Friday, February 22, 2008
Arrival in Arles
120 years ago this week, Vincent van Gogh left his brother Theo and Paris life behind to head south, arriving in Arles on 20 February 1888. He'd had enough of Paris, of bickering artists and cold weather, and he worried about his health. Why he picked Arles we still don't know, but that's where he got off the train, and that's where he stayed until May 1889. He was disappointed to arrive in a freak snowfall and chilly weather but saw the beauty of the landscape just the same -- the landscape and the women too, as he commented to Theo in his second letter from Arles ("the women here are beautiful, no humbug about that"). Once the snow melted and the orchards started to bloom, Vincent spent day after day painting canvases of almond and peach trees (pictured: a blossoming peach tree painted in honor of Dutch artist Anton Mauve and sent to his wife).
Arriving in Arles today is a different experience. World War II bombings took their toll on the area around the train station, so you don't see the same things Vincent saw in your first moments. Last summer, my first stop was the tourist office at the train station, where I asked in my American-taught-by-a-Parisian-accented French if I needed to take a bus or taxi to my hotel in the centre de ville. The kind mademoiselle responded in her lilting Southern accent that I should walk, it was easy and not far. I set off from the station, backpack on back, wheeling my bag. Down the street to the end of the block, looking around to get my bearings, I realized I was standing a few feet away from the site of the yellow house. My first little prickle of recognition! With high spirits I crossed the Place Lamartine through the old medieval gateway and continued in search of my hotel. "The brothel district was over there," I thought, "Vincent's first lodgings were on this street"--I was mapping 1888 Arles in my head the whole way. Then I learned "easy walk" is a relative term: Arles is not flat, and my hotel was on the other side of the hill hosting the Roman amphitheater. I got some looks from the locals, amused at the pasty-skinned redheaded gal huffing and puffing her way to the Hotel Le Cloitre. (The population of pasty-skinned redheads has not exactly grown since 1888.) Like Vincent must have felt, I too was overwhelmed at this new place, the new people, and all the thoughts zooming through my head. At least it wasn't snowing!
The Hotel Le Cloitre, by the way, is a delightful place to stay in Arles. The owners are friendly and hospitable, the building is a charmingly renovated thirteenth-century structure that used to be part of the Saint-Trophime monastery complex, and the location can't be beat. Because I was staying a while, Madame gave me a room on the top floor with a lovely view to the Saint-Trophime belltower and into the cloister. The bells marked time for me as I drifted from 2007 to 1888 and back again.