Tortured artist Vincent Van Gogh died in this month back in 1890. For the last year and a half of his life, he left Paris in search of light and peace, following a trail that had already been worn by other artists.
Today, that trail is still being followed by discerning tourists curious to see what had attracted him all those years ago and to capture some of the magic of the legend of this painter, whose work is today amongst the most sought-after of all the impressionist painters.
It was to the city of Arles in the South of France that Van Gogh came in early 1888. He was so inspired by the light and space that he found down here that his output increased exponentially. Consequently, there are few places around Arles that he didn’t paint and the local tourist office has a marked out Van Gogh Trail, complete with informational panels in front of a selection of the more well-known painting locations.
The majestic banks of the Rhone and the point from where he painted Starry Starry Night are certainly worth seeing, as is the perfectly restored Bridge at Langlois on the outskirts of town. But the highlight has to be the Café in the Night at the beautiful Place du Forum. This dinky little square amidst the warren of narrow streets in the heart of the old city is a place worth visiting at night for its timeless charm alone.
The famous café has been maintained to look very much as it did when Van Gogh was quaffing back the absinthes there. You can still have a drink to his memory, although the current owners have no crisis of conscience about charging you handsomely for the pleasure while treating you with as much disdain as they can muster.
Saint-Rémy-de-Provence is about 20km away. A much smaller settlement, it’s a gem of a Provençal town in its own right – an old countryside market town which was also based on an original Roman settlement; it has a neatly laid out town centre with centuries-old plane trees liberally sprinkled for the shelter they provide from the southern sun.
Van Gogh used to travel out from Arles to paint here, finding great inspiration in the countryside, the cypress trees, the farm labourers and the Alpilles hills that overlook the town to the south. As in Arles, there is a marked trail of the many parts that he painted – much of it still looking like it did in his day. You can visit the former mental asylum to where he checked himself in after cutting off part of his ear. The building and his room within look just as they did when he painted its many views, whether looking out at the afore-mentioned Alpilles or on the walled gardens out the back.
Only 30km north of the centre of Paris, the hilly and idyllic location of Auvers-sur-Oise is entirely unexpected amidst the flat landscape just off the A16 motorway. The immediate impression of the town is a special one. Its lush green setting and timeless charm makes it feels like a secret imparted to you on the proviso that you’ll leave the place just as you found it.
Auvers was home to a whole host of artists during the heyday of the impressionist movement towards the end of the 19th century and into the earlier part of the 20th century. These included such notables as Pissarro and Paul Cézanne, but Van Gogh was the one who truly left his indelible mark on the town.
It doesn’t take long to find traces of the Dutch painter: As you cross over the River Oise and follow the steeply-climbing Rue de Paris, you’re confronted with the sight of Auvers-sur-Oise’s main Catholic church. Anyone familiar with Van Gogh’s titular painting will get an immediate rush of recognition as the building emerges through the mature trees.
Just down the street from the church, at the intersection of Rue Daubigny and Rue de la Sansonne, there is a pedestrian staircase, which will also be recognisable from his painting Stairway at Auvers. Continuing another 100m or so, you come to the ticket office and rear entrance to Auberge Ravoux. It was here, in Room No. 5, that Vincent spent the last 70 days of his life. He was still painting at an impressive rate, churning out an average of one painting per day during his time here.
The entrance to the museum is on the first floor, while downstairs, the café is still receiving paying guests for meals. There are temporary exhibitions on display on a constant basis, displaying the works of locally-based artists in a town that has welcomed so many in the past. Vincent’s room has been kept exactly as it was when he died there on July 29th, 1890.
If you retrace your steps back to the church and continue another kilometre out to the northern edge of the village, you’ll find Vincent Van Gogh’s final resting place in the town cemetery. Opposite, by the cemetery car park and still untouched by developers, is the field he depicted in the lonely and haunting Wheat Field with Crows. It was here in this field that he shot himself in the chest with a revolver.
The grave itself is a little way up on the left after you enter the cemetery’s main gate. The simple gravestone states “Ici Repose (Here lies) Vincent Van Gogh – 1853 1890”. His brother Theo was buried next to him and both graves are carpeted with ivy. It was Vincent’s favourite plant and it was put there in the 1950s by the son of Van Gogh’s good friend and patron Dr Gachet.
Despite the despair and loneliness of his final days – of which you get a strong sense in Auvers – it is still as peaceful and alluring as Van Gogh evidently found it, added with the buzz today of the presence of reverentially fascinated tourists.
In any case, Van Gogh did have a sense that his work would, one day, be appreciated, as this quote from one of his many letters to his brother shows: “If I am worth something later, I am also worth it now, as wheat is wheat, even if town-dwellers at the beginning believe it to be grass.”
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Aer Lingus (0818 365000; aerlingus.com) operate direct flights from Dublin to Marseille three times per week during summer months. Fares start at around €63 each way including taxes and charges. Ryanair (0818 303030); ryanair.com)fly direct from Dublin to Marseilles twice weekly during summer months, with fares currently starting at around €83 each way including taxes and charges. Aer Lingus have regular flights from Cork, Shannon and Dublin to Paris, while Ryanair flies daily from Dublin to Beauvais.
In Arles, the Hotel du Forum (www.hotelduforum.com) is located right opposite the Café in the Night. Staff are friendly and you can cool down in the swimming pool in the garden. Basic double room rates start at €80. If you’re staying in St-Rémy, try the Hôtel Castelet des Alpilles (www.castelet-alpilles.com). Wonderfully atmospheric setting close to the former asylum, near cypress trees and with a view of the Alpilles. Rooms from €72. In Auvers-sur-Oise, the Hostellerie du Nord (www.hostelleriedunord.fr) is steeped in impressionist history and is bang in the centre of town. Rooms start at €99.
Arles is an exceptionally pleasant small city to wander in at any time of year. Check out the superb Roman theatre and the famous Roman-era Arena. If you’re there during Spring or Autumn, you might even catch a bullfight, Camargue-style. St-Rémy and Auvers are both places to wander and soak up the timeless atmosphere.
Where to eat
Arles is blessed with a great choice of places to eat out, with a southern French cuisine that’s infused with the scent of wild herbs of the region. The brasseries and pizzerias around Place Voltaire just inside the old city walls provide very reasonable eating, while the Bodeguita in the centre of the old town offers a tapas alternative. In Auvers, the Auberge Ravoux may not be the cheapest in town, but the food is traditional and very good and if you’ve come all this way to feel the presence of Van Gogh, you might as well go the whole hog and eat where he ate.
Where to shop
The outdoor markets in Arles every Saturday and Friday on Boulevard des Lices and Boulevard Georges Clémenceau are where you’ll find everything you need to remind you of your trip to Provence, be it lavender, soaps, fabrics or fruity Provencal wines. In Auvers-Sur-Oise, check out the local institution that is Le 23e Marché – a shop of art and literature where you can spend hours simply poring.