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Provence Odyssey | Les Baux: Day 7 – The Belle of the Alpilles

Le Beau – Les Baux: the insurmountable beauty that is Les Baux, a tiny medieval village sitting upon a rocky spur of the Alpilles mountains, and today one of the most visited sites in France. And little wonder, for what this village lacks in size, it more than makes up for in the stunning natural beauty of its surroundings, the almost untouched historical charm of its tiny steep streets, and the incredibly variety and brilliance of its attractions. Yes, Les Baux-de-Provence, only some 10 minutes drive south of Saint-Rémy up various meandering gradually steepening mountain roads receives some 2 million visitors a year for a reason, and given our proximity , staying as we were in Saint-Rémy, there was no way we were going to miss out on this gem in the crown of our great Provence Odyssey.

The stunning Alpilles surroundings to Les Baux

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So as day 7 of our trip broke, we hopped into a cab, and made the short journey into the Alpilles mountain range, our eyes gradually widening as the utterly stunning dramatic fortress site came into view – the craggy almost unrecognisable remains of an old castle sat upon a high limestone spur looking like something straight out of a fairytale. Once dropped off in the town and having arranged for the taxi to return some 5 hours later, we set off hungry for this dynamic little town, eagerly exploring its few steep and shop-lined streets, our cameras clicking in harmony as we climbed, not knowing which way to turn at every corner in this labyrinth of unending charm, but finding seductive medieval beauty on every street we took. Our little perambulation inevitably led us towards the top of the rocky spur upon which the village precariously sits, and there through a large ancient gateway, we entered the first of this town’s three excellent attractions – the old ruined Chateau.

The Chateau of Les Baux

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I’m not sure how to describe these visually spectacular ruins, other than to say that they seemed to me a hybrid of half building and half rock, as though the castle had literally been forged out of the craggy limestone rocks of the Les Baux spur, so that misshapen windows and steep perilous staircases began to morph out of the relentlessly hostile limestone, complex in all its greys and ocres overrun with oxygenised dribbles that resembled treacle poured over honeycomb ice cream. Whatever the castle was, today it was far less – a mere shadow of its former glory, yet still retaining the stronghold position of its mighty elevation above surrounding Provence, from whose ruined battlements the views of the encircling patchwork tapestry of wheat fields and olive trees and cypresses and vines were just stunning – I almost teared up at the site of it, although to be fair, the brisk wind at this high altitude probably didn’t help in that respect.

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We toured this vast remains for as long as our legs could carry us over the treacherous terrain, largely ignoring the historical facts given to us by an accompanying audio guide in preference for the unique brilliance of the vistas all around. Thoroughly satisfied with the almost incredible sight of these views, we headed back into the cute village streets, whose many terracotta roofs had been seen at such a pretty vantage from the ruined Chateau, but which now provided us with a delicious luncheon, again accompanied by that same jaw-dropping view.

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With time ticking onwards, and that taxi, we now realised, returning sooner than we would have liked, we proceeded swiftly to the second of the village’s abundant attractions – the Musée Yves Brayer. This eponymously named gallery is the home of many great works by this fantastic Les-Baux based artist, whose landscapes of the surrounding countryside and Les Baux itself bare suitable testament to the stunning location will cannot help but inspire (see my next post-tomorrow), but also included paintings of many of the great cities which have inspired artists, and me, in equal measure across Italy and Spain, including, to my great delight, my beloved Marbella. However, beyond Brayer himself, our visit was well timed, coinciding with Marseille’s European Capital of Culture status for 2013, and here an exhibition held as part of that festival, showing the influence of the French Mediterranean in popular 20th century art, and including some greats including Signac, Dufy and Buffet.

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Paintings © Yves Brayer

But for the real big art names, and images of their works magnified to a scale quite beyond the imagination, one only has to go to the last of our Les Baux destinations, an attraction so beyond all previous of my life’s experiences that I now struggle in words to describe this immersive, mesmeric, mammoth celebration of art in the most unique of surroundings. I am talking about the Carrières de Lumières – an attraction literally of totally-immersive light and art set within the incredible other-wordly surrounds of Les Baux’s former limestone quarries. These quarries, otherwise known as the Val d’Enfer (valley of hell) and having inspired countless artists and writers in their time including, allegedly, Dante himself, as well as a film by Cocteau, are like vast almost unending cathedrals of stone cut deep into the mountain side.

