Walking in the Steps of Van Gogh: Artists and Cowboys

This morning, May 19, we woke up to a beautiful sunny morning in the town of Arles. Our boat, the Swiss Emerald, was docked shoreside in Arles, with lovely views of the Rhône. This is the furthest south our boat trip will venture, and although it doesn’t seem like it, we are very close to the Mediterranean at the place where the Rhône splits into two smaller rivers, forming a giant estuary area known as the Camargue. This area is home to thousands of migrating waterfowl, such as flamingoes, and also the white horses and bulls tamed and domesticated by the Camargue cowboys.  Wow! There’s a lot to be seen and done here!

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Our walking tour of historical Arles ranged from the Roman Empire through the Middle Ages and into the late 19th century.  For starters, Arles was an important center of commerce and civilization even before the Roman Empire, but in 100 A.D., the Romans constructed an immense amphitheater and an arena and Roman baths. The amphitheater  is incredibly well-preserved, in Arles’ historic center. There is a very good museum on the Roman period in town, as well.

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Then, during the medieval period, the town expanded around the old amphitheater and arena site and amphitheater, and the city built on the walls which still stand. During that period, the lovely Romanesque church and cloister of St. Tropheme was constructed. We visited the church and were amazed by the architecture.

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Finally, interspersed among it all are the medieval streets and the yellow house where Van Gogh lived, all of which became subjects in his paintings. Van Gogh painted about 88 pictures during the year he lived in Arles, and there is a very good Van Gogh Museum, and also a Van Gogh foundation located here.  We also saw the cafe, which became the subject of the famous painting, “Starry Night”.

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The afternoon was devoted to a bus trip to the Camargue region (only about 45 minutes away), where we enjoyed a traditional Provençal lunch, with a local ranching family. The cowboys in the Camargue are called gardiens, and they compete in bull games similar to bull fights, except that the bulls are not injured or killed. The family we visited raise these traditional black bulls, and we were entertained by a demonstration of the herding abilities of the white Camargue horses, also raised on the ranch. Then it was back to the ship.

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Our little group reconvened on the upper deck as we sailed away. Jay and Sue had opted to stay in town to visit the Roman museum, and to raid the local food markets, so we all enjoyed some more local delicacies, including a great bread made with olive oil, and lots more sausages. Jay now has a new name: le Roi du Saucisson!

However, because we clearly hadn’t had enough to eat this day, one of our tour directors did a tasting of many varieties of French foods that we might have lacked the nerve to try ourselves, including some incredibly stinky cheeses, escargot, and the local anise-flavored aperitif called pastis.  Most of it was really good (OK, except the pastis), and we even got Jim to try an escargot (probably because he had had a fair amount of wine by that time).

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While all this was happening, we sailed back upriver to Avignon, and arrived just after sunset, so we had some spectacular views of le Pont du Avignon, the ancient partial bridge into the old town made famous in the children’ song sung by all small French schoolchildren.

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Avignon-17Jim and I walked into town to burn off some of our sins, but the town was pretty quiet and shut down for the night. We returned to the ship looking forward to another great day tomorrow!

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