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Desiring a City

A tour of Vincent Van Gogh sites in Arles

 Priscilla Jolly
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 Priscilla Jolly
Desiring a City
by Priscilla Jolly  FollowFollow
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Priscilla has just spent the last six months of her life teaching English in France. She loves cheese and cannot bear to part with all the...read more wonderful cheeses she's been eating ever since her arrival in France. She has also become a firm believer in the power of tea.
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Desiring a City
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I WANTED TO GO somewhere on my own before I turned twenty five, an effect of all the countless movies that I’ve seen or the books that I’ve read. The destination that I had in mind was Salamanca because I saw a black and white postcard somewhere and the sound of the name appealed to me (The other name that appealed to me was Damascus, which prompted some weird looks from people). I desire cities through their names; the sound of a name evokes a strange desire in me which I hope will be matched by a visit to the city.

After finding myself in a situation where I couldn’t even pay the rent for a month, I gave up my plans of an overseas travel and started thinking of other ideas. On one side my dad was suggesting that I go to Lourdes in Southwestern France, where the Virgin Mary is believed to have appeared and where Flannery O Connor took a dip in the healing waters. I haven’t been at peace with religion like the rest of my family, so I was a little uncomfortable with the idea.

I mulled over everything and it was perfect when a friend who lived in the South of France agreed to lend me her apartment for a few days. I wouldn’t go to Lourdes because it was still very far (like I told my father, who was disappointed) but I would go to Southern France primarily because of my fascination with Vincent Van Gogh.

I cannot tell you how or when my fascination with Van Gogh began; the moment eludes me- I don’t remember seeing a painting and losing myself in it or reading an anecdote about his life which makes one wonder about the kind of material that human souls are composed of. I can, however, tell you how my fascination deepened to an admiration which took me on a journey to Arles, a town in the South of France where Van Gogh arrived in 1888 with the intention of setting up a workshop for artists. 

Of course, I had seen endless reproductions of “Starry Night”, but it wasn’t until one of my professors walked into the class with a small print of the painting and told us how Van Gogh experienced the sky exactly as he had rendered it on canvas that I started thinking more about the artist. I came across a letter that he had written to his brother Theo and after reading it, a case of simple fascination developed into something else. [1]

In the first week of March, I came down from the North of France to the South, primarily to visit Arles. The South was different from the grey, rainy city that I had left behind. The day I chose to go to Arles was brilliant, with glorious sunshine. I could hardly contain my excitement as the train went past the coastal towns and the bluest of blue seas, grape vines planted in perfect rows and fruit trees laden with flowers very much like the series of paintings that Van Gogh did on the flowering orchards of the South. I even got to see an arc of a rainbow in front of the distant blue hills, swaddled by thick white clouds which rolled past the broad glass window.

My train dropped me in Arles at 10:15 in the morning. I stopped at the tourist information center, got a map of the city and paid a euro for a brochure that mapped out all the walking routes in the city.

I was going to follow what was called the Van Gogh Trail, a walking route that included ten sites where Van Gogh painted during his time. Each site was marked with a commemorative sign board put up by the town. I had no idea where to start, so I began following the sign that said “Centre Ville”. Tracking down those sites where Van Gogh strived to transfer his dreams to canvas was going to be difficult because I’m terrible at reading maps and my sense of direction is even worse.

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I held the brochure with yellow numbers scattered over it, clenched it tight because of the wind. The act of holding a map seemed to bring some coherence into the exercise that I had undertaken, even though I didn’t know how to do it.

It took me a good while to find the first site; I went in circles around the ancient Roman arena in Arles until a woman in one of the souvenir shops that surrounded the ring told me that I had to take a road that radiated from the circle to get to the Place de Forum that I was looking for. I located the road on my map, and told myself maybe I can read a map after all. Once I stood in front of the night café, the starting point of the trail, I exclaimed to myself “Ha! I found it!”

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The café looked exactly like Van Gogh painted it, with a yellow façade, a pale green flames under “Café Vincent Van Gogh” painted over in an arc. The red velvet chairs inside were awaiting visitors when I went in. I ordered a coffee, drank it in large gulps while I laid my map and brochure side by side, marking the sites on the brochure to the corresponding location on the map.

The wind was so strong that it was impossible to walk with a bunch of papers; the huge map that the tourism office had given me proved to be difficult to manage.

