Lorna Subritzky walks in the footsteps of Vincent van Gogh in Arles and St Remy.
Starry, starry night Paint your palette blue and grey Look out on a summer's day With eyes that know the darkness in my soul
It's impossible not to hum Don McLean's hit as I sit in an art studio in Arles, my own palette painted not just with blue and grey but vibrant yellow too as I attempt to recreate just a tiny corner of Vincent van Gogh's masterpiece.
Although Arles, The Pearl of Provence, has several claims to fame (it's the birthplace of Nostradamus, and Nobel prizewinner Albert Schweitzer was incarcerated here during World War II), it is without doubt Van Gogh who is Arles' drawcard. He's certainly why I've come ashore on my Rhone river cruise, and why I'm now sitting in La Couverture Verte at Siqueiros Fine Arts School feeling somewhat embarrassed at my lack of artistic ability as my fellow passengers reveal their fulsome talents.
Our tutor, Philippe, is a knowledgeable artist and his enthusiasm for Van Gogh's work is infectious. He tells us Van Gogh spent more or less the last two years of his life in Arles, and inspired by the Mediterranean light, painted some of his greatest works. As his mental health unravelled, his artistic output increased, and he completed 200 paintings here as well as many more drawings and watercolours. Sadly the spirit of the great painter isn't with me today, though I'm happy enough with my humble effort. It's certainly with my travel companion Michelle, whose Irises homage garners high praise from Philippe.
Shadows on the hills Sketch the trees and the daffodils Catch the breeze and the winter chills In colours on the snowy linen land
Although Arles is seven times the geographic size of Paris, its population is a mere 50,000. The province is home to the Camargue delta, an untouched nature reserve that branches out from the Rhone to the Mediterranean Sea, and the scenery as we hop from tourist spot to tourist spot is breathtaking. Though we don't see daffodils, golden fields of nodding sunflowers have us gasping and snapping pictures through the bus window.
It's picture-book perfect Provencal, even if the mid-30s temperatures are making the flowers (and those admiring them) wilt a little.
We pass singer Charles Aznavour's former home (I grew up listening to him, my parents being big fans), and the house where Princess Caroline of Monaco came to recuperate with her children after the death of her second husband, Stefano Casiraghi. It seems Arles' healing powers extend beyond that of great painters.
Starry, starry night Flaming flowers that brightly blaze Swirling clouds in violet haze Reflect in Vincent's eyes of china blue
How better to view Arles through Van Gogh's eyes than with a walking tour? Local guide Nina begins by settling a debate: is Gogh pronounced Goff or Go? Actually, neither. It's more akin to the Scottish pronunciation of loch. I suspect, however, that pronouncing it properly back in New Zealand may elicit sniggers from the uneducated.
We head for the plane-tree-shaded Place du Forum, built 2000 years ago and still the lively heart of the town. From here, Van Gogh depicted local life in such celebrated works as Cafe Terrace at Night. The cafe is still there, although considerably more upmarket than in Van Gogh's day, and I get a tingle up my spine viewing a reproduction of The Yellow House in front of the artist's former home.
Van Gogh wasn't much interested in Roman ruins, or at least he never reproduced them on canvas, but Arles is home to numerous beautifully preserved sites and monuments.
Les Arenes is an amphitheatre built in 90AD and able to seat 20,000. Excavation at this site has uncovered many artefacts including Venus d'Arles, now residing at the Louvre in Paris. There's also the Antique Theatre, a first-century wonder that stood three storeys high and seated 10,000. And in the Place de la Republique, a bustling square that once hosted the ancient Roman Circus, I marvel at the impressive 15th-century Romanesque church of St Trophime.
Once again though, it's the sites that Van Gogh immortalised that draw me in the most, and we finish the walking tour with Le Jardin de la Maison de Sante a Arles, site of the old hospital where Van Gogh voluntarily checked himself in in late-1888/early-1889.
It was here that Vincent was treated after he sliced off his own ear after a fight with fellow artist Paul Gaugin. It's a tragic tale but I can't help but smile at the story of Dr Felix Rey, gifted his own portrait by Van Gogh, who wanted to show his appreciation for the way he was cared for.
The doctor was not particularly enamoured of the painting, however, and used it to repair his chicken coop rather than hang it on his wall. That portrait, now housed in Moscow's Pushkin Museum, is today worth in the vicinity of $50 million.
Starry, starry night Portraits hung in empty halls Frameless heads on nameless walls With eyes that watch the world and can't forget
Despite being prolific during his 15 months in Arles, sadly not a single Van Gogh original remains in the town. But we're in luck. An exhibition, Soleil Chaud, Soleil Tardif (Hot Sun, Late Sun), is on at The Foundation Vincent van Gogh Arles, a gallery opened four years ago in honour of the great artist. It's not only a chance to view seven of Van Gogh's works created several months after he arrived in Arles, but also paintings by Adolphe Monticelli (considered somewhat of a father figure by Van Gogh), Pablo Picasso and more. I'm thrilled to discover the work of Giorgio de Chirico and his exuberant self-portraits, but we're all here for Van Gogh — and the vivid yellow wheat fields of his "French Japan" do not disappoint. I stand in front of his Portrait of a Young Peasant for an unseemly length of time, losing myself in his brushstrokes.
