For months I had been talking about planning a trip to Provence in July, as I wanted to see the lavender in bloom. After consulting how to get to the lavender fields, I determined it wasn’t really conducive to a weekend trip (it’s a little over three hours by train to Arles). As such, I thought I might embark upon my first mid-week excursion without Jim (and of course go back if I thought he’d like it). Thinking it’d be more fun with a friend, I invited Alice to join me. The bonus of this trip was that we planned it while both our husbands would be in Colorado for work. That way neither of us were sitting at home alone and were, instead, out exploring France!
We ended up planning a four day trip with a base in Arles and day trips out to Gordes/Abbey Notre Dame de Senanque (lavender), Pont du Gard, and the Côtes du Rhône wine road. We left on Monday morning and arrived at the Arles train station a little after 1pm, 100 percent hot and hungry. I’d wager it was almost in the mid 90s by noon, and the trek to our hotels looked to be about a 30 minute walk, so we opted to stop for some lunch of “bull” steak (a local specialty). If I’m honest, this was probably the closest steak to a filet mignon I’ve had since we moved to France – I gobbled it up and was ready to fight the sun and uneven sidewalks.
Alice’s hotel was close to the tourist office, while mine was another 10 minute walk from there. On our way we passed through the Porte de la Cavalerie (sort of the city gate) and onward down Rue Voltaire until we came to the steps of L’Amphitheatre (les arenas). In hindsight, I discovered this walk takes you through the former red light district (which Vincent Van Gogh liked to frequent). Let me just say this is quite impressive and what struck me (and doesn’t really seem to translate in the photos below) was how white the arena was and what fantastic condition it seemed to be in. Also, how incredibly interesting it was to just happen upon such a work of architecture on display.
We each retreated to our hotels to freshen up and decided we’d tackle the first half of the Van Gogh easel tour (you see, Van Gogh lived in Arles and painted more than 200 some odd paintings here) before our Bull Race at the Arena at 5:30pm.
I’d read about the Van Gogh Easel tour in Rick Steves book we have on France. There’s a map, explanations of each painting (sort of), and a self-guided tour you can take. Alice had said we’d have an adventure and would laugh a lot…and the laughing started as we attempted to find these first few easels. I suppose I can’t blame all of the difficulty on Rick (though I’d like to), but these easels were NOT easy to find, even with a map and the etchings in the sidewalk. Regardless, our first find was the Trinquetaille Bridge. I took photos of the easels and the present day for most of these, but I somehow lost this real-life one. It looks mostly the same.
Our second stop on the easel tour was the Cafe at Night easel (above). This is probably the most well-known (at least to me) easel that we came across. Today, the cafe is something like Cafe Van Gogh in Place du Forum, and it does look relatively similar with many of the decorative pieces still there today. Similar to the first easel, we circled this place twice before seeing it. Rick Steves does, however, have some interesting blurbs, and I’ll share this one with you guys, as well (below). Kinda gives that painting a whole new meaning. I had no idea he’d been at that exact cafe the night he cut off his ear. Pretty interesting and wild.
“In October, lonely Vincent – who dreamed of making Arles a magnet for fellow artists – persuaded his friend Paul Gauguin to come. He decorated Gauguin’s room with several humble canvases of sunflowers, knowing that Gauguin had admired a similar painting he’d done in Paris. Their plan was for Gauguin to be the “dean” of a new art school in Arles, and Vincent its instructor-in-chief. At first, the two got along well. They spent days side by side, rendering the same subject in their two distinct styles. At night they hit the bars and brothels. Van Gogh’s well-known Cafe at Night captures the glow of an absinthe buzz at Cafe la Nuit on Place du Forum. After two months together, the two artists clashed over art and personality differences. The night of December 23, they were drinking absinthe at the cafe when Vincent suddenly went ballistic. He threw his glass at Gauguin. Gauguin left. Walking through Place Victor Hugo, Gauguin heard footsteps behind him and turned to see Vincent coming at him, brandishing a razor. Gauguin quickly fled town. The local paper reported what happened next: ‘At 11:30pm, Vincent Van Gogh, painter from Holland, appeared at the brothel at no. 1, asked for Rachel, and gave her his cut-off earlobe, saying, ‘Treasure this precious object.’ Then he vanished.’ He woke up the next morning at home with his head wrapped in a bloody towel and his earlobe missing.”
Place du Forum is also a pretty square – we found some delightfully lovely houses and restaurants bustling at all hours of the day. I returned there at night, and it was just as busy.
Next on our easel tour was the Arena Easel, which happened to be where we were headed next, anyway. We circled the Arena at least twice, only finding the easel on our way out from the bull race. For this one, I am blaming Rick Steves, but there are some really pretty houses to be seen around there, so it ended up being nice, all the same.
