“Elle était comme ça!” said my new-found friend Cécile, holding her thumb up to indicate that the person she was talking about was of the very best sort.
The lady she was talking about was none other than Jeanne Calment – officially the oldest human being that ever lived. She made it to the incredible age of 122 before she finally succumbed to her inevitable death in 1997. Calment’s father ran a textile shop where, as a child, she served Vincent Van Gogh. Cécile had looked after Calment in her final years at the hospital in Arles and she confirmed to me that, yes she did smoke a cigarette every day and yes, it was equally true that she drank a glass of port every day too until she was 115 at least.
We had arrived in the UNESCO World Heritage City of Arles with three boys and two adults that needed feeding and had ended up opting for the La Dolce Vita pizzeria, just off the central wedge-shaped square of Place Voltaire and within the walls of the citadel of this gem of a city.
Having started our meal on the terrace outside (where we ran into a nice couple from Dublin on holiday with their four-year-old son), we had had to retreat indoors from the mosquitoes.“Bienvenus à la Camargue!” the landlady said, shaking her head at the nuisance factor of the notoriously nasty mosquitoes of the region as she cleared a table for us.
The Camargue is the area immediately to the south of Arles; beginning at the point where the River Rhône splits into two to form the Rhône Delta. Much of the large triangular area of marshland in between consists of the Camargue Natural Regional Park – a mysterious land where the Camargue bull, flocks of pink flamingos and herds of wild white horses roam free. This French-style Wild West even has its own cowboys, known as gardiens.
Arles is associated very strongly with Vincent Van Gogh and, though now departed from this world 120 years, the troubled artist still draws millions of visitors to Arles and to nearby St-Rémy-de-Provence to feel his ever-present spirit in timeless surroundings.
Van Gogh had brought us here too. Inspired largely by my wife (a Van Gogh devotee of impressive dedication), we drove along typically twisty and tree-lined Provençal roads from our base in St Rémy 20km away to visit the principal points on the Van Gogh Trail of Arles.
The town’s tourist office provides a map of the Trail, taking you to ten points in and around the city that are depicted in some of the artist’s most famous paintings. Van Gogh spent just 15 months in between Arles and St Rémy but it was an intensely productive period for him during which he produced an estimated 300 paintings and drawings.While some of the sights look rather different today (the famous “yellow house” in which he stayed, for example, is long demolished, having suffered bomb damage during WWII), most are almost exactly as they were when Van Gogh painted them: they include Starry Night Over the Rhone, Les Arènes (the Roman Amphitheatre) and the Langlois Bridge just outside of Arles, which looks just as he painted it in 1888.
The Café in the Night is still there. The best way to get to it, we found, was to look for it after the sun goes down with a general and vague idea of where it is. That way, you’ll get just a little bit lost and end up wandering around the charming narrow streets of Arles that seem slightly haunted with history but buzzing with activity. Arles has been in important city for over 2,000 years. It’s something of a political hotbed and its healthy-looking inhabitants have a general air of expressive friendliness and welcoming curiosity.
When you finally come upon it by following the brown signposts and/or asking directions, the effect is stunning. The whole Place du Forum and the café itself looks pretty much exactly as it did when Van Gogh was here, knocking back absinthe and getting into scraps with Paul Gauguin.
We simply had to take our picture in front of it, next to the informative plaque, before sitting at the terrace and ordering a couple of beers and three ice-creams. The current owners seem to be highly disdainful in their attitude towards their customers. Maybe they’re keeping up a tradition by treating every tourist as if they were the returned spirit of a troublesome penniless Dutchman from 1889. It threatened to take somewhat from the experience, but it’s impossible not to be charmed by the atmosphere and prettiness of your surroundings as you sit at the terrace of the Café in the Night watching the world go by on the elegant Place des Forums, whose twinkling turn-of-the-century fairy lights make you feel like you’re in an impressionist painting
The rest of the centre of Arles is neatly contained in a triangular area that’s easy to get around and defined by the Rhone to the west and the Boulevards Clemenceau, des Lices and Emile Colombes to the south and east, with the impressive entrance towers to the old city on the north end of this triangle. You can easily see the main sights of the city in an afternoon.The Roman remains are particularly impressive. Its well preserved Roman Amphitheatre (Les Arènes) is a superb monument worth the trip to Arles in its own right and is located close to the smaller Roman Theatre. During the summer months, there are Gladiator contests here twice a week that offer a blood-and-dust flavour of Ancient Rome and at Easter and early Autumn during Féria time, there are the more serious bullfighting contests. Most of them don’t involve putting the bull to death, so if you do find yourself in Arles during bullfighting season but don’t fancy watching a bull get bumped off, check beforehand that the bullfight isn’t a Mise à Mort.
The walls of the Dolce Vita are adorned with dramatic photos of local heroes facing up to two-tonne bulls. Bullfighters around here are treated like inter-county GAA stars and are known as razeteurs.
I asked Jean-Louis – another in the group of locals that we had befriended and seemingly an expert on bullfighting – how people in the Camargue region could live such long healthy lives, especially living cheek-to-jowl with such notorious mosquitoes.
He shrugged his shoulders and said that, although he couldn’t speak for everyone, he himself had grown completely tolerant of the insects. Someone else in the group then piped up:
“It’s the tourists – we love having tourists here because they attack them and leave us alone!”
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Getting There: Aer Lingus fly direct from Dublin to Marseille three times per week (summer only).
Where to Stay: We stayed at Le Castelet des Alpilles, 6 Place Mireille, 13210 Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France. Tel +33 4.90.92.07.21, www.castelet-alpilles.com – a three-star boutique hotel approximately 25km from Arles centre.
Arles comprehensives multilingual tourism site (www.tourisme.ville-arles.fr) gives a list of all accommodation for the town. Two of the most popular are the Hôtel du Forum (opposite the Café in the Night) and Le Boatel; a floating hotel located on a canal in the city centre.
When to go: Easter or early September
What to See: Everything on the Van Gogh Trail; a bullfight or gladiator contest in the Roman Amphitheatre; A tour of the nature reserve of the Camargue with Arles 360˚ on +33 22.214.171.124.91 or visit www.marais-viguirat.reserves-naturelles.org.
What to Buy: Fresh Provencal lavender from the outdoor market on Boulevard des Lices every Wednesday and Saturday
What to Avoid: Any period when the Mistral (the infamous persistent wind that blows up sometimes for days in the region) is blowing.