and les Alpilles
The Alpilles are part of a chain of limestone pinnacles
and rocky formations which boldly thrust up from the
plains of Provence. They are intersected by gorges
and gullies with gaping holes weathered out of the
rock in weird shapes. Round the base are olive trees
and forests of cypresses and pines. Higher up little
stunted oaks grow through the white flaky rocks and
outcrops of wild herbs and spiky juniper grow in the
This is Van Gogh country and there is no better way
to picture this landscape than to look at his paintings
which are full of twisted old olive trees, wild swirls of
vegetation and rolling hillsides climbing up into the
sky to stand like puppets beckoning to each other.
St Rémy de Provence
St Rémy de Provence sits at the base of the
Alpilles. It is a delightful small town which takes
great pride in its celebrated former residents, none
more so than the great painter.
Van Gogh arrived in St Rémy in May 1889 after a short period in nearby
Arles. In the year he spent there, in the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausolée,
he painted some of his wildest and most colourful masterpieces. The light
and the beauty of the countryside were his inspiration and he was happy
here, completing nearly 150 paintings and drawings.
You can go on tours of his painting spots, comparing today's landscapes
with the painted interpretations, and be surprised how much the
environment seems to be the same. There are olives, cypresses, cornfields
and, of course iris and sunflowers. The great plane trees that line the
streets of St Remy are even more gnarled and still spill shade over the
pavements. The olive groves and spiky mountains have not changed in a
century or more. The gardens of the asylum could have been painted
Another celebrated personage who was born here was Nostradamus, the
Jewish-French physician, who specialised in studies concerning the plague,
but was also a mathematician, astrologer and, later in life a writer. The
house in which he was born in 1503 still stands in the town. Among his
writings was a highly popular cookbook, called the "Treatise on Cosmetics
and Conserves". He also wrote about astrology and prophesy and it was
these that brought him fame and fortune.
St Rémy makes a good base for exploring this part of Provence
and offers some excellent walking. But first of all you should
wander round St Rémy's maze of narrow streets especially on
market day when they really come to life. Our visit coincided
with a special market fair and all the streets were full of stalls
and throngs of people. On sale were copious quantities of
delicious fruit and vegetables, but also a huge range of olives,
oils, spices and cheeses. Here also were not just the usual
clothes and household goods found in the markets, but also
fabrics and tablecloths in colourful Provencal prints. Also
paintings, ceramics and other works of art, more than a few in
the style of Van Gogh.
Walking in the Alpilles
When you have exhausted the town there are the impressive Roman
ruins of Glanum to wander about in.
Originally a Celto-Ligurian sacred site, Glanum is now one of the most
important Roman excavations in France. In Roman times it was
located on the Via Domitia, leading from Italy to Spain. Excavation
began only in 1921 and there is still much to be unearthed. still, as
you walk today on the ancient paving stones of the old streets there
are ruins of bath-houses, a sacred spring, temples and ordinary
dwellings to explore.
Nearby are two huge ancient structures, the Arc de Triomphe and the
Mausolée des Jules, known collectively as "Les Antiques" . They are
so prominent in the landscape it seems strange that they never
featured in Van Gogh's paintings.
Finally it is time to pack a picnic and head up into the hills.
Here you are on the GR6 after it has crossed the Pont du Gard and
passed very close to the hustling tourist mecca of Les Baux and before
it becomes tangled up with all the trails that intersect in the Luberon. A
long distance walk could be investigated in this area but, if car based,
there are many little local trails to explore. These interact with the GR
and take in the local sites.
The local tourist office can provide booklets of many short walks in the
area. One of the trails we took was easy but magnificent. It first passed
the ochre quarry that Van Gogh painted, then cut through through forests
and went up into the hills overlooking the town to reach the feature that
we like to call the "Deux Troux", because they are in fact the holes in the
mountain peaks seen clearly in the painting, "The Olive Trees".
This is an undemanding walk along little roads, passing by other Van
Gogh sites before striking out into the tough scrub and emerging, as it
were, in the middle of the painting. We had a picnic sitting on a bed of
wild thyme which, when crushed filled the air with its smell. We looked
down through one of the holes at the town and the Roman ruins. Life
doesn't get much better.
From St Rémy you can also visit Arles and indulge in another swag of
Van Gogh memories.
Provencal prints and designs
The markets in St Rémy and all the provencal towns are ablaze with
the brilliant fabrics we readily associate with Provence. Their
provenance is somewhat surprising and goes back to the days of
exploration and colonial trading in the 16th century.
The maritime exploration into the Indian Ocean, India and the Indies
saw the beginnings of importation of exotic luxuries to Europe. Very
quick to become popular in France were the brightly coloured
printed fabrics which came from India. These were, however, very
expensive and it wasn't long before a trade in cheaper imitations
from Turkey and Persia was taken up by traders in Marseilles.
Then by the mid 1600's local craftsmen in Marseilles and Avignon
were making a very competitive local product. Sensing a change in
taste and a threat to their former monopoly, traditional fabric
makers called for a prohibition. Though largely ineffective in the
south, this prohibition was not lifted till 1759. The fabrics became
more and more popular until eventually big business moved in,
stifling the small workshops, and commercially exploiting the now
well established Provencal tradition.
Throughout the world the colourful fabrics are now instantly
recognised as Provencal. The Indian origin is readily identified in the
traditional designs with tiny motifs and swirls of what we might call
a Paisley design cleverly worked into stripes and patterns. The
more modern designs combine olives, grapes, onions, oranges,
lemons, bees, cicadas and flowers with elements of the traditional
designs. These fabrics radiate sunshine and whoop with the vitality
of summers in the south of France. With even one or two in the
home you are continually transported back to Provence.
Van Gogh's "Mountains at St Remy". Our "deux troux" are in the centre
Van Gogh's "The Road Menders"
The same trees line the street today
Glanum. Roman ruins in a Provencal setting
Van Gogh's "Olive Trees with Alpilles in the Background"
The "deux troux" are visible on the left.
View from one of the "troux"
Provencal landscape seen from Les Baux