A large part of the allure of Provence comes from its rich history, still evident in its buildings and the layout of its towns. People have been using many of the same streets, meeting in many of the same squares, and gathering in some of the same buildings they used in the Middle Ages. Some of the ruins predate the Christian era. We wanted to take in as much of this history as we could.
We also wanted to see the places where Vincent Van Gogh lived and painted in the last, most prolific years of his life. In this post we’ll share more of the Roman past we found in Provence. We’ll search for Vincent’s world in Arles and St. Remy. Then we reluctantly leave Provence with visits to Avignon and the quirky town of Salon-de-Provence.
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Arles, on the Rhone River, is a gritty, authentic place that’s been little prettied up for tourists. We found that part of its charm.
She’s like a grand old lady who wears her age proudly.
I enjoyed walking the colorful, old streets of Arles.
Parts of Arles look as they must have in the Middle Ages. But its history goes back much further than that.
In the last century before the birth of Christ, Julius Caesar founded a Roman colony here. The remains of the old Roman city are now, collectively, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
By the end of the first century after Christ, this arena was hosting gladiator fights and chariot races for 20,000 spectators.
This Roman theatre is used for present-day performances. The two columns are all that is left of the structure that supported a roof. The ugly modern scaffolding is used to support stage lighting.
Under Emperor Constantine, the city prospered, becoming known as “The Little Rome of Gaul.” The Thermae of Constantine is a well-preserved Roman public bath.
For a small admission price, visitors are free to wander around inside the baths.
These multi-level structures heated the baths with fires from below.
The ancient tile floors have survived the centuries well.
Van Gogh in Arles
Vincent Van Gogh came from Paris to Arles at age 35 and was immediately taken with it. He convinced his fellow painter, Paul Gaugin, to join him there. Gauguin’s influence on Van Gogh was reflected in Vincent’s work.
But within a short time, Van Gogh engaged Gauguin in volatile arguments and finally threatened him with a knife (or razor, as some accounts have it). Later that same day, Van Gogh cut off part of his own ear and tried to give it to a prostitute.
But despite such fits of madness and periods of recuperation, Van Gogh managed to produce hundreds of paintings during the last few years of his life.
At nine locations in Arles, plaques have been installed to show scenes Van Gogh painted, along with his corresponding painting. Some scenes immortalized in his paintings no longer exist, such as the famous Yellow House. It was obliterated by bombardment in World War II, along with other parts of Arles. We didn’t find all the sites, but it was thrilling to see the ones we did.
After visiting the baths, we rounded a corner to find this cafe on the Place du Forum, painted and decorated to look like the one in Van Gogh’s Café Terrace at Night, though it is reputedly not the actual cafe in the painting.
Van Gogh’s Cafe Terrace at Night.
This authentic site has been maintained exactly as it was when he painted it. It’s the courtyard of the hospital where Van Gogh was taken after he cut off a portion of his ear. Now called Espace Van Gogh, the artist painted several works while he recuperated here, including the one shown on the plaque.
Of all that remains of the Roman Empire in Arles, the necropolis of Alyscamps is among the most compelling. It’s a long, shady avenue lined with ancient sarcophagi on the outskirts of Arles.
Alyscamps was Arles’ main burial ground for about 1,500 years.
The sarcophagi — some capped, some open — make for a solemn and spooky spectacle. It’s easy to see why some of the sarcophagi disappeared, stolen by farmers for watering troughs for their animals.
Some of the more elaborate sarcophagi are inside a church on the grounds.
Van Gogh also walked this avenue of the dead. This plaque displays his painting called Alyscamps.
Van Gogh in Saint-Rémy
Some time after the incident in Arles, Vincent voluntarily admitted himself into Saint-Paul Asylum near the Provençal town of Saint-Rémy. He remained here for a year, until May, 1890, three months before his suicide. We found no more intimate way to connect with Van Gogh than to visit him here.
A life-sized statue of the artist, arms full of sunflowers, greets visitors to the asylum. The facility has since been renamed Clinique Van Gogh.
Visitors have access to the old part of the facility, where Vincent spent his time, but not to the adjacent, functioning health care facility.
Upstairs, Vincent’s bedroom is maintained pretty much as it was when he lived in it, with the exception of the artwork shown.
This is the view from Vincent’s room. The bars suggest confinement, but Vincent was able to wander the grounds.
Across the hall from his bedroom, this tub therapy room was especially poignant.
Sarah happily resting at an outbuilding in view of Van Gogh’s window at Saint-Paul.
Many of Van Gogh’s best known works were produced here at Saint-Paul.
Mont Gaussier, a prominent peak in the Alpilles, is visible from the grounds of Saint-Paul. Vincent must have set up his canvas very near this spot…
…to produce this painting. Van Gogh’s The Olive Trees is now in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Before we leave Provence, we have to briefly touch on our visits to two other towns: Avignon and Salon-de-Provence.
Avignon is another Provençal town steeped in history.
Behind its walls lie narrow streets, beautiful squares, a grand Catholic palace, and what remains of a famous bridge.
We found weathered stone facades and beautiful courtyards.
This is the Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes). For 68 years in the 14th century, the center of the Catholic church was not in Rome, but in Avignon. Seven popes presided here during this period. This huge structure was built to house them and their retinues.
Avignon’s other iconic structure is the Pont d’Avignon, a bridge over the Rhone that was made famous in the children’s song, “Sur le Pont d’Avignon.” Built in the 12th century, it was continually battered by floods. It was partially washed away in the 17th century, and never repaired.
As we drove out of Provence, we stopped for a couple of hours in Salon-de-Provence. Besides being a lovely little town, Salon is famous for two things: Nostradamus and a quirky fountain.
Michel de Nostredame (Nostradamus) lived in Salon during the last 20 years of his life in the 16th century.
This modern statue commemorates Nostradamus as an astrologer, author, translator, prophet, and physician (known especially for treating plague victims).
From a distance, this looks like a squat, fat tree on the square.
But get closer, and it is revealed to be a very old fountain. The original structure of it has been hidden under moss for centuries.
Since the 16th century, the water passing through Fontaine Moussue has deposited an amazing mossy mass. You might call it an example of “living history.”
Next, we’ll spend some time in our favorite place on the Cote D’Azur. Then, on our way to the Alps, we discover a folk art treasure that is an amazing monument to personal expression and dedication.