Take me to Arles, Provence’s hottest city

by Anthony.Peregrine

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.

Day one

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.

Day two

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.

Anthony.Peregrine

For generations, the rich, noble and celebrated among English-speaking peoples have had their foot-holds in the South of France. In 1988, I was among a subsequent wave of the poor, common and unknown. I arrived as a freelance journalist, working for the wine and food press, then the travel pages of the Sunday Times  and Daily Telegraph. None of these materially altered my condition but, frankly, I'd had no choice in the move. My French wife had insisted. She loved England and, more particularly, Lancashire – where we lived. Still does. But, after a few years, she’d forgotten what the sun looked like. “That’s acceptable in November, not in August,” she said.

So we left in search of heat, and found a lot more besides. Space, for a start. (France is two and a quarter times the size of the UK, for roughly the same population). And crystal-clear light. Long meals, longer beaches and a lifting of restraints. The kids could play outside pretty much all the time, and we, too, felt freer.

Of course, the French authorities can be as meddlesome as any but, as I discovered, French people will only put up with so much. On a micro-level, they insist on being left alone. Heaven knows what a British local council would make of the bulls which charge through our village streets at festival times. Or the mountain roads where barriers are placed, at best, whimsically. Or the summer friskiness for which certain remoter beaches are famed. There are busybodies in France but they get less of a hearing than in health-and-safety-crazed nations.

Felicity Kendall

Over two decades of reporting from the country, this is something I have come to appreciate quite as much as I appreciate grandeur of the mountains or of the beauty of a sunset over the sea. I also admire the French respect for their past, its protagonists and the sites which history has left. This can get out of hand; sometimes it seems that every wall more than 20 years old has a preservation order. But both landscape and the nation are deeper for it.

In Provence – even amid the glitz of the Côte-d’Azur – you’re never far from a reminder that man has been on this land for millennia. It’s a great sub-plot to pleasure-seeking. Talking of which … sometimes, the finest pleasures are the simplest. A good day for me would involve a decent walk in the hills or along the coastal path, followed by a early-evening dip in the sea. Then on to town for dinner on a warm evening terrace. We might later take in other terraces for a night-cap or two, safe in the knowledge that we shall not be inconvenienced by excitable youths falling into flower tubs, showing their bottoms or vomiting upon us.

By and large, Southern French cities remain the preserve of everyone – grandparents, strolling couples, kids – until well past the time that I want to go to bed. It’s the Latin way, and quite a surprise after Friday nights in Lancashire.

There are elements of France which drive me nuts. (Only innate decency stops me mowing down French civil servants whenever I’m called upon to deal with them.)

And there are aspects of Britain I miss – Sandwich Spread, Felicity Kendall, Preston North End and, not least, the newspapers. No paper in France has the variety, depth, wit and colour of the Sunday Times or Daily Telegraph, to pluck two examples at random. (By an astonishing coincidence, also the two I tend to write for.) The stilted tedium of most French papers tells us a lot about public life in France, but you’ll not want to hear that. What you want to hear is that France in general, and Provence-Côte-d’Azur in particular, are terrific places. As they are. I’ve been roaming all over them for 20 years and wish I’d started earlier.

I would return to GB only if Felcity Kendall beckoned me back to play for PNE, a jar of Sandwich Spread in her hand. And even then it’s not certain.

My Provence

Where I get a coffee: To do it for me, a French café needs to be a French café and not a lounge bar. It needs the scrape of metal chairs on a wooden floor, blokes at the bar talking horses over mid-morning beers and photos of an amateur soccer team c. 1974 on the wall. It’s an extension of the street by other means; local life must flow through. No point in picking out a particular favourite. They’re all over the south of France, usually called Café du Commerce, Café des Sports or Chez Juju. Coffee’s much cheaper too, especially if you stand at the counter.

Favourite stroll: Tempting to say that the best walk is wherever you happen to park the car; it’s hard not to have an uplifting amble on this outstanding coast. But a real favourite? Well, if you can tackle the coastal path from St-Tropez village round the peninsular via the Rabiou headland and not feel the world is a better place, I’ll be surprised. You’ll have deserved Tahiti beach by the time you arrive, mind: it’s a tidy trek.