Colours changing hue Morning fields of amber grain Weathered faces lined in pain Are soothed beneath the artist's loving hand
As we exit the gallery through the gift shop, I have to exercise severe restraint. I do buy a calendar so I can enjoy a different Van Gogh work every month next year, and a fridge magnet so I can gaze on The Yellow House every day — but I pass on the Ear-aser, a handy stationery item with a nod to Van Gogh's notorious self-mutilation with a razor blade.
It turns out making art (or whatever you call what I painted this morning) and appreciating art create quite the appetite. As we walk to lunch, the rumblings of my stomach are drowned out by the throaty rumblings of motorbikes. Many, many motorbikes. What on earth is going on?
Like the strangers that you've met The ragged men in ragged clothes A silver thorn, a bloody rose Lie crushed and broken on the virgin snow
It seems our visit has coincided with the National Run of the Bandidos Motorcycle Club, a self-described outlaw group with the motto "we are the people our parents warned us about". The run is mandatory for all European Bandidos, and the tranquillity of Arles is temporarily shattered by more than 3000 members (and their families) and more than 2000 bikes.
Though some of the bikers look quite intimidating with their tattoos and leathers, the locals don't seem to bat an eyelid. In fact, this is the second year in a row that Arles has hosted the run, so one can only assume the gathering is welcome. Each member has their country of origin emblazoned on their leather jacket — there's no sign of a Kiwi representative though I do spot an Australian one, which is vaguely comforting. I can't help but wonder what Van Gogh would have made of it all as we head into lunch at Hotel Jules Cesar — taking extra care not to nudge any of the motorbikes parked outside for fear of creating a domino effect a la Pee-wee's Big Adventure and inciting the wrath of 3000 angry gang members.
Formerly a 17th century Carmelite convent, Hotel Jules Cesar is now a five-star boutique hotel featuring decor designed by Christian Lacroix (and triggering an Absolutely Fabulous stage whisper from me to Michelle: "Lacroix, sweetie! Lacroix!"). We enter the chic dining room. A menu has been created especially for us river cruise passengers showcasing local produce with its cantaloupe and parma ham starter; roast chicken, gnocchi and mushroom main; and nougat and praline dessert.
The accompanying wines are equally good, and the convivial atmosphere gives us a chance to get to know our fellow passengers a little better, laying the foundations for friendships for the rest of the cruise and beyond. There's Jean and her hilarious husband, Dennis, from Detroit, possibly the youngest-looking grandparents I've ever met. Ohio natives Chris and Barbara are also at our table — he's a retired high school English teacher, who's recently had brain surgery, and she's an artist, who'd already caught my eye with her on-point Starry Night shoes. Turns out she painted them herself, which impresses me no end. She's also the only other member of our group who saw the film Loving Vincent, so we enthuse in unison as Philippe arrives with our now dry paintings from this morning. Another ritual humiliation ensues as we show off our artwork, although it turns out Dennis is as talentless as I am and he makes me giggle as we compare pieces.
Now I understand what you tried to say to me And how you suffered for your sanity And how you tried to set them free They would not listen, they're not listening still Perhaps they never will
After Van Gogh checked himself into the hospital in Arles, he was transferred to the St Paul de Mausole Monastery at St Remy in exchange for the right to continue painting. On the way to visit the asylum, still in operation today, we stop at the ruins of the Roman city of Glanum, including a triumphal arch built around 10BC, on the southern outskirts of Arles.
As I walk beneath the arch I can't help but wonder how many other people have passed this same way in the past 2000 years. The thought is exciting and unsettling, and this feeling stays with me as we head to St Remy, where Van Gogh was treated for just over a year. In between attacks, and in what may be the first instance of art therapy, Van Gogh made numerous paintings and drawings, first in the asylum and its gardens and later beyond, among the olive gardens and cypresses, in the Alpilles mountains and in the village.
It's easy to see how inspired Van Gogh was here. Though his mental health deteriorated, his output increased, and he produced 150 paintings in just 13 months. Some of his most famous works were created here: Irises and Wheat Field with Cypresses. Looking out from the asylum's upstairs window, Van Gogh conceived The Starry Night, painted by memory during the day. Sitting on his bed in a faithful recreation of his bedroom, metres from the hydrotherapy tubs that were a fashionable treatment for mental illness at the time, I have a chance to reflect on Van Gogh's time here. With such productivity, perhaps he sensed the sand in his hourglass was running out. He sold the only piece he would sell in his lifetime, The Red Vineyard, while here but within two months he had left Arles, and within four months ended his short life.
Van Gogh spent just over two years in Arles province; walking in his footsteps for just one day has left memories that will last forever.
And when no hope was left inside On that starry, starry night You took your life as lovers often do But I could have told you, Vincent This world was never meant For one as beautiful as you
An eight-day Lyon and Provence river cruise with Viking visits Avignon, Arles, Viviers and Tournon. Fares are from $3295pp, twin share.