Salut! (Hi!) This Carte Postale (postcard) comes to you from Arles, famous for an intact Roman Coliseum and a trove of Roman statues, mysteriously dumped in the Rhone river in ancient times and recovered in 2007. It was also the setting for several of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings including some from his famous “Starry Night” series.
Our visit was out of season, so there were no fields of lavender or sunflowers as we followed the Rhone River up from the Med. (Here is a pretty view of the river!) However, the bright spring colors were cheery. Charming villages perched on the bluffs of the Alpilles mountains. (This was the first that we saw.) Only locals sat in the cafés and there was the feeling that Provence was on vacation now that the bulk of the tourists had gone.
It was early evening when we reached the fabulous B&B near Beaucaire (official site link). (speaker alert – this site may play music.) We asked the owner for directions to Arles. He shook his head at our folly, saying, “It is dirty and falling apart. That town is run by communists!” Half an hour later, we drove straight into the heart of the city. Tiny, unlit streets threaded through medieval buildings. Cars were parked end-to-end and by the time we’d found a parking place, it was dusk.
In the fading light, we saw that we were by the river. Happily, we stood by the bank and thought about the bustle of Roman trading ships and the mystery of why the statues had been dumped in the river so long ago. Van Gogh painted one of the starry night paintings here in 1888. Imagine the Big Dipper blazing in a dark blue sky high above the River Rhone. The gas lamps of Arles glow like bonfires and are reflected in streams across the water. In the foreground, a couple walk arm in arm. (Here is an informative site about the starry night series with pictures including the one over the Rhone. ) We considered the narrow beams of modern traffic across the river and the clouds that covered the night sky. It wasn’t quite what he had seen.
Eventually, we followed some people who looked like they knew where they were going. They led us to “The Forum” a busy square filled with restaurants, bars, and hotels. In the bright illumination of the square, we could see that the architecture was quite pretty. All we had to do was ignore the electric lighting and it was easy to imagine Van Gogh setting up his easel near the Hotel du Forum. Here, he had captured the elusive feeling of a star-filled Provençal night sky over a vibrant street filled with the sound of happy revelers. We walked around and read the menu boards.
Then we saw it. A bright yellow restaurant called “Le Café la Nuit”: – the same name as the famous painting. Just in case anyone had missed the connection, the words “Café Van Gogh” had been painted on the wall. For good measure, “Vincent Van Gogh” was written above each entrance and on the awning.
Yes, this was the café – where yellow sulfur lamps had once created a cozy golden glow on the awning all overhung with a brilliant star-filled sky. But no jovial locals dined casually at small randomly placed marble-topped tables. The terrace was corded off and sterile. Evenly spaced square tables were set up to hold the maximum number of chairs possible. The soul of the place had fled. Other restaurants around the square were packed and lively, yet the café terrace was empty. After a moment, a waitress came out and entreated us to come inside. Sadly, when we read the menu board we saw that they weren’t catering for us either.
A few doors down, we found a superb modern restaurant bar. Lively music and tempting aromas spilled out into the plaza. The food was great and we enjoyed listening to the local young people having fun.
In 1888, Vincent Van Gogh certainly added color to the nightlife. He had more than one outrageous fight in this square. The regretful incident of self-mutilation happened nearby. At the request of the townsfolk, the artist was asked to leave.
After our meal, we walked back to the car and found the street in total darkness. A crisp, strong wind began to whistle and roar down the river. Magnificent! The Mistral wind had pushed away the clouds. Overhead, the night sky sparkled with bright, shimmering stars. Although the pink and green colors that Vincent saw eluded our eyes, we knew that we’d found our own “nuit etoilé” (starry night).
The next morning we drove away and the sun dappled trees lining the country lane created an impressionist’s dream. Vincent left Arles for Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. We decided that we would do the same. A la prochaine! (Until the next time), R & J Salley