Two top reasons to see Arles

One reason, of course, is to see the place that was home to van Gogh from 1888 -1889, until he entered the hospital at Saint-Rémy. These were not his best years in terms of mental health, but certainly productive in terms of his art.

Our first stop was the Hotel de Dieu, the hospital where Vincent was taken following the ear incident, and where he also had previously created the wonderful painting of the garden, recreated today based on that painting. Nice to see children drawing there.

It’s easy to understand the location relative to the painting. Arles provides markers of van Gogh’s paintings throughout the city in the general position he would have had when he created them.

The famous bridge painting is so interesting because, while the bridge has changed, the tree that was a small sapling when he painted it has grown into a nice mature plane tree. The public garden is lovely, and Vincent thought so too, in his day. He painted the crowds having fun in the Roman arena, where bullfights are still held with every seat taken. And then there is the matter of the Yellow House, where he lived with Gauguin. The house is gone, but look again and see that the building behind it still stands. Amazing.

Poor van Gogh had a tough time here – he was basically run out of town. Too bad his fame came too late to save him from despair. One last painting we saw come to life was The Night Cafe, where we succumbed to tourist fever and had lunch. (Don had grilled sardines – yuck.) The hotel behind our table was the favorite of Picasso, and the statue is of Frederic Mistral, the poet laureate of Provence. We were surrounded by history and creativity!

The second reason to be here is to see what the Romans had made of the place when it was a thriving city, much larger than it is now. They began in the first century BC and continue to use Arles as an important outpost for about 500 years. We saw the crypt under what had been the Forum, the Roman theater and the arena, which is still active. (They love their bullfighting here.) We also saw the remains of the thermal baths of Emperor Constantine.

So did these two points of fascination ever intersect? Did van Gogh show any interest in the antiquities all around him? No – his interests were people and nature, not the past. But the past can be haunting in Arles – both the ancient and the – relatively – current. And then there is a modern life being lived all around, right on top of those 3000 years of civilization. Perhaps he was right to let the past just take care of itself.

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