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Within these quarries, the Les Baux authorities have realised the most stunning of all attractions, by projecting huge images of some of France’s greatest artworks onto the walls and the floors of this vast space accompanied by stirring classical music. When you walk in, through a dark curtain, and suddenly find yourself literally surrounded by light, by art, and by music, every sense is awoken by this extraordinary audio-visual experience. Monet, Chagall, Matisse, Renoir – all were there, but seen in a totally new light, their vast scale bringing art to life, and the music echoing around the limestone masses creating immersive theatre which couldn’t help but pull you into its emotional swathe.

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It was an incredible experience, and one which, along with the beautiful village of Les Baux, will stay with me for many years to come. What a stunning artistic centre; a tiny medieval village, seeped in the past, but now exploring new routes of artistic discovery in ways that only the French do well. Bravo!

All photos and written content are strictly the copyright of Nicholas de Lacy-Brown © 2013 and The Daily Norm. All rights are reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. 

Provence Odyssey | Saint-Rémy: Day 6 – The Grandeur of Ancient Glanum

You join us in the Provençal village of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, a picturesque little town, at one time home to none other than Vincent Van Gogh, whose insatiable appetite for Provence’s mighty colour palate was more than satisfied by the staggering beauty of these undulating landscapes, peppered with olive trees and cypresses, with fields of golden wheat and others with lavender, and stood in the midst of them all, the towering limestone massif of Les Alpilles, a 24-km chain of mountains between the Rhone and Durance rivers.

Yet while the mighty majesty of the Alpilles mountain range towering above the horizon has the power to hold tourists and artists alike in its all-conquering grip, there is something else set amongst the foothills of this great imposing mountain range which has the power to inspire awe-struck admiration in equal measure: this time a structure built not by nature, but by man, but a structure so ancient and yet still so classically magnificent in all its detail and grandeur that it appears to have defied nature itself. For as it turned out, Van Gogh is far from being Saint-Rémy’s only attraction: For a mere stroll along from Saint Paul de Mausole, where Van Gogh was an inpatient for a year between 1889-1890, are the incredible ancient remains of the Roman town of Glanum, an archeological site which is so comprehensive that it is a rival to Pompeii; an ancient monument so beautiful that it glows like a precious crystal in the midst of the limestone hulk of the Alpilles around it, the vast mountains into which this ancient Roman town appeared to integrate so seamlessly as though nature herself had intended it.

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The gateway to the Glanum remains is pretty startling: a triumphal arch built during the reign of Augustus and the Mausoleum of the Julii, said to be one of the most perfectly intact mausoleums remaining from ancient Rome. Both monuments are brilliant in their complexity and incredibly intact – and yet these imposing structures stand innocuously by the main road from Saint-Rémy to Les Baux, with no cordons, no tickets and no guards. The result is a superb opportunity to interact with the indomitable grandeur of Roman architecture, and to do so quite freely with neither impediment nor cost. And yet it worries me – for how long can these incredible structures remain in their current excellent state of preservation, when they are so unguarded from harm?

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While this magnificent arch, which once formed the Northern entrance to the town of Glanum, was free to see, the remains of the town were not – but such was to be expected from an archeological museum almost as vast as the great remains of Pompeii and Herculaneum. And what they may have lacked in Pompeian decoration, they surely made up for in scale, in the variety of buildings discovered and on view, and in the magnificent setting of this town which, carved literally into the steep sides of the Alpilles must surely be strong competition for Pompeii’s Vesuvius-backdrop.

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Glanum, which today includes monuments aplenty, half-preserved temples, the remains of public baths, the roman forum, and several houses, was built in 27 BC but abandoned in 260 AD when it was overrun and destroyed by the Alamanni. Subsequent floods and weather conditions meant that the abandoned ruins of the town gradually became covered with sediment and mud, and there it lay, undiscovered, until excavations began to rediscover the town in 1921. Now it is one of Provence’s most visited sites, and one can see why. The scale of the find is pretty unique, and the ability to scale the steepsided valley of the Alpilles and see the town from above, with the modern Saint-Rémy in the distance is particularly special.

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We adored Glanum, and for us it provided a much unexpected cultural delight on the outskirts of a little town already proving to be so abundant in sensual delights for the earnest visitor. A hearty slice of history in an area so exuding charm; a man-made ancient monument which so artfully augments the beauty of its celestial natural surroundings.

DSC03591 DSC03612 DSC03644All photos and written content are strictly the copyright of Nicholas de Lacy-Brown © 2013 and The Daily Norm. All rights are reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. 

