Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Day 2: Doing the Van Go-Go

It was day 2 in Marseille and the word around the hostel was that the lavender fields were no more. It was towards the end of the season and some fields had already been plucked of their little purple bounty. I could not find anything online to confirm or deny this and the hostel staff was exceptionally useless so I figured I would head in the general direction of the fields and investigate.

I was planning on going that way anyways. After at least a dozen visits to Amsterdam's Van Gogh museum, I wanted to go to Arles and see the city that (along with a healthy dose of absinthe) inspired such frenzied creativity.  If I could pair the visit with a ride out to the scenery found on every single Provence postcard, that much the better.

The aforementioned useless hostel staff had told me that the r/t  train ticket would be around 25 euro. For anyone that has the misfortune of staying at the same hostel, let me tell you about the "zone ticket".  A helpful counter lady at the train station was the one that told me about the regional passes that allow you to ride as many trains as you like within a certain area for 7 euro per day.   Provence was mine for the riding.

I got to Arles before the tourist office opened so I just started roaming through its compact town center.

It wasn't long before I stumbled across my first Van Gogh spot.  I was standing in the courtyard of the hospital where Vincent landed after he somehow became estranged from his own ear.  The common wisdom is that, in a fit of madness, he chopped off his ear and presented it, in the manner of a cat offering up a mangled rodent, to a local prostitute. There is however a new theory. It is known that the night of the "incident", he and Paul Gauguin, his house guest and possible lovah, had gotten completely wasted and gotten into an argument, which may have turned physical. After the spat, Gauguin vanishes, never to see Vincent again.  There is a subsequent letter from VVG to PG saying something along the lines of "Don't stress it.  This is our little secret and I will never tell anyone what happened." And he doesn't, although he does drop plenty of hints to his brother, Theo.  He writes that "nobody has seen me commit my crime, and nothing can prevent me from inventing a story which would hide the truth" and that  "it's lucky Gauguin doesn't have a machine gun or other firearms". Gauguin, who (smoking gun alert) was an avid fencer later contacts Vincent and asks to get his mask and gloves back.  Oddly enough, there was no sword to go with it, prompting the speculation that the weapon most likely ended up in the river.

Regardless of how it happened, it is certain that he stayed in this hospital and even did a painting of the courtyard. It is believed that he was happy and well cared for there. As with most of the Van Gogh sites, there is now a sign explaining the location's connection with its former resident.

There is now an entire Van Gogh economy that has developed with visitors, such as myself, coming to Arles to follow in his footsteps.  It is easy to believe that he was a beloved son and revered member of the community but this is not exactly the case.  Shortly after the ear incident, the people of Arles took up a petition essentially asking the city to kindly get rid of this mad Dutchman.  After his stay, he gifted some of the hospital staff with paintings.  One poor employee brought his home only to be told by his wife "Hell no, you are not hanging that lunatic's painting in my house" and to emphasize the point, she took the canvas and turned it into a gate for her chicken coop.  It was not until many decades later that historians discovered the destroyed artwork, most likely prompting the descendants of the chicken lady into a new depth of familiar loathing.

Eventually I did make it to the tourist information office, where I received two things.  1) A French booklet and map of all the Van Gogh sites, highlighting both my lack of direction and how grossly I had overestimated my French skills.  And 2) the news that the lavender was all but gone.  The little that remained was no longer very purple so any road trips I took would, at best, result in nothing more than fragrant weeds.

Disappointing as the lavender news was, it still was thrilling to stand in the same places where Vincent created some of his most famous works.  The yellow cafe?  I had a glass of wine there.

The Trinquetaille Bridge?  I met a hot guy while trying to find a good angle from where to photograph...and found there was no such locale.

It was easy to see, coming from the rainy Netherlands, how he became enamored of this sunny, welcoming (well, maybe not to him) city.

One of the locations that would have surely been a booming cafe and souvenir stand were it still around has gone the way of the lavender fields.  Vincent's little yellow house, now near the train station, did not survive WWII and now all that remains is one of the ubiquitous signs.

Armed with my regional pass and not yet Van Gogh'ed out, I decided to continue in his wake and go to Saint Remy en Provence, home to the St Paul de Mausole Asylum, where he was admitted as a mental patient, post- citizen's petition.

As in Arles, the Van Gogh connection gets plenty of play and with good reason.  This was one of the most prolific periods in his life.

The asylum itself is still in operation, with patients and tourists sharing the hallways.

While he was a patient, the asylum was not very full so he had his bedroom and then in another room, he was able to set up a studio.  The garden, which he could see through his window, was a favorite subject.

Nearby are Roman ruins, which would seem a perfect subject for an art piece but the lack of signs indicates that he preferred to concentrate on nature and his beloved cyprus trees.

Since his focus had been on the landscape, there are not as many actual recognizable "sights" or structures in St. Remy but it is still very much the quintessential southern French town and well worth a visit.  As was the Van Gogh museum where I returned  once again,  as soon as I got back home to Amsterdam,  now armed with a new appreciation for what he had experienced.  I now could relate to the sights and smells of Provence...particularly the scent of fucking lavender.

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