I was on the road again, convinced that I was on the right road; what I didn’t realize that I was walking in the opposite direction. I went back when the receptionist at a medieval cloister which I encountered on the way pointed out my mistake.

This time I must have read the map right, because as promised I found myself near the Rhone. I walked by the Quai de la Roquette, huddling in to my coat collar to shelter myself from the wind. By the Trinquetaille Bridge, I found what I was looking for. 

Van Gogh wrote to Theo that he painted the bridge on a grey morning. I try to imagine him with his easel by the Rhone painting and the bridge and the people, but somehow I’m incapable of conceiving his image with a photographic quality; instead I picture him as he has drawn himself with a grey felt hat, with the brush strokes crowning his face, like thoughts racing the head, forming deep labyrinthine passages from which one cannot step out of.

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I continued along the river, looking for “Starry Night” over the Rhone. I found a boat named "Van Gogh by the quay, but no sign of the painting. I decided to bring in the local expertise and asked a man who was standing by a camper-van. He wanted to know the name of the painting before he answered any of my questions. He sees the name and asks me “Starry Night, that’s in the riight?” as though I were a crazed idiot to be looking for it in broad daylight. When I explained the situation he washed his hands of me, saying “Mademoiselle, I’m from Milan. I come here every year. For the last three years. But I have no idea what you’re talking about.” So much for local expertise.

I went back to the river. It was then that I saw two French girls coming towards me looking equally tortured by the wind as I was. I asked them and they said “Nous cherchons aussi.” They were looking for the same thing. We joined forces, battled the wind and marched on. One of the French girls eventually found the sign that we were looking for. We stood there, by the river, our hair flying all possible directions.

An unspoken agreement was made, I was to join them. It relieved me of my map reading; but I had underestimated how fun it was trying to find an actual place based on routes marked out a piece of paper, in spite my having gotten lost. Like many others I conceded to the charm of technology- one of my newfound trail companions had a smart phone. We found the next two stops on the trail easily.

The city had put yellow arrows on the road bearing a picture of the artist with a satchel. In order to find the sixth site, Le Vieux Moulin, we followed the “Van Gogh et Arles” arrows and found ourselves on a bridge. The girl with the smart phone was at a loss and wanted to consult the paper map. The three of us huddled together and opened the map up. We had to hold it down by the edges so that the wind did not take it away from us. After having checked the map, it proved even more difficult to fold it back-it tore along the folds as we tried to fold it to a manageable size. Finally the map folded on itself when the wind blew in the right direction and I took advantage of this, hastily stashed the map away in my coat pocket.

We went down the bridge, only to find another arrow at the foot of the bridge which said that we should go up. The three of us walked on different arms of a triangular intersection of roads looking; somewhere during all of this we lost one of the French girls. The two of us then went round the triangle in search of the missing one. We found her asking a passerby about the painting and he explained, putting an end to our frustration.

The sign that we were looking for had been there at the foot of the bridge. A vehicle had knocked it down a while back and the city hadn’t bothered to put another one. We crossed the road and right across the road was the old windmill, looking for which we had spent a good fifteen minutes like a dog trying to catch hold of its own tail.

 photo Entrance-to-the-Public-Park-in-Arles-1.jpg

For the next site we walked up and down, back and forth unable to find it. I remembered that at the receptionist at the cloister had told me that one of the paintings was inside the Roman necropolis. The historical site was closed for lunch, so we moved on to the next site- “The Entrance to the Public Garden in Arles”. In Van Gogh’s rendering of the garden, the trees on either side of the entrance appear bluish.

In one of his letters, he wrote to Theo that one day he had painted so much that he ran out of green and had to paint the last painting with Prussian blue and yellow instead of green. Was this the one, I wondered. Here I parted ways with the French girls because I couldn’t beat the idea of skipping a site. It being two in the afternoon, I knew that the gates would have opened after the lunch break.

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As expected the gates were open, I entered with my ticket. Van Gogh painted the avenue that one finds oneself in after entering the Alyscamps. The artist’s avenue is lined with poplars which look as though they are aflame. The Alyscamps is a Roman cemetery which developed around the roman town of Arelate. I was in an avenue with old tombs, though now they looked like mossy troughs. In his letters to Theo, Van Gogh speaks of two paintings that he did at the Alyscamps, alongside  Paul Gaugin who was staying with him.