Provence Odyssey | Saint-Rémy: Day 6 – In search of Van Gogh (Part 2)

As Van Gogh neared the final climax of his prematurely shortened life, his movements around France, and the paintings which resulted, became more and more dominated by his health needs. In May 1889, after his famous ear self-mutilation incident in Arles and the hospital stay which followed, Van Gogh moved to Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, some 20 miles North-East of Arles in the foothills of the Alpilles mountains, in order to voluntarily commit himself into the care of an asylum. That asylum was the hospital of Saint Paul-de-Mausole, set within the tranquil grounds of a former monastery to the south of Saint Remy, and was where Van Gogh set up home, with one room and an adjoining studio, for the next year of his life. Come May 1890, Van Gogh was off again in pursuit of medical assistance, moving to his final destination of Auvers-sur-Oise, this time to be nearer to Dr Paul Gachet. He would be dead some 3 months later.

Despite the nature of what some could see as a mental crisis dictating Van Gogh’s relocation to Saint-Remy, there are two undeniable factors about his stay in the town and the output that resulted. The first is that the asylum and the town to which he relocated are both exceptionally beautiful examples of Provence at its finest. The second is that, understandably, the paintings which resulted from this time are some of Van Gogh’s very best.

Painted in Saint-Rémy…

Wheatfield with Cypresses

Wheatfield with Cypresses

Irises

Irises

Mountainous landscape behind the hospital Saint Paul

Mountainous landscape behind the hospital Saint Paul

The Olive Trees

The Olive Trees

Cypresses

Cypresses

It was consequently to Saint Remy that we proceeded on this third leg of our Provence Odyssey, as much guided by the promise of a pretty mid-countryside town as by the legacy of Van Gogh which seeps into its very foundations. While a stroll around the pretty boutique-filled village proved that the town is abundant with its own Provençal charms, albeit on a far smaller scale than Avignon or Arles before it, it was in pursuance of Van Gogh’s story that we begun our explorations of Saint-Rémy, and the out of town stroll which this trail required.

Unlike Arles, whose exploration of the Van Gogh story left me somewhat wanting (there were postcards sure, and a café mock up on the Place du Forum, but where were the museums, the recreations of paintings, the story?), Saint-Rémy’s small but ample tourist office provides an excellent self-guided Van Gogh walking tour, which takes you out of the village and into the stunning surrounding countryside, in order to visit the Saint Paul-de-Mausole asylum where Van Gogh lived, and see recreations of his many Saint-Rémy based paintings along the route.

Right where he painted it - the Van Gogh walk brings his paintings to life

Right where he painted it – the Van Gogh walk brings his paintings to life

Van Gogh's hospital bed and easel

Van Gogh’s hospital bed and easel

Taking this route, we were delighted with the pastures new before us, strolling as we were along small residential and field-lined roads which we may never otherwise have discovered. While much of the landscape is a little more developed now than it might have been in VG’s day, as we neared the asylum, wide expanses of olive tree-lined fields started to open up before us, and with the wild craggy outline of the Alpilles mountains in the backdrop, and swirly dark cypress trees popping up all over the landscape, it really started to feel as though some of Van Gogh’s most famous landscape paintings were coming to life before our very eyes. For as the little VG walk soon made clear, the artist produced some of his best works in this little town, painting at his swirliest (for example his famous Starry Night and his depiction of cypress trees and swirly leafed olive trees) and his most imaginative.

Painted in the Saint Paul hospital…

Trees in the Garden of the Hospital Saint Paul

Trees in the Garden of the Hospital Saint Paul

The gardens of Saint Paul hospital

The gardens of Saint Paul hospital

The gardens of Saint Paul hospital

The gardens of Saint Paul hospital

Stone Bench in the garden of Saint Paul

Stone Bench in the garden of Saint Paul

Entrance Hall of Saint Paul

Entrance Hall of Saint Paul

And no wonder. As we turned into the high-stone walled gardens of Saint Paul-de-Mausole, filled with multi-coloured flowers moving slowly in the light breeze, I could not help but feel inspired myself. This reaction only grew, as we wandered through the former monastery, gazing in wonder and the beautiful sun drenched cloister, and then, behind the building, the stunningly manicured Provencal gardens, loaded with rows of lavender, sunflowers and poppy fields, creating the kind of floral backdrop which would have had Van Gogh painting feverishly all day long.

