Today is our last touring day in France. We will visit Van Gogh’s Arles, an olive farm, and see an artist’s light show that is touring internationally in its birthplace. Normally we would take the morning tour and pack in the afternoon, but this time I was really intrigued by the optional afternoon tour so we are adding that one.
This is also our last day with Jeanette as a tour guide (after a day off yesterday). They are offering a “gentle walkers” group and Boris is going to do that, but he is fine with me going with Jeanette instead. Boris and I rode in the same bus to Arles. One of the city’s claims to fame is Van Gogh’s tribute to the city in more than 200 paintings. The city also boasts some wonderful Roman Ruins. We will tour the ancient, the medieval, and the modern in a city behind gates that date from the 13th century.
As we left the bus and made our way toward the city, we immediately noticed signs that pinpoint the vantage points Van Gogh used to paint some of this most famous works. With a marker and a picture of the painting, you can see the current state of these “landmarks”. Before even passing through the city walls, we stopped at a marker along the river.
Entering through a break in the city walls, we spotted a mural adorning a building in the middle of the city’s first major intersection. A local artist had offered the mural to the city, but was refused. When the strategically positioned building came on the market, the artist’s son purchased the building and installed the mural making sure all that entered saw his father’s work and “thumbing his nose” at the city fathers who had refused the gift.
Coming to a popular square, Jeanette pointed out that many of the cities in France are strongly aligned with certain political parties, but that the affiliation varies widely even among nearby towns. Arles’ Communist Party dominated signage on this square. The city’s popular and highly progressive mayor was affiliated with the party, although he was currently not in office.
Leaving the square, we walked down an unassuming street that dead-ended at a magnificent arena, reminiscent of the Colosseum in Rome. The gates were closed, but tours are available. The structure is still used; during this time of year bull flights are held in the arena. There are a variety of competitions. One is a coming-of-age ritual where young men jump over the length of the bull. Jeanette had witnessed it and said it was very exciting. There are also “fight to the death” competitions. Interestingly, Van Gogh had painted the arena, but not the picturesque columns or the interior of the structure. His painting was of the crowds entering the arena through one of the many openings.
Rounding a corner, we found the ruins of a Roman theater that was set up with modern lighting and sound and used for concerts. The seating was intact, as well as some of the columns and stage. There were also pieces of ruins scattered in the surrounding lawn. We ran into Boris’ tour group. It was small and he felt like he was getting a lot of personal interaction with an excellent guide. The cruise director said they were doing fewer and fewer days with the “gentle walking” groups. I asked if it was because of an increase in the “go active” type touring and she said it was really about the availability of guides to lead the gentle walking groups.
Walking through the city, we saw Roman ruins incorporated into many of the local buildings. The government buildings and arches were architectural marvels when you consider when they were constructed. I love the simple preservation of the ancient, medieval, and 17th, 18th, and 19th century construction. On one square we saw a pair of wonderful, intact Roman columns. The owners on each side argued that the set belonged to them. The dispute was settled when the governing body stepped in and awarded one to each owner. Arles is a beautiful city and rich in history and legend.
We came upon the Hotel Dieu. If you have been reading the posts in this series, you already know that these facilities were in most cities in France and were where medical services were provided to the poor. Arles’ Hotel Dieu is where Van Gogh went after he cut off his ear and he spent many months there recovering and painting. The hospital’s courtyard was a subject of one of his more famous paintings and they have made an effort to preserve the look as it was in Van Gogh’s time.
What a wonderful city to people watch, roam around and look for the perspective of Van Gogh paintings, explore Roman ruins, or just enjoy the architecture. There was lots of fabulous shopping available in Arles and you could see the group become excited about our free time. Some of the shops even had those old medal signs used to describe the business in the days before most of the citizens were able to read. From the “picture signs” they knew what kind of business it was.
It was also market day in Arles, so with a warning to stay on the lookout for pickpockets we were encouraged to take a look there as well. European town markets are always a treat to visit whether you are on the lookout for quality items, local food specialties, cheap goods, or just people watching. I once had a bag go missing in Italy and I stocked up on cheap clothing at a local market to fill in until my bag arrived. Most of those items have long since “moved on” but I have one blouse I rediscovered recently and have worn several times this summer.