The first is the poplar lined avenue and the second involves a closer depiction of the tombs and the yellowed tones of Autumn. Van Gogh wrote that the leaves kept falling like snowflakes.

After walking through the avenue, I faced the medieval church of Saint Honoratus, who used to be the Archbishop of Arles. Built in white stone, it wore its antiquity like a halo, that I had an urge to run my hands, to touch that which had withstood the onslaught of time. I stepped into the hall; at its far end there was an altar which looked crude and primitive in comparison to the altars overcrowded with candles and flowers back home.

A damp, musty, chalky smell permeated the atmosphere; it wasn’t disagreeable, I found the smell slightly perfumed. I stepped into another dark hall on my left; it felt like I had willingly stepped into a well in which darkness had congealed, frozen in time. I stood there, listening to my own breathing. I squinted when I came back outside into the bright sun.

I stopped for a bite to eat, because I badly wanted to sit somewhere. It was nearly three in the afternoon and I had two more sites to cover. I wolfed down my food in fifteen minutes and was on my way. It was then that the wind knocked the brochure out of my hands across the road, I didn’t turn back to retrieve it.

I followed the map faithfully and was able to find what is now called Espace Van Gogh organized around the hospital garden in Arles - my penultimate stop. Van Gogh was brought to the hospital after he sliced his ear off. I walked around the “Jardin de la Maison de Santé.”

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A middle-aged woman who ran a souvenir shop sold me a postcard reproduction of the painting and told me a little about the hospital when I asked her. The hospital, she informed me, was closed down in 1970 and now it’s been turned into a cultural space named after Van Gogh. She found it important to clarify that the hospital in Arles wasn’t an asylum for the insane; Van Gogh was taken to the one in Saint Rémy de Provence, she added. I stayed in the garden, looking at the vibrant yellow and purple flowers that had started to come out.

The tenth site took me a good thirty-forty minutes. I crossed the highway, took the path that went down on its left and was beside a canal just as the French couple who gave me directions had indicated. I walked on a white gravel path, flanked by leafless trees that seemed to rise like tall spires against the blue sky. As I walked I left the city behind, I walked beside occasional dog walkers and boats that doubled as houses.  In between I asked people about the bridge; everyone I asked seemed to say “encore plus loin”- further.

I was tired, my legs hurt and the bridge seemed more like an unattainable destination. Finally, two French men, sensing my tiredness and desperation told me that what I was looking for was just behind two boats that were obstructing the view. Crossing the boats, I saw the bridge from a distance and was unimpressed. I wanted a closer look- hence I walked further to the site where Van Gogh painted the Langlois Bridge. A wooden drawbridge held in place by thick rusty chain, the wood blackened over time. I stepped on the modern bridge, parallel to the ancient bridge and watched the water flow by. I plonked down on the stone steps next to the Van Gogh Bridge, my feet throbbing inside my sneakers. I sat there in the wind; the wind which made it seem like someone was pushing me from behind all the way to the bridge.

I cringed at the thought of walking all the way back, but it had to be done. While I trudged slowly, I thought of the Good Friday processions that my family made me attend when I was a child. Once everyone came out of the church, there would be a rush to get the small black crosses that had been stacked against the wall. I wasn’t interested in carrying one of those, but many a time one of my friends used to grab an extra cross and pass it on to me.

As the procession moved slowly on the road, basking in the afternoon, I wished that they would read faster the descriptions of the stations of cross, so that the procession would finish soon.

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I dragged myself to a bus stop where I found out that there was a free bus to the railway station; I waited beatifically for the bus to come. At the railway station I found out that in my zeal to get to all the sites I had missed all the direct trains. As I waited for my train to come, I thought of the painting "Avenue of Poplars in Autumn" that I had seen in Amsterdam. In the museum I had looked at the painting for so long that I felt I could walk into it and strike a conversation with the woman who was coming down.

I hadn’t gone to Lourdes or Salamanca or Damascus or any other city with a name that I desired; instead I had gone and walked the route in Arles, and would go home with a new name and a new desire - to return in order to taste the fruit of the orchards now in bloom, to pick olives in those shady olive groves and to drink wine made from the grapes ripened in the sun. When the evening neared its last hours, with the bare trees standing like tall sentries, silhouetted against a fiery orange that lit up the sky with the glow of a distant conflagration, I boarded my train. 

[1]http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let182/letter.html

 

 

 

 

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