It was market day in Arles, so off we drove to the ancient little town in search of fabric, lavender, cheese and chanterelles. Along the way we discovered the trails that VanGogh followed and the wonders that Caesar left behind.
A ring road circles the inner city; on Saturdays wall-to-wall market stands blanket the ring road.
Van Gogh’s life and paintings tapped us on our shoulders, demanding attention, wherever we traveled in Provence. Arles was ripe with reminders of Van Gogh’s prodigious work.
The Fondation Van Gogh
The Foundation van Gogh is a beautiful gallery that features the works of van Gogh alongside modern-day artists whose work relates. (Here’s an interesting article from the NY Times about the gallery opening in 2014.) We raced through the works of Glenn Brown, not quite understanding the connection, and a bit horrified at the personal agony undertaken in the art. But we were rewarded with the lucious paintings of Van Gogh.
My favorite part of the day – lunch! We strolled around until we spotted the Bistrot Arlesien near the center of town. The cafe was empty (it was early) and we chose the perfect shady seats just out of reach of the hot sun.
Caesar comes to Arles
I was surprised at the huge presence of Rome in southern France. Every city seemed to have a bit of aquaduct or an arena to call their own. Those Romans were wiley! First they provided extraordinary infrastructure – roads and water – to their conquered citiies. Then they added government buildings. Entertainment soon followed housed in centrally-located arenas and coliseums.
Arles takes its treasures seriously and established the Musée de l’Arles et de la Provence antiques in 1995. Of course, we had to see it!
So what do you do when your city is under constant attack in the middle ages? How about building your city inside the walls of the long defunct coliseum? That’s what the people of Arles did during the 1500’s.
According to the Musée de l’Arles et de la Provence Antiques: “In 49 BC, in the midst of civil war, Caesar who wanted to take the City of Marseilles that supported his opponent Pompeii resolved to build 12 ships at Arles which being completed and rigged in 30 days – from the time the timber was cut down – and brought to Massila (Marseilles)” (De Bello civili, I-36).
“At the end of the conflict with the supporters of Pompeii in the Iberian Peninsula, victorious Caesar rewarded Arles for its help by founding in 46 BC a colony under Roman law and granting it with part of Masilla-confiscated territories. He settled there the veterans of the VIth legion who had remained faithful to him during the civil war, whence the name of the new colony Colonia Julia paterna Arelate sextanorum this decision allowed the free Arlesian people to become Roman citizens.”
So how did all this stuff get to Arles? Much of it was created onsite but much also arrived by boat. The museum features a preserved merchant boat that carried everything from rocks to wine.
We only scratched the surface of Arles during our day trip. You could spend days here roaming the countryside, visiting the shops, enjoying cafe life, and meeting the residents. And I will – on another day!
What better way to discover the south of France than by planning our two weeks around the market days of the charming towns and villages scattered one next to the other throughout Provence? It was Thursday, so it was time to visit Aix-en-Provence (locals call their town “Ace”). Not only would we get to shop, we’d also get to see where Cezanne hung out, see the local cathedral and visit the “most beautiful tea room” at Caumont. We’d also learn that Aix is so much more than we had expected.
As usual, we got turned around and lost as we approached town. Sometimes we just had a hard time believing our GPS really wanted us to travel left down a tiny little street next to a crucifix attached to a wall in the middle of a road.
But we did find our way to the center of the old town. One of the very first things I spotted was a landmarker in the midst of sales booths and vendors’ cars.
Here stood 22 August 1944 one of Sherman tanks of the armed Allied liberation of Aix in Provence , surrounded by the population of the city in jubilation . Landed 15 August on the beaches of the Var , the armies lost more than 2,000 men before reaching Aix , while the provencal resistance saw 140 of its guerrillas die under enemy fire, often summarily executed. They joined forces August 19, 1944, to all liberate the city from Nazi barbarism.
These men, those of Aix , those of the American 3rd Division , and those of the 1st Armee Francaise Libre, leveed in North Africa and Corsica , commanded by the Marechal de Lattre de Tassigny. These men coming from all walks of life, had all skin colors and all religions. They mingled their destinies and their blood for human dignity in the defense of democracy and the liberation of Provence.
