ARLES, France — I had read somewhere that there was a reproduction of Vincent van Gogh’s iconic bedroom in Arles, the town where he spent his most productive years. As it turns out, it doesn’t pay to have just read something somewhere and expect it to be so. The room had been a temporary exhibit and is no longer there, and the house where Vincent lived was destroyed in WWII — neither of which I knew before setting out.
But there are worse ways to be disappointed than a pleasant day trip in the south of France. Arles is about a six-hour drive Southwest from our base in the Midi-Pyrenees and the drive through the mountains offered beautiful scenery and one man-made attraction — the Millau Viaduct, a cable-stayed bridge that spans the gorge the Tarn River. It is the tallest bridge in the world, with one mast being 1,125 feet above the valley floor. Designed by English architect Sir Norman Foster and French engineer Michel Virlogeux it is breathtaking, and even on calm days there are wisps of clouds floating by — but don’t look down.
Once we got to Arles, we once again found the difficulty of relying too heavily on GPS. We put in the address for the Van Gogh Museum and drove down increasingly narrow streets before getting stuck. After a bit of shifting and dodging, we managed to turn around and find a parking space from where we could walk.
This is an important car travel tip, and one I should have remembered from our trip to Santiago, Spain, a couple of years ago. The GPS will invariably guide you to the door. That does not, in any way, mean there is a navigable street by the door. I would like to think that next time I’ll remember that — although, honestly, that’s unlikely.
Walking through the town, alongside the river, one gets the feeling it has not changed much since Vincent’s day. The houses are terraced and wind around twisty streets and alleys. I am a sucker fro roof tops, balconies and shutters, as a cursory glimpse through my slideshows will prove, and Arles has plenty of architectural charm.
The museum houses only a few Van Gogh paintings, recognizable to fans of the artist but not among the “rock stars.” Even so, the 1888 “Self Portrait” is superb, and is a welcome addition to the series (through which one can see van Gogh’s shifting states), and the face on “Head of a Peasant Woman With White Cap,” from 1885, articulates the wear and tear of working life.
“Blossoming Chestnut Branches,” from 1890, is a masterful example of the vitality and life that van Gogh was able to infuse into his still lifes. “Two Peasant Women Digging in Filed With Snow,” 1890, is a magnificent observation of ordinary folk. In his hands, the ordinary is elevated to be something worthy of a place in a museum.
A big surprise was the Alice Neel retrospective (which I will write about later). It seemed an odd combination, but made the museum visit something of a highlight.
On the way back, there was time for an obligatory sunflowers photo (not as easy as you’d think, even though the fields were full, as the flowers had turned their backs on the road and required a bit of finagling to get the effect).
Then it was a quick drive by to dip toes in the Mediterranean before heading home.
Overall, not the van Gogh pilgrimage we expected, but what we found was well worth the drive.