The landscapes and the hospital that inspired Van Gogh…

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With only a camera to hand, Dominik and I met our own inspiration through the medium of photography, taking hundreds of photos of the flowers, the lavender, the old monastery and the surrounding landscapes, strolling around the gardens, mesmerized by the scent of flowers, and the low murmuring of hundreds of bees buzzing around the lavender bushes. This was true Provence – the true stunning countryside that the guidebooks had all promised.

Eventually we broke away, not only from the asylum, but also from our Van Gogh trail, for what we found just down the road from Saint Paul was an entirely unexpected, quite stunning historical treat – a find of such exciting archeological proportions that I’m going to devote an entire post to it! For that – see you tomorrow. And in the meantime, I leave you with the lavender, the poppies, the olive trees and the sunflowers that so inspired Van Gogh, and now me in equal measure.

Provence at its finest…

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A demain.

All photos and written content are strictly the copyright of Nicholas de Lacy-Brown © 2013 and The Daily Norm. All rights are reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. 

 

Provence Odyssey | Arles: Les Photos

While Arles proved to be something of a disappointment: The dreaded Mistral wind hampered the majority of our experience in the city, such that we were usually dodging the wide expanse of squares of the riverside in order to shelter in the narrower more maze-like streets, it was, predictably perhaps, a city ripe in photographic treasures. The city has, after all, inspired artists aplenty, from Van Gogh, to Picasso, who was drawn to the city because of its amphitheatre bull fights, reminding him of the culture of his beloved Spain from where he was in forced exile during and after the Spanish Civil War.

Now in turn, the city could not help but inspire me, as ever, to get snapping away with my camera. The photos which result are a panoply of shutters and shop signs, medieval stone masonry to ancient Roman ruins. They exhibit the kind of vivid colouration that so inspired Van Gogh, glinting with the fresh clear light which is a characteristic partner to the Mistral, and the force behind the rich artistic heritage which is as much a bedrock of the city’s history as the Roman architecture scattered all around.

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In these photos, you can see other features of the city which I have perhaps left unmentioned until now. The grand Lion-littered fountain at the centre of the Place de la République; the excellent “Clouds” exhibition at the Musée Réattu together with a fantastically whispy cloud  I saw in the cerulean blue sky one morning; a sunny side up glinting oily egg at breakfast, and the artistic graffiti which characterises some of the quieter streets on the outskirts.

This is Arles, in photos. Next up: Saint Remy.

All photos and written content are strictly the copyright of Nicholas de Lacy-Brown © 2013 and The Daily Norm. All rights are reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. 

Provence Odyssey | Arles: Day 5 – In search of Van Gogh (Part 1)

The vivid kaledoscopic colours of Van Gogh’s works are renowned throughout the world: the dazzling bright yellow sunflowers, his multi-shaded green and blue self portrait with a shock of orange hair and beard, the twin piece works depicting his and Gauguin’s chairs as well as his now famous bedroom in vivid multi-colour, and his Yellow House, set against a bright blue sky – all characterise Van Gogh’s great affinity with vivid colouration and the depiction of almost feverish energy and zeal. Yet it only takes a quick glimpse at Van Gogh’s earlier works painted in Holland – the Potato Eaters, the Brown peasant faces, the gloomy interiors and flat dull landscapes – to realise just how instrumental his move down to Provence in 1888 was. And one city in fact helped to shape the unique colour driven artist who we know and love today: Arles.

It was in Arles that Van Gogh lived in the Yellow House, where he painted his famous Sunflowers in preparation for a visit by fellow-artist (and colourist) Paul Gauguin, on whose river bend he depicted the famous Starry Night over the Rhone, and where the artist is credited with making his final breakthrough as an artist of sensational colour, of unmistakeable feverish expressionism and of an undiluted enthusiasm to depict the world around him with speed and a remarkable resulting oeuvre.

Van Gogh moved to Arles in 1888, after a spell in Paris where he had become influenced by the impressionists. Thus, he had already broken free of the sombre earth tones inspired by his homeland of Holland, and started dappling in lighter, fresher scenes, but nothing compared with the cornucopia of colourful and free expression on which he would embark when taking inspiration from the South. Having made the move, Van Gogh became dazzled by the brighter light and therefore clear unmuddied coloured which result. He began to see art in the curving shadow-filled feathery forms of cypress trees, in the undulating tapestry of fields beneath rising mountain landscapes, in the vivid blooms of cherry blossom and irises and sunflowers, and in Arles’s streets, its inviting cafes and its people. All of this made Van Gogh the artist we know today, and so many of his most famous paintings were undertaken here, in Arles, as decoration for his Yellow House.