This is the beauty of the south of France. Next to a profound statement is the fruit of struggle. People are free to explore the countryside and meet one another thanks to the sacrifice of others. I am grateful.
Market day has been held in the same area for centuries. The Romans traded on these very streets before Christ was born.
The Cafe du Palais
We arrived at the market hungry and bought up clusters of fresh fruits and vegetables for our home fridge, then we went in search of a cafe for lunch. We were more than happy to discover the Cafe du Palais with its hearty lunches for about $15 plus wine. Lesson learned from this restaurant: Before collapsing into chairs at the closest cafe, take a moment to see how the servers treat the guests. If the servers look like they are going to spend as little time as possible with you because they’re Jonesing for their next cigarette break, you might be better off somewhere else.
After lunch, we strolled and shopped, enjoying the windows and gasping at some of the exorbitant prices.
Enough shopping! On to some culture.
Based on collections once owned by leaders of Provence, the Granet Museum houses about 12,000 works of art in the former Palace of Malta and at a chapel down the street and around a corner. You can actually take a virtual tour of the Granet Museum on their website but these are a few of my favorites from the collection.
Cezanne is the star of Aix-en-Provence but the Granet displays just 10 paintings and owns another dozen, not displayed. Still, restaurants and shops are named after the all-star impressionist and you can see metal plaques capping cobblestones throughout town where Cezanne once painted. The capstones lead from the house where Cezanne was born to St. Jean Cemetery where he was buried.
Caumont Center for the Arts
The Caumont Center for the Arts is recommended for its elegant tea room but the place is extravagently expensive. We stopped in for for a cup of tea and a dusty-looking pastry only to be shocked when we were charged twice as much for the “tea of the day”. Two cups of tea and a bottle of water came to just under $30. Service was very poor and we had to track down a server to take our order. They simply could not be bothered to bring us our check and we had to find a manager to help us with that. Luke-warm tea and a close and humid room on a hot, sunny day contributed to the discomfort and rude atmosphere in the beautiful tea rooms.
The restrooms were the real treat at the Caumont. We avoided the lower-level restrooms and used the first-floor toilet tucked into a small passageway near the outdoor formal gardens. Best restroom in all of France!
The gift shop is another delight. Tables are elegantly staged and everything is for sale.
So my advice for the Caumont is to peek in the tea rooms – but don’t bother eating – tour the verdant gardens, enjoy the gorgeous gift shop, and leave with lovely memories.
The Cathedral of the Holy Saviour
The Cathedral of the Holy Saviour of Aix-en-Provence was built atop an ancient temple to the sun gods on the Via Aurelia, the Roman road built through the south of France. Begun in the 1200’s when Aix was the capital of Provence, the cathedral was completed just about the time Christopher Columbus was discovering America in 1492. The carved doors to the cathedral are made of wood and were commissioned in the early 1500’s. You can see the four old testament prophets surrounding the doorway and a dozen pagan fortune tellers above – they foretold the birth and death of Christ.
The altar piece painting is a masterpiece of the 15th century created by Nicholas Froment of nearby Avignon. Moses, guarding his flock, is astounded to see Jesus and the Virgin Mary rise from a burning bush. I’d also be pretty surprised if it happened to me. The people painted in the left and right panels are the folks who paid for the painting, King Rene (left) and Queen Jeanne (right).
This is an altar built by Audinet Stéphani for the Aygosi family. It used to be in a Carmelite church that burned down in the French Revolution so it was moved to the cathedral along with the altarpiece, above. You can see Saint Maurice in his coat of armor to the left of St. Anne, the mother of Mary.
I’m a fool for stained glass, and while I have no information, you can see that the window tells a story. Looks like maybe its the story of the female icons of the church, complete with a dog symbolizing loyalty.
End of the Day
At the end of every day in the south of France, we leave tired, happy and full of new memories. We take photographs of the parking garage and the cross streets where we left our car earlier in the day so we can find our way back. This may be the most important tip I give you in my blog! Simply pop your ticket into the machine located somewhere near an entrance to the garage and pay with your credit card. Your ticket will be validated and you can insert it into a second widow-height machine as you drive out of the garage.
