Van Gogh, cowboys and Julius Caesar are among the cast in the hot-blooded spectacle which is Arles. So are beautiful women. Join them any time in a town where the tempo stays up all year round
If I say “Arles” to you, you will, at a guess, reply “Van Gogh”. Most people do. The place has the Dutchman as its pin-up, and no wonder. In the 15 months he spent in town in 1888/9, Van Gogh knocked out some 300 works, many of his finest among them. He gave the Southern French city a world-class calling card.
So it’s normal to be excited. I was, and especially so to be seated outside the Café Van Gogh. This is the very one depicted in Café Terrace At Night. It’s still there, on the Place du Forum, and now painted yellow, to make it look more like it does in the picture (whose yellowness came from the gas lighting).
So, because I could think of nothing else to say, I asked a really stupid tourist’s question. “What did Van Gogh drink when he came here?”
“The painter, you mean?” replied the waiter.
“No,” I said, “The plumber.” He didn’t catch that.
“No idea, Monsieur. I don’t know much about him.”
Of course he didn’t. Van Gogh might be the name which brings outsiders in, but it’s not what keeps insiders going. Arles has a life – several thousand lives, really – and has had since Julius Caesar (“The general, you mean?”) used the place as a base against Pompey. It’s got cowboys in from the Camargue, bullfights and the loveliest feminine folk dress anywhere, festivals, food, drink and the Gipsy Kings strumming somewhere nearby.
The tiniest possible streets struggle to contain exuberance, then chuck you out before one of the finest Roman arenas. Van Gogh is just part of the mix – and wasn’t, in truth, very popular first time around.
He might have been re-defining art but locals weren’t impressed. They thought him crackers. They berated him as a “fou roux” (“Red-haired madman”) and, after the ear-lopping episode, circulated a petition to have him locked up.
Then again, all this – the force and frenzy of the artist and the reactions provoked – simply fuels an endemic boisterousness. Arles is, without doubt, the most full-blooded town in Provence. Southern life pumps through its streets all year round, so the heat stays up even when the temperature goes down. It makes for a cracking any-time short break, all do-able on foot. Here’s how.
Start at the Place-de-la-République, before the 12th-century façade of the St-Trophime basilica. The spell-binding Last Judgement frieze has good people looking smug on the left while, on the right, the bad ones conga off naked to damnation. The magnificent cloisters next door afford peace enough for consideration of one’s own life choices.
These should include a short stroll to the Place-du-Forum, the city’s central stage. It’s coated with café terraces, tables and that southern sense that you can loll elegantly and take your time, until it’s time not to, when you must bustle and shout. At one end, the Hotel Nord-Pinus used to host Picasso and still handles bullfighters.
Now squeeze yourself into the Rue-des-Arènes which will squeeze you out before the Roman arena. This is a soar-away stunner, part of the townscape for 2000 years. Blokes in togas saw it just as you’re seeing it. Well, not quite – then it had three levels of arcades, not two, and was covered in marble – but I warrant you’ll lap it up, transfixed.
And, naturally, it maintains the tradition of blood-sports from the great, classical days of live entertainment. Arles’ arena is a HQ of bull-fighting as Old Trafford is of soccer. (In nearby shops, you can buy a suit of lights, if you’ve got a tight-enough bum and no sense of the absurd.) I’m not a fan. The last corrida I saw here was a duff abattoir show. But the arena is best seen in action, so go for one of the courses camarguaises – bull-running games in which the bull runs out alive. These open a window on the French cowboy culture which rides into town from the Camargue flatlands beyond. Here, men are men and women wear chaps and they all gallop through the streets during festivals, generally accompanied by bulls.
You might now ignore entry to the nearby Roman theatre. There’s not much left and you can see that through the railings. Then totter down through the park to the broad Boulevard des Lices which hems the old centre with bars and bistros. Start planning the evening, with an aperitif here and dinner, perhaps, back in the centre at one of the restaurants on the tight Rue Docteur Fanton. Le 16 (0490 937736, from £21) or La Paillotte (N°28; 0490 963315, from £20) are good options, both full of Provençal food, and life.
A brisk walk to the north of the centre and the Place Lamartine. Just off it, along Avenue Stalingrad, stood the Yellow House where Van Gogh lived, and fell out with Gauguin. The house was bombed to smithereens during the last war. A bank now occupies the site – though a reproduction of the artist’s Maison Jaune stands nearby.
As does the quay from which Van Gogh painted Starry Night Over the Rhône, with candles attached to his hat for illumination. Slow down for a moment here, for it is rather moving - though if you can get Don McLean’s ditty out of your head, then you’re a better man than I. Continue along the river, which remains grandiose, through somehow muted. It’s more an edge to the city than a focus, bordered by little houses and streets full of family life. Until you get to the Musée Réattu, which you might like to bob into for the Picasso drawings … given to the town by old Pablo in thanks for the bullfights he’d enjoyed there.
At some stage, you may happen upon Place Paul Doumer. (These sinuous old streets, off the tourist radar, are a serious tangle.) If you do, you’ll find a tree-clad square nicely supplied with spots for a cheap lunch.
Now trek on to the Musée d’Arles Antique. It’s quite a walk and, generally, only for fans of classical stones, amphorae, sarcophagi and similar. Recently, however, archaeologists have been digging in the Rhône bed and come up with lots of stuff – including a bust of Caesar which was apparently done from life. It doesn’t do him any favours: he’s lined and careworn, like a Division Two football manager just knocked out of the Carling Cup. But it should be seen, alongside a wealth of other finds. They’re on show at the Musée through to September 2010.
And so, back to the centre and the Espace Van Gogh on Place Dr Félix Rey. Arcaded on two levels round a central garden, this was the hospital to which Van Gogh was committed when his mental turbulence got truly out of hand. Now, inevitably, it’s a cultural centre but it’s been restored - arcades, gardens, colours and all – to how it looked in Le Jardin de la Maison de Santé, one of Van Gogh’s most vibrant Arles works. It’s glorious and tranquil. It would be more so if a guided party of 40 Americans weren’t all loudly agreeing how tranquil it was.
You might later pop into the Museon Arlaten, Rue de la République, an old-fashioned folk museum where the lady attendants all wear Arlaten dress. The long skirts, high-necked blouses and scarves make plain women look lovely and pretty ones exquisite.
Now your time’s your own, for further roaming or sitting, sipping and watching the simmering sunlit spectacle that is Arles saunter past. This evening you might dine amid the beams and exposed stones of La Gueule du Loup tucked away at 39, Rue-des-Arènes (0490 969669, from £27). Or on the titchy Rue Porte-de-Laure. At N°27, Lou Caleu (0490 497177, www.restaurant-lou-caleu.com) feeds you copiously on traditional civets and pots-au-feu, from £22.
End the evening with a drink on the Place-du-Forum, along with everyone else available. Oh, and as I should have remembered, Van Gogh drank absinthe.
Where to stay
The Grand Hotel Nord-Pinus (Place du Forum; doubles from £146) is an Arles institution, its Provençal town-house style suitable for artists, matadors and others of a raffish disposition. Tighter budgets might try the Hotel de l'Amphitheatre (5-7 rue Diderot; doubles from £59). It’s bang central, and swisher than two stars suggest.