We ended the formal tour at the city’s gorgeous main square, Place de la République, and I started my break time just sitting at the wonderful fountain that graced the middle of the square. It was another hot day. Temperatures reached 105 degrees Fahrenheit (41 degrees Celsius), a record high for the city. At one point there was a man standing very close to me. I couldn’t figure out what he was doing until I realized there was a fresh water spout next to me. Several dogs enjoyed the water too.
I had hoped Boris might turn up, but I never spotted him on the square. I was going to talk him into taking me to a café. While I sat, I enjoyed watching a young man teach a young boy how to skate board. I was never sure if it was a formal or informal lesson, but the boy improved while I was watching. After a while I got tired of waiting for Boris so I headed off in the direction of the market. I wasn’t into cheap goods or food products I couldn’t take home the next day, so I didn’t stay long.
I did run into Boris who was just leaving a café and was headed to the market. He wasn’t interested in sitting down again, so I went shopping at a Christian Lacroix store instead. The café would have been cheaper for Boris. The shop owner is a friend of Christian Lacroix’s wife. Arles is his home; he was also born here. The French designer is now 70, but he is still working. This is his only shop in France and it sells his original designs. I had fun picking out a special scarf.
Boris and I caught up with one another again on the square. After the tour groups walked out of the city and to the buses together, we went back to ship to cool off and have lunch before our afternoon tour. Unfortunately, we probably will not have any time to pack before the next tour. The great news was that our COVID test results were waiting for us when we got back to the room. We were both negative.
After lunch, we set out on our last excursion of the trip. It was another hot day, so I skipped the shopping in Avignon again. We are ending the day at an olive farm, but our first stop is near the medieval village of Les Baux de Provence in the heart of the Alpilles mountain range in France. We are here to see Carrieres de Lumieres, literally “Quarries of Lights” in English. This is total immersion through a multimedia show of pictures set to music. The projections cover the surfaces of the limestone rock and even the ground of this former quarry.
The facility opened its doors in 2012 with Gauguin – Van Gogh, painters of colour. That year there were 239,000 visitors. Today the the visitor count has risen to 770,000 annually. The parking lots were full and there was a queue to get in. They have now produced several different shows and the presentations travel internationally. The Van Gogh show will be at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston where I live this fall.
The current productions are Cezanne, The Master of Provence and Kandinsky, The Odyssey of Abstraction. Jeanette’s presentation on Cezanne earlier this week really enhanced the experience for me. These two shows through January 2, 2022. There is a longer (about 40 minutes) primary show, followed by a second shorter presentation. The ticket covers both presentations. You can see both in just over an hour (although if I was on my own, I would have stayed for a second round). There is very limited seating around the perimeter. At this time, everyone must wear a mask and you must show proof of vaccination or recent negative test results.
The production surfaces rise 23 feet (7000 mm) from floor to ceiling. The music is also not to be discounted and adds immensely to the quality and enjoyment of the production. “In 2017, [the producer] and the Commune des Baux received the ‘Thea Awards’, a prize awarded by an international committee: the Carrières de Lumières was awarded the prize for the best immersive production.” Culturespaces: Culture for Everyone.
I loved it and it met with universal approval among the guests on our excursion. Of course, it made me want to make reservations for the Van Gogh presentation in Houston. However, it was very special to have seen a presentation of the birthplace of these multimedia productions. I highly recommend a trip out to the quarry and catching these presentations in your own hometown when they come to visit.
The final segment to our afternoon touring was a visit to a local olive farm. The farm and the production facility have been in the same family for ten generations. The current owner only has two daughters, but they run the production with precision and their olive oil has won international prizes. The grandfather was very upset when the girls were put in charge, but after they won the prize, he was the one to step in front of the camera when the television crews arrived to interview the winners.
The grandfather was also thrilled when one of the great-grandchildren was a boy. Each time a child is born in the family, 100 new olive trees are planted. When his great-grandson was born, he planted 700.
After touring the production facilities, we sat out under the trees and enjoyed local Rose wine and sampled olives and olive spreads. Afterwards, we stopped in their giftshop and purchased some jars and olive cookies to take home.
Just a fabulous day and a wonderful way to end our river cruise through Burgundy and Provence. Safe travels to you all. –Natasha