The easel itself was actually on this side of the arena (below) and is of the inside. As such, I’m pairing it with some of the photos from the Bull Race we attended that evening.
Now, you might be wondering, what is a bull race, exactly? Well, from what we could tell, it’s an event where a number of young men (in white) compete to remove some sort of sash/ribbon around the horns of the bulls (more specifics here). It was hard to tell if they were keeping score (I think they were) and/or which young man seemed to be doing the best job. While they had some impressive acrobatics (they could scale that red wall and up to the white wall behind it in a single stride), the bulls were the real stars. They’re smaller than the bulls I saw in Pamplona and the bulls you see in imagery for bull fighting. Alice and I decided (no idea if this is true) that these might be teenaged bulls, but they’re probably just a specific breed for this. I want to say there were maybe six bulls that were brought into the ring over the course of an hour or hour and a half. The first bull we saw jumped that red “fence” within the first few minutes. I found this a little alarming (as did most of the crowd); however, after we got to the third bull, we noticed that they ALL were jumping over the red fence and also that they seemed to know exactly where to go when they were done. Seems these bulls are trained well to participate (sort of like a circus, I guess). My favorite bull (I think the 5th out of six) was an AMAZING jumper. He was able to scale the red wall and land on all four feet. Really, it was pretty remarkable.
An interesting sidenote – this bull race was also the spot of my first, ever, real celebrity sighting. That’s right – I saw Natalie Portman at this bull race. I’m not really one for celebrity sightings so much as I’m pretty good with faces. I saw her with another woman (and her baby) at the steps, looking for the rest of her party when I nudged Alice, “Do you think that’s Natalie Portman? I think it is.” Alice wasn’t quite convinced so I continued, “I think her husband is French and she used to live in Paris, so it could be her.” Then she walked right past us and sat maybe 10 feet away. The women next to us starting taking her picture and then Portman began to protest then declared the race to be “terrible” or “horrible” and left. Not sure what I expected, but it was interesting. I will say, though, I think if she’d stayed until the end, she wouldn’t have felt it to be so barbaric. Those bulls were insanely impressive.
Following the bull race, we grabbed some crepes, which were tasty and retreated for the night, after crossing one more easel off our list: Jardin d’Ete. I wish we’d been able to stay a little longer to browse around in this park, but were were shuffled out as it was closing time.
I have to admit, though, I stayed out a little later and enjoyed some gelato while relaxing in the Place de la Republique, sitting on the steps of L’eglise de Saint-Trophime (all below). This spot is also close to the Town Hall/City Hall, where we could’ve gone on a tour for the Cryptoportiques, but it didn’t have great reviews (it was dark), though the premise seems cool.
The next morning we walked through the city to pick up our rental car for our first day trip to Gordes and the Abbey Notre Dame de Senanque. But returned in late afternoon for some additional Arles explorations. We dined (I’ve forgotten the restaurant) at a tasty seafood place (razor clams, mussels to DIE for, sashimi tuna, and oysters galore).
This is when we picked up our Easel tour with a walk back toward the train station to catch: the Starry Night over the Rhone and The Yellow House. We followed the sidewalk placards along the river and still managed to struggle to find the Starry Night Over the Rhone (in Rick’s defense, we didn’t have the book with us this time). I don’t think we ever found the Starry Night Over the Rhone (I don’t have a photo of it), which is kind of a bummer (though it wasn’t dark enough to recreate it, anyway), but we were able to find The Yellow House (where Vincent stayed, which is no more – it was destroyed in 1944 by the war). Interestingly, that spot where we had lunch on our first day just happens to be the place that was built where the Yellow House once was (what luck!).
On our third day, we took another day trip to Pont du Gard and a Cotes du Rhone wine tour drive, returning (again) to Arles for dinner, where we had made a reservation at Le Gibolin the night before. If you are planning to be in Arles, we cannot recommend this delicious spot enough. Alice had an artichoke starter, lamb main, and tiramisu for dessert while I had a zucchini blossom chilled soup, Osso buco, and a chocolate cake. Both were paired with the tastiest white wine (unfortunately, only our entree received a pairing). I would EASILY go back there again and again.
Arles is a magical little city, and I’m glad we decided to make it our home base during the trip, even if the easel tour was a bit of a bust (though as I typed this up, I enjoyed all the history with each piece) the city makes up for with impeccable Roman ruins. I never would’ve dreamed so many key pieces would be standing in France as what I had seen in Rome. Truly outstanding. If you’re looking for a quaint/lazy spot, we cannot recommend this enough. More on the rest of our trip to come…