Have a great day in Aix-en-Provence. Just eat somewhere else.
First you drive an hour east of Amsterdam past green fields and creamy cows, sharp industrial parks, and ever-changing speed zones. You arrive in the dense Hoge Veluwe National Park and abruptly stop at a gate with a small tourist booth. Believe it or not, you’ve arrived at the second largest collection of Van Gogh paintings in the world: The Kroller-Muller Museum.
The gate keeper explains that you are in a national park and that while your Museum Kaart gives you free admission to the museum, you have to pay 9 Euros for admission to the park (the museum is in the middle of the park) and 6 Euros to drive into the park. You can save the parking fee by parking at the gate, borrowing one of the free white bicycles, and peddling four kilometers to the museum.
It turns out the 4-kilometer drive into the park follows a pretty but circular route through the forests with a stop at the museum. When you leave it’s only about 1/2-kilometer back to the main gate. So it’s an easy walk or peddle to the museum if you go backwards from the gate rather than follow the long, circuitous route prescribed.
The museum, itself, is sleek, a modernist’s dream nested into a rich, green sculpture garden.
The sculpture gardens are located behind the museum but you get a taste of the art as you approach the front door.
The inside of the museum is just as beautiful as the exterior with clean, fresh lines and – unusual for most museums – lots of seating.
The Potato Eaters, Vincent Van Gogh
These are a few of the paintings Van Gogh created as he studied the local field workers. He was interested in how they worked and how they moved but he did not fill in or closely detail many of their faces. He was more interested in the light, the color, the motion of the moment.
And here is Van Gogh’s masterpiece.
I know you are reading this because you are interested in Van Gogh – and there are more photos at the bottom of this blog. But so many other greats are featured at this museum! The best part of viewing paintings at the Kroller-Muller is that there are not hordes of people crowding around a tiny painting. You don’t feel pressured to move on after three seconds (think The Mona Lisa in the Louvre). You can almost smell the paint as you take a side-ways look at the artist’s brushstrokes and a guard doesn’t come running up to tsk-tsk you away. Visiting the Kroller-Muller is an extraordinarily delicious experience!
Here’s Georges Seurat’s La Chahut, a neo-impressionist artwork that Seurat created using the pointillist technique of painting with tens of thousands of dots of paint. Close up you might only see pink or green but at a distance, the colors blend and you’ll see brown. This painting was a huge hit when it was introduced in Paris in 1890. It led the way for new art movements such as my daughter Christie’s favorites, the Fauves.
Here are close-ups of two sections of this painting. See what I mean about getting close without being rushed?
Many more impressionist artists are also represented at the museum. Here are a few of the paintings that attracted me such as this painting by Renoir of the Clown John Prince. Renoir was commissioned to paint this full length portrait by the owners of the cafe at the Circus d’Hiver in Paris.
Camille Pissaro, whose work is below, is the artist who encouraged Van Gogh to paint with more color and to paint more freely. Pissaro was fascinated with the interplay of light and color, according to information provided by the Kroller-Muller Museum.
As promised, here are more Van Gogh’s.
Van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo, “You know Jeannin has the peony and Quost has the hollyhock, but I am in a way the one who has the sunflower.” (Taken from the wall of the The Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, the Netherlands.)
The beautiful floral arrangements throughout the museum made this museum even more delightful. Here are a few snaps:
Make the trip to the Kroller-Muller Museum. It’s well worth the visit and a great break from the frenzy of Amsterdam. There are easy bus and train connections and the drive is interesting.
This has nothing to do with this visit to the Kroller-Muller, but you must watch this trailer for the upcoming movie Loving Vincent, just because it is such an original. Breakthru Films has taught 100 painters to paint in the style of Vincent for the movie. Cannot wait! Read more about the world’s first fully painted film here.
There’s also an interesting video about Van Gogh’s life here from 1Media if you’d like to know more about Vincent’s life.