Van Gogh
and les Alpilles
The 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 damp spots.
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 yesterday.
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.
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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
Provencal Fabrics
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