Literature for inspiration: The most perceptive account of Provence remains James Pope-Hennessy’s 1952 classic, Aspects Of Provence. The much more recent Seeking Provence by Nicholas Woodsworth comes pretty close, though neither really touch on the Côte-d’Azur.

The best coverage of the Côte that I know is Robert Kanigel’s High Season In Nice. It has its faults but gets the story told eventually. Fiction-wise, you shouldn’t miss Marcel Pagnol. His My Father’s Glory and subsequent My Mother’s Castle may be soft-filtered but they’re mighty heart-warming. For grittier coverage of Marseille, I turn to the crime novels of Jean-Claude Izzo. One Helluva Mess is a stirring place to start.

Breathtaking view: Just open your eyes pretty much anywhere: this coast was created by the Almighty to show what he could do when he really tried. The panoramas from the top of Castle Hill or Mont Boron in Nice, or from Notre-Dame de la Garde in Marseille are the ones I expect to see when I’m ushered through the Pearly Gates myself.

Peace & quiet: Head out of Cannes, along the Esterel corniche towards St Raphaël. The land grows wild. Red porphyry rocks drop direct to the Med. Tales of the over-development of the Riviera suddenly seem absurd. Here, humanity hangs on where it can. Stop when possible: there’ll be a little-populated creek below and, behind the Esterel mountains. I’ve walked this untamed, savage massif in July and met no-one. You’d never guess you were 30 minutes from a cornetto.

Shopaholics: Bad question for me. I hate shopping more than I hate folk-dancing, and that’s saying something. Except if it’s for food, and except if there’s a market on. You may leave me among the North African uproar of Marseille’s Capucin market, or the sensual promise of the Provençal stalls on St Tropez’s Place-des-Lices for as long as it takes food-lust to overcome me completely.

Soundtrack: There’s a lot of rap from Marseille and Italianate balladeering further along the coast. But a quiet southern mood is best accompanied, I reckon, by jazz-crooner Henri Salvador. The music isn’t specifically Provençal but has a gentle sipping-in-the-shade vibe that’s quite irresistible. Try the Chambre Avec Vue album, recorded in 2000 when old Henri was 83. (He checked out finally in 2008, still performing.) The man is a legend in France. Even in the unlikely event that you don’t like the album, say you do: this will enhance your popularity immeasurably.

Favourite place for regional food: I have a soft spot for the Voyageur Nissart in Nice (19 Rue Alsace-Lorraine, 0493 821960). It’s not hip, star-rated or impressive to look at. And it’s in an indeterminate district, not far from the station.

All it has going for it is an outstandingly friendly welcome (the young owner speaks English better than I do) and the best traditional Niçois food at prices significantly lower than you’ll pay in the Old Town and other busier tourist zones. Fifteen euros sees you fed admirably. I discovered the restaurant only recently. Now it’s my Nice staple.

Don’t leave without…glancing at the gardens: The Côte-d’Azur has horticulture like Venice has canals. It’s a distinguishing feature. Our green-fingered British forebears started gardening down here in the 19th-century – it’s what noble residents did back then – and locals have taken up the trowel with gusto. Pick of the lot is, I’d say, the Domaine du Rayol at Rayol-Canadel (between St Tropez and Hyères, www.domainedurayol.com). Staggering steeply to the sea, the 48-acres are coated in flora from every region of the world sharing a Med climate. It’s a wonder-world. I took my garden-crazed wife there last year – and had to return two months later to find her.

Sport: Along the coast, one may take part in every sea-related activity known to man, short of whaling. But there are times when only a big, professional sporting event will do. For soccer, I go to Marseille and the Vélodrome – the only stadium in France which generates an atmosphere comparable to that at Anfield or the Emirates. For rugby, it has to be Toulon – where our own Jonny (known locally, if oddly, as “Sir Wilkinson”) has punted standards up-field with panache.

Where to be seen this winter: As Sigourney Weaver said recently, real A-listers never go where A-listers are supposed to go, because they only get mobbed and fawned over. I’d suggest you follow this advice. The best place to be seen this winter is, then, wherever you actually want to be. It’s even better if you’re with a loved one – and don’t care a toss whether you’re seen or not.