The Yellow House (1888)

The Yellow House (1888)

Van Gogh's Chair (1888)

Van Gogh’s Chair (1888)

Bedroom in Arles (1888)

Bedroom in Arles (1888)

Still Life: Vase with 12 Sunflowers (1888)

Still Life: Vase with 12 Sunflowers (1888)

However Van Gogh’s appetite for decorating the Yellow House with such speed was largely because he was awaiting a visit from fellow-post-impressionist Paul Gauguin in the hope that he could set up something of an artists’ community in Arles. Yet it was that same visit that became the catalyst for Van Gogh’s infamous ear-chopping incident, and what followed was a stay in Arles’ general hospital, followed by an extended stay, in 1889, in the sanitarium at Saint Remy-de-Provence.

With this background in mind, it was in the footsteps of Van Gogh that we embarked on our last day in Arles, starting off at the Place du Forum, where his famous depiction of a cafe terrace is rather unfortunately replicated today for tourists, so that the real cafe is not the cafe as would have been visited by Van Gogh, but the cafe as painted by Van Gogh. For in their attempts to lure the tourists, the cafe has replicated Van Gogh’s painting to such an extent that they’ve painted the walls in a kind of colour was of yellow and a mouldy looking green. While those colours worked perfectly in the context of Van Gogh’s depiction, in reality they look try-hard and naff. Which is why, asides from taking photos, we avoided eating at the now eponymously named Van Gogh cafe like the plague.

Cafe Terrace on the Place Du Forum Arles, at Night (1888)

Cafe Terrace on the Place Du Forum Arles, at Night (1888)

The cafe as it stands today

The cafe as it stands today

And at night

And at night

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The next main Van Gogh spot is the Arles hospital, whose most iconic feature is the floral courtyard at its heart, again no doubt decked thus because of the reference made to it in Van Gogh’s painting, but nonetheless pleasing to wander into. Yet there was very little more to it, and in fact that much goes for all of Arles. While the Van Gogh references can be seen in postcards sold at every souvenir shop, there is not a single painting by Van Gogh in the tow – a crying shame considering how much the town inspired him. Meanwhile a cultural space opened in his name appeared not to exist when we searched for it, and we were told in a shop close to the hospital that a Van Gogh museum will open in a few years. But nothing for now. Meanwhile both the yellow house, and the famous bedroom in it are long gone – bombed in the war.

Garden of the Hospital at Arles (1888)

Garden of the Hospital at Arles (1888)

The hospital today

The hospital today

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However, unperturbed by our lack of success, there was one more point on the Arles map that we had to look at, both when bringing our Arles Van Gogh search to an end, and also when leaving Arles for good. Yes, packed up and ready to move on to our next stop on this Provence Odyssey, and heading out towards the bus station, we passed by the River Rhône, now mercifully still, largely, of the winds which had dominated its path the previous day, and stopped at the point where Van Gogh had painted perhaps my favourite of all his works: Starry Night over the Rhône. Sadly, yesterday’s wind had prevented our viewing this scene by night, but in any event, the proliferation of large boats at the site undoubtedly mean that the view would be much changed now from Van Gogh’s day – a story which rings true of so much of this city.

Starry Night over the Rhone (1888)

Starry Night over the Rhone (1888)

The view today

The view today

But just as Van Gogh left Arles to head for some respite in nearby Saint Remy, so too did we follow his path, leaving the city now to head into Provence’s lush countryside, to continue not just our search of Van Gogh, but also our Provence Odyssey.

Onto Saint Remy - where Van Gogh painted: The Starry Night (1888)

Onto Saint Remy – where Van Gogh painted: The Starry Night (1888)

See you in Saint Remy!

Provence Odyssey | Arles: Le Dîner – l’Atelier de Jean-Luc Rabenel

We had one of those rather embarassing moments on our second day in Arles when, eager to escape the vigorous Mistral wind and therefore sitting down at the first restaurant we came across with a sheltered position, we found ourselves, upon being handed the menu, faced with prices which were well in advance of our lunchtime budget. Splashing out in the evenings is one thing (you can barely do otherwise with Provence’s prices), but if we were to spend similarly at lunchtime, we wouldn’t be able to pay for a bed for the night. So when we sat down at a table outside l’Atelier de Jean-Luc Rabenel (otherwise translated as the studio of Jean-Luc Rabenel), we quickly discovered that we couldn’t afford it. So what did we do? We ran away! (We did however settle on a cute little cafe just down the street – check out these delicious salads…)DSC02928 DSC02929

This ever so embarrassing escapade may have been bearable, were it not that come the evening, we struggled to find a single decent restaurant which was not a tourist trap anywhere in town, and so decided to return to said restaurant, with our tales between our legs. Luckily none of the waiting staff who had earlier wasted a sparkling water order on us appeared to notice that we were the absconding duo from earlier in the day. Or if they did, they hid it well. Which is what one comes to expect from a quality restaurant, and with two michelin stars to his name, the restaurant of this self-styled artist-chef does certainly did not lack in quality.

