individual exhibitions and additionally visited some small galleries where the entrance was free. Art was omnipresent: posters and framed pictures hung in the streets. If you are an art nerd, this is the place to be!

The Markets. There are two markets in Arles, every Wednesday and Saturday morning. The Saturday market is bigger and a true feast for all your senses. You HAVE to try the traditional calissons, little sweets with almonds and candied fruit. However, my personal favourite was the sacristain, a sweet pastry in the shape of a twist. You can also buy souvenirs and presents here – Marseille soap, lavender oil, Camargue salt or Saucisson d'Arles (traditional Arles sausages).

The Food. There are many places in Arles where you can pamper your taste buds. For ice cream, try Glacier Arleatis. I loved the Rocher one and was too cowardly to try the more exotic flavours like paprika or black sesame. If you are more adventurous, go for it (and let me know what it was like😊).

For lunch, restaurants usually offer “plats du jour”, consisting of French fries, a salad and a piece of meat or fish, for around 15 EUR. For dinner, you may want to treat yourself to something more special. There are several Michelin star restaurants in Arles which we didn’t try, but La Comedie will surely become one of them very soon. This place is obviously run by people who care and have a great passion for food. Everything is fresh and seasonal. I tried the mullet with artichoke and fennel, and it was simply divine!

For a glass of local rosé, go to Café Factory République. Not only is it a great spot for people watching - you receive a very warm welcome with hugs and kisses from Gilles, the patron. I think you should be greeted like that in every wine bar 😊!

Typical plat du jour: Grilled octopus, french fries and salad

The Walk.
Of course, I had to do the Van Gogh walk. You can get a map for 2 EUR at the Tourist information Office with several suggested walks or simply download it for free here. The walk takes you to locations that were painted by Van Gogh during his stay in Arles.

The route of the van Gogh walk

We set off from Place Antonelle where our apartment was located. Our first stop was The Fondation Vincent van Gogh, a small art space whose aim it is to pay homage to Van Gogh as well as promote the work of contemporary artists. Next, we looked at Trinquetaille Bridge, which Van Gogh painted in 1888. It looks nothing like the painting anymore, but you get a good view of the town from there. Then it was a pleasant stroll along the river to Museé Reáttu, located in the beautiful former Grand Priory of the Order of Malta. Most of the exhibition rooms are dedicated to the works of Jacques Réattu, but there are also original works of Pablo Picasso and other contemporary artists on display.

A pretty Arles street, image: Flickr

The Arles Amphitheatre is the most popular tourist attraction in Arles, but honestly, there isn’t that much to see there. Sometimes, special events take place in the evenings. You can find the programme on their official website (in French). As an old goth, I particularly liked the next stop: the Roman necropolis Alyscamps with its slightly eerie atmosphere. Van Gogh painted there together with Paul Gaugin, who came to stay with him in Arles in late 1888.

The icing on the cake was the courtyard of the former Arles hospital, now called Espace van Gogh. Not even the tacky tourist shops can spoil its tranquility and serenity. This does not apply for the Place du Forum, famous because of Van Gogh’s painting "Terrasse Du Café Le Soir". The café has been done up to look exactly like in the painting, but it doesn’t get very good ratings as far as the food is concerned. In fact, the entire square seems to be a major tourist trap. If you are looking for something more frequented by locals, head for one of the (virtually tourist-free) side streets.

Espace van Gogh

The Day Trips.
Obviously, the best way to explore the area is by car. But even if you are The Worst Driver Ever (like me), you can get out and about. Le Plage du Piémanson can be easily reached by bus for a mere 2 EUR return. It’s a rather barren beach with no shade, the notorious mistral mercilessly blows sand into your face and you’ll need to bring your own supplies (the food truck isn’t always open), but the sea is clean, and you can spot flocks of flamingoes in the salt marshes nearby. Who doesn’t know the song “Sur Le Pont D’Avignon”? The famous bridge as well as the Palace of the Popes in the city of Avignon are 20 min away by train (16 EUR return). Saint-Rémy-de-Provence (5 EUR return by bus) is a touristy place, but very beautiful. Vincent van Gogh was treated in the local psychiatric hospital and there is another Van Gogh walk you can do here. Those who are sick of him by now can visit the birthplace of Nostradamus or the archeological site of Glanum.

To sum it up: I got what I wanted, and much more. However, there are still many magnificent areas nearby I haven’t been able to explore. I’ll definitely be back!

Relaxing on Le Plage du Piémanson

Top image: Flickr

Images courtesy of Sandra Tranta unless otherwise specified

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