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Posts tagged ‘Alpilles’

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.