Lucky enough to seize upon the last remaining table in the very cute little street – the Rue des Carmes – where the restaurant is located, we could enjoy charming views of old shuttered buildings and grape vines crawling possessively over building facades before we had even gazed upon the visual delight that was the food coming out of Rabenel’s kitchen. To start, neither of us could resist the ice-cold gazpacho, nor did either of us regret the decision to replicate when the dish, artfully presented as a quasi-cocktail on ice with a sprig of rosemary and complemented by a handy straw, was served, alongside mini bruschetta topped by salty serano ham.

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The main course followed swiftly, although for me this disappointed. Sticking to the more economical fixed price menu afforded me less choice for mains, but the fish pie upon which I eventually settled lacked the kind of originality in both presentation and flavour which is to be expected of a michelin star establishment – although the handmade pesto side dish was an indisputable delight. Dominik did better, with a huge pan full of succulent muscles, plunged into a soup-like jus filled with delights such as rustic chorizo sausage and caramalised prawns.

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But as mains paved their way to dessert, another duplicated choice for us both – a chocolate cake with a wonderfully strong vanilla cream, pistachios and berries – again exhibited all of the flourish of fine dining, if it lacked slight the originality which we spoilt London diners come to expect of our michelin stars.

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But over all, the restaurant was a delight and wonderfully situated in a quite Arlesienne street, suitably off the beaten track to avoid the kind of tourist groups pouring into the tacky restaurants claiming to have a Van Gogh connection, and excitingly modern despite the aged charm of its situation.

L’Atelier is part of group of restaurants all belonging to the “cercle rouge” group and situated on the same street. Next door is the Bistro a Coté – the wonderfully animated website of the Alan Sugar lookalike chef is worth a gander in itself.

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Provence Odyssey | Arles: Day 4 – Dodging the Mistral

They say that you have not experienced Provence until you have experienced the Mistral, a ferocious wind unique to Southern France, which accelerates as weather forces push the wind down the Rhône Valley – that very same valley on which the city of Arles, our second destination, finds itself rather inconveniently placed. And so, when waking on our fourth day, the tell-tale crystalline blue skies which are a commonplace characteristic of the mistral wind may have shone brightly through our three-fold bedroom windows, but the very distinctive sound of multiple shutters banging in the breeze foretold a day whose weather conditions would be far from Mediterranean calm.

Indeed as we set out from our lavish hotel (more about that later) into the maze-like streets of this characterful little French city, the complex system of roads did very little to dispel the savage Mistral wind – in fact they had quite the opposite effect, forming funnels along which the wind forced its aggressive way through, such that at every new corner, we were almost knocked sideways by a freshly zealous gust.

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Mercifully, not all corners of Arles were battered by Provence’s fiercest of inhabitants, and taking shelter in the Place du Forum (on the site of the town’s old Roman forum), we were able to enjoy the full unhampered heat of the sun over a breakfast of pastries and café. And concluding therefore that these Romans must have chosen their sites strategically, we went off in search of the city’s further archeological heritage, hoping that in doing so we may dodge the Mistral leaving us to appreciate the history.

Our plan was met with little success at the first of our stops – the old Baths of Constantine – which were situated right next to the Rhône which of course was the apex of the storm. Despite this unwelcome tour partner, we were nevertheless wowed by yet another startling well-preserved example of Roman architecture, the ruins including an imposing semi-circular wall bearing the signs of the baths’ former magnificence, their size testament to their use as public baths for all of the town. It was, as ever, fascinating to see the remnants of how ingeniously the Romans had used underfloor heating to heat the water, and how masterfully they had constructed their buildings as evidenced so clearly by the strength of the leftovers still around today.

