Thursday, 16 August 2012

Day 8 - Arles

This was a day of frustration, especially since it was one of the highlighted days on our itinerary before arriving in France. This was the day we went to Arles, the scene of much of Vincent van Gogh's torment and also the scene of much of his triumphal and most brilliant work. For Sue and I, this was akin to a visit to Mecca.

That being the case, the morning visit to the Moulin de Mas de Barres olive plantation and mill was interesting but wasn't high on our priority list for the day. Next, we drove to Les Baux-de-Provence, another of walled village located high up on a hill for defence. There were the usual hilly cobbled streets, cramped with easy opportunities for tourists to spend and many cafes and places to eat. In the main, these places are quite reasonable and we again found a very good lunch (plat de jour), consisting of main course, desert and cafe for 15 Euro each. I was chuffed I was able to order the entire lunch in French ... well enough for the waiter to understand!

Before lunch, we had entered the Chateau Les Baux-de-Provence and watched a very funny pantomime, entirely in French but so well done we understood it completely.

Finally, we drove on to Arles ... but to almost complete anticlimax. Clearly, arriving at a place which had given rise to some of the greatest paintings in the history of the civilised world, was not enough to extend beyond a cursory explanation. Vincent was described as suffering from "manic depression" - a now outmoded term - and the basics of the story were all that were offered. We were set down with 90 minutes to walk the old town. Sue and I had requested guidance to any site of significance and even then, the best instructions came from a local. We eventually found a site, Espace van Gogh, without knowing what we were looking for, only to discover that it was the scene of Vincent's "Hospital Ward at Arles" - a painting of the garden at the centre of the a courtyard in the hospital where he was treated for his madness. We stood in the spot from which he painted ... the very spot. His vibrations were so strong I couldn't hold back tears. I seldom can when I I think on "how he suffered for his sanity" or how "he tried to make them see".

It was a moment of great connection.

Armed with a map after the event, it appeared to us that Arles was a place where a local guide could have been well employed for an hour and a short tour of significant places examined and discussed. The settings for "The Night Cafe", "The Yellow House" and Starry Night" are all here, among others. One less shopping stop wouldn't have been a bad thing.

On our way to rendezvous with the coach, we stopped into the Aussie bar, which was festooned in all things Australia, including car number plates and road signs. The barman was French, their was no Australian beer and there wasn't three old blokes sitting at the end of the bar discussing what ails the country. By walking in, we became the only justification for the bar's name.

We returned to Nimes by mid afternoon. After the near disappointment of Arles, we decided to take a quick spin around the town, that being our first chance to do so in a packed program. Fair enough, as we had chosen the program extensions, but again, planning to bring a tour group to such a historic town as Nimes and giving the town only a 15 minute walking tour, was a shortfall in the planning. Regardless, Sue and I and a fellow tourist, Charla, set off on foot for the Nimes Arena and a roman temple.

The Arena (Colosseum) was built in Nimes in 70 AD and later used as a fortified dependable centre of the town. In the 1860, it was converted into a bull ring, where fights are still held. A number of rock bands have recorded video clips in and around the Arena, including Dire Straits and Ramstein. Francois Truffault shot a move there in the 1950's.

Its very well preserved, with restoration work on going. I was left admiring the building prowess of the original architects, but found the current use of the building distressing.

The evening was spent with a crowd in the back courtyard of our hotel for a night of jazz from a touring band. The tapas food, it was generally and loudly agreed, was insufficient to be called a meal but the red wine flowed and several woke worse for wear but glad of the experience. Tour members broke down last remaining barriers and let several remaining layers of hair down, Rapunzel like and found fun in due course.

We retired after shouting our fellow travelers. It had been a big day.

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