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Wild and without an art education: Arles & van Gogh

Not exactly unhappy to leave the campsite in Manosque, we get up considerably early (for us anyway) and make our way to town to get a ride from there. Today we finally want to get to the seaside! (with a quick stop in Arles). I’m dreaming about sandy beaches and wild horses in the Camargue. No long wait this time! Hitchhiking in more rural areas usually works fine, simply because locals know full well that there’s no public transport around.

A young kid pulls over. He’s a bit mardy but soon we find out that he’s got a massive hangover. He went to a party in Aix-en-Provence yesterday and came home without his phone. Said phone is waiting for him there – inconvenient for him but good for us. He drops us off at a crossroad outside Aix. It’s in the middle of nowhere. There’s a huge aqua gym (not random at all) where I pop in desperately to use the bathroom. Then we go on.

A blond woman in a huge jeep picks us up and takes us about an hour further to Salon-de-Provence, and doesn’t stop talking once during the drive. She has the most high-pitched voice and reminds me of a Disney character. Also she speaks so fast that I don’t have a clue about 93% of the stuff she’s telling me but she doesn’t notice at all because I place my laughter and nods strategically. Someone once told me that if a person who doesn’t speak French would hear me speaking French they would assume I was French. Wouldn’t work so well with French-speaking people of course because my vocabulary consists of 50 words and four sentence structures.

Polite hitchhiking: the British way

She’s super lovely and makes a detour to drop us off at the toll station on the way to Arles. This is where things get a bit weird. Right from inside the toll station where cars stop and pay the toll, a couple is hanging out. After a while, the girl starts coming over to us and tries to speak to us but we can’t find a common language. She motions us over to her boyfriend but we hesitate – they don’t have a car, what’s the point? After five minutes of unsuccessful conversation, she walk off again. Personally, I’m not a fan of this method of hitchhiking. They’re getting way too close to the cars, popping their heads inside the car windows and blocking cars from driving on.

Our polite hitchhiking pays off soon after this when a really nice middle-aged couple stops and brings us to Arles. They’re very concerned about our well-being and make sure to drop us off somewhere they consider safe: a big shopping center complex on the outskirts of town. We pop into McDonald’s for a veggie burger (don’t judge us) and start walking into the town center. This turns out to be a much longer walk than anticipated, and it’s burning hot. It’s end of October – Will it ever get cooler?!

More hitchhiking adventures

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May 7, 2019
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A view of the campsite: Camping Freizeitsee Zenz
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The Niesenbahn with mountain slopes in the background
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May 25, 2019
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Caroline in Arles

Arles I ever wanted

We’ve never planned to go to Arles but now that we’re here, I’m actually quite excited to trace some of Van Gogh’s steps. We’ve got a few hours to explore and after that we will hitchhike or take a bus to the Camargue. The Camargue is a fascinating protected wetland area. Compromising of the Rhône delta, there are wild horses, flamingos, medieval towns, beautiful unspoilt beaches, incredible bright pink salt flats and much more. Considering all that, Arles must be something special to keep us from heading directly to the Camargue.

Anyway, we’ve heard the bus from Arles to the Camargue costs one euro, so we are not nervous about not getting a ride and having to take the bus. In fact we will probably just take the bus and enjoy ourselves here, one euro is not going to save our budget!

We don’t have a plan so first we grab a coffee and then just start walking. We don’t know much about Arles other than that Vincent van Gogh lived here for a while and very much loved it.

Colourful side street with cute doorways and plants

Immediately after walking for around approximately five minutes, we are in love with Arles. It’s super photogenic with its winding side streets, colourful old wooden shutters and abundance of plants and flowers haphazardly decorating each home, each completely unique and unrecognisable from the last.

Retracing van Gogh’s steps

The narrow cobbled streets keep relatively cool in the hot autumn sun, avoiding most of the direct sunlight, but in the squares the full power of mother nature takes its toll. Our rucksacks are becoming a burden