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But the brilliance of Roman Arles did not end there, nor with the great amphitheatre which we had visited the previous day. Rather, just south of that great stadium, visitors to the city are literally spoilt for choice by the remains of a great Roman Theatre, whose semi-circular auditorium is still intact, and used for cultural performances to this day. For my Dominik and I, it was the less intact ruins, but the piles of rubble and stumps of columns that truly fascinated the most – like poetry in their decay, these seemingly scattered remains reminded me of the epic paintings of the Romantic age, when the adventurous young gentlemen of Britain’s most aristocratic families would set off on a grand tour of Europe to discover the very best of its classical heritage. Placing the “roman” in “romantic”, these odds and ends, still bearing the exquisite details of what once would have been stunning architectural centrepieces, made for one wondrous sight after another, and Dominik and I spent a good hour photographing obsessively, as well as reclining all over said rubble in suitably decadent poses – Tyra Banks would have been proud.

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After a lunch of plump, fresh salads enjoyed in yet another safe haven from the wind (check out my foodie post tomorrow) we decided to cut our losses and fight the forces of nature no longer. Instead we couldn’t help but return to the ultimate in all-weather sancturies: our super indulgent, exquisitely chic hotel: the Hotel Particulier. Set in the sumptuous grounds of a 19th century mansion built by the Mayor of Arles on the outskirts of the city, this truly boutique of hotels (for most hotels calling themselves thus are far from it) provided the obvious shelter from the wind, and the perfect excuse for mid-trip afternoon of indulgence – for here, amongst the jasmine covered walls of the perfectly manicured courtyard garden, the wind felt reduced to a mere breeze which helped the sweet perfume of the garden’s flowers waft gently across the grounds.

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Just as design has been employed so elegantly to create an atmosphere redolent of the most superb of luxuriant utopias, so too had this little garden haven managed to tame the wild savagery of the Mistral. And so it was there, next to a long perfectly turquoise pool, served glasses of wine by the perfectly manicured waiters and accompanied by the gentle sounds of trickling water, that we enjoyed the remainder of our second day in Arles – a well deserved rest before our Provence Odyssey continued.

I leave you with more photos of the superb Hotel – a real piece of paradise in the midsts of Arles’ history-soaked streets.

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All photos and written content are strictly the copyright of Nicholas de Lacy-Brown © 2013 and The Daily Norm. All rights are reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. 

 

Provence Odyssey | My Journey in Paintings: From Avignon to Arles (avec le petit dejeuner)

After three days in the Provence heartland, surrounded by verdant rolling landscapes of cypresses and pine trees, olives and lavender, and with one hotel view watercolour already under my belt, I moved onto Arles considerably inspired, artistic images floating through my head with each new adventure taken across this artist’s paradise. After two days in the midst of the medieval magic of Avignon, our journey south to Arles provided a refreshing glimpse of the rich pastoral landscape which surrounds Provence’s cities, but also of the little farmhouses which are dotted across the scenery, with their iconic terracotta tiled roofs and pastel-painted walls, their pale blue shutters and window-sill plant pots.

And so, shortly after arriving in Arles and in a moment of rest, so many of these images collected together with such strength that in mere minutes, I had opened up my travel sketch book and mapped out this image, depicting our journey from Avignon to Arles, and accompanied by the hearty breakfast which had so satisfyingly kicked off our day. Over the next few days, I filled in my sketch with vivid colour reflective of the seductive rainbow palette which the Mediterranean light so augments in Provence, using my new favourite medium, gauche, to do so.

Voyage to Arles from Avignon (avec le petit dejeuner) 2013 © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown - gauche on paper

Voyage to Arles from Avignon (avec le petit dejeuner) 2013 © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown – gauche on paper

The result is Voyage to Arles from Avignon (avec le petit dejeuner) – an artistic testament to this next leg in our journey. I hope you enjoy it.

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2001-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Provence Odyssey | Avignon to Arles: Day 3 – From Popes to Emperors

When I was considering an itinerary for our Provence tour this summer, it felt a bit like closing my eyes and pinning a pin on the donkey. With so much beauty ripe for exploration, where on earth would we go? One of the first factors was transport – not wanting to incur the costs of hiring a car, nor least the fear factor of driving on the opposite side of the road, we had to be in places that were public transport accessible. And given that we were taking the Eurostar down from London, Avignon – the first Provence stop on the high-speed line – seemed like a very good place to start. But beyond that, the rolling purple hills of Provence were very much our oyster, so to speak. So following my great passion for art, I decided to plan our itinerary following something of an art historical theme, taking the trail from Arles, which today has become synonymous with both Van Gogh and Picasso (who loved the bullfighting there while in exile from his beloved Spain), and onto Saint Remy de Provence – where Van Gogh self-admitted into an asylum, and finally ending up at Aix-en-Provence, the city of Cezanne, and this year a key player in the Marseille-Provence European City of Culture festivities.

