An afternoon ride in a furnace that was a regional train sans climatisation, fuelled by the warmth of the Mediterranean midsummer, through the picturesque Rhône valley bathed in the gold and violet of sunflowers and lavender, much like the Provençal landscapes of Cézanne, wasn’t an ideal prelude to a much anticipated visit to the city that was for a while, home to the post impressionist artist, who in the words of Don McLean, this world was never meant for one as beautiful as. The sweaty half an hour’s ride to Arles, from Avignon, was soon consigned to memory as soon as the short walk that took us from the train station provided us with the sight of the magnificent and well preserved Roman amphitheatre, the Arènes d’Arles.
Arles, a charming city in the French region of Provence, was established in the 6th Century BC by the Greeks, is a city that is well known for a famous inhabitant, Vincent van Gogh, who while as residing there in 1888, infamously cut part of his left ear off, in an incident involving another well-known short-term resident, a fellow post-impressionist and good friend, Paul Gaugain.
Images of Arles and Provence as captured by van Gogh, together with the words of the beautiful song “Vincent”, revolving around van Gogh’s life in Provence, had always filled my imagination. The swirling sky over Saint-Rémy depicted in the painting “The Starry Night”, the subject matter for Don McLean’s first and most well known line of the song written in tribute to van Gogh, and another painting “Starry Night over the Rhône” , as well as several paintings he completed when in Arles, including one of his chair and his bedroom in Arles, and the night scene of a cafe in “The Café Terrace on the Place du Forum, Arles, at Night“ had for a long time driven my desire to visit Arles, and finally, here I was, standing on the very streets that van Gogh had walked on…
Arriving at the bottom of the steps leading up to the Arena, we discovered why there seemed to be a scurry of fellow tourists towards the Arena, which was built in the 1st Century A.D. On offer at the arena was the summer’s regular midweek fare of bulls and Raseteurs. In the Camargue, unlike neighbouring Spain, bulls are not killed, and the objective is for the bullfighter or Raseteur, to snatch three attributes from the head of a young bull, relying on his agility to avoid being gored by the bull.
Entering the magnificent Arena, the running of the bulls and Raseteurs was a wonderful spectacle of charging and jumping magnificent black Camargue Bulls in their prime, and agile Raseteurs dressed in white, in a sandy ring bounded by a red fence. Its hard to imagine being in a structure built some 2000 years ago, sitting right where as much as 20,000 people would gather, to be entertained by Gladiators and wild animals in combat, as well as perhaps the public executions that were known to be held in Roman amphitheatres.
A pleasant two hour stroll in the evening after leaving the Arena took us through the narrow streets of Arles. It was not difficult to imagine why van Gogh would had taken to the city, which he had described as being exotic and filthy. Soon it was time to go … at least by then, the coolness of the evening made the ride back to Avignon a nice way to soak in the landscapes that inspired van Gogh, along the way.