Starting off a new day

Starting off a new day

So today it was onto Arles, the city famous for being the location of so many of Van Gogh’s paintings, from his Yellow House and Night over Arles, to his iconic sunflowers, and for generally being the reason why his paintings metamorphosed so markedly from the dull browns of Holland to the bright vivid colours of Provence. But it’s a city famous too for its Roman heritage – the great Roman amphitheatre standing at its heart is one of the best preserved amphitheatres from Roman times, and has literally dictated the shape of the town, whose streets wind so perceptively around it. But before we wind back the clock from medieval Avignon to Roman Arles, let me take a moment to bid a farewell to Avignon, whose charming ancient streets bore further fruit on this morning of our departure – a few hours further to explore this surprising city before our 20 minute train journey south to Arles departed at 2pm.

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Indeed, before parting with Avignon, further treats were indeed in store. For a day which started off with a deliciously simple, vividly colourful and dangerously buttery breakfast at another typical local bar continued with similar sensual ravishment, as we walked out towards the city’s old dyers district, where the tiny River Sorgue emerges from underground and runs alongside the Rue des Teinturiers reminiscent of a dutch canal. In the glinting sunshine, this street was charm in urban form, providing the perfect platform for a laid back and tranquil walk along the very manifestation of the old historical city itself.

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But just as the River Sorgue pours outwards into the wider dominant Rhône, so too did we head to that same main artery of the city, bidding adieu to this city by crossing the river on a bridge that is, mercifully, in one piece, in order to capture the best vantage point of Avignon, which of course had to include the Papal Palace and the famous broken Pont d’Avignon. Photographs collated, and luggage picked up, we headed to the city of Arles, back a few centuries to the time when the Roman Empire extended its special brand of classical civilisation to what was then savage Gaul, and developed towns such as Arles into little gems glinting on the far reaches of the empire.

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Just as all roads are supposed to lead to Rome, so too do the narrow maze-like streets of Arles descend upon the imposing form of this almost perfectly intact amphitheatre, and it was to this great monument that our paths inevitably led within hours of our arrival in the city. Into the great monument we went, which in stark contrast to Rome’s iconic amphitheatre, is very much in use for bull fights and other theatrical festivities, so consequently what we were viewing was an auditorium in the round, set up with a floating metal seating structure, away from the now ancient and only partially constituted former seating of the original stadium. Like any amphitheatre, the building doesn’t differentiate much from one arch way to another, but walking around the great 360 degree structure was attraction enough to enable us to appreciate the magnificence of this surviving structure, and revel in this modern day connection back to our ancient past.

C'est Moi - at the Amphitheatre

C’est Moi – at the Amphitheatre

Having had our fill of Arles’ beating heart, we could do little else but take in the inherent character and charm of this city, whose houses are similarly shuttered like those in Avignon, but somehow more colourful and often more decorative. Arles lacks the great impactful squares which Avignon boasts, but that is because here, a city has very clearly developed around history, rather than making history in its own construction as in Avignon. The result is a maze-like development, which is not always straightforward to explore, but getting lost in these charming narrow streets is half the fun of the adventure. And ripe for adventure this city surely is, a venture now begun in this second leg of our Provence Odyssey.

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More from Arles, coming soon.

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Provence Odyssey | Avignon: Les Photos

I am almost at an end of the first leg of my Provençal adventure, and tomorrow we will move on to Arles. So the time has almost certainly come to throw a whole load of my most treasured photographs at you.

Provence, unexpectedly, provided a ceaseless flurry of inspiration from our first moments on French soil, from the perfumed lavender bushes swaying gently in the breeze of the Rhône, and the buildings beset by detailed grand facades and wooden painted shutters aplenty, to the vast Papal Palace and the robust medieval walls which give Avignon its historical character.

DSC01910 DSC02075 DSC01862 DSC02063DSC01904 DSC02069I hope you enjoy these shots, which focus on various details which caught by eye around the city, both features which are testament to Avignon’s iconic facade, but also concentrate on the daily life of a bustling city: the cafes, the children playing, the big wheel and the small hidden gargoyles.

See you in Arles!

All photos and written content are strictly the copyright of Nicholas de Lacy-Brown © 2013 and The Daily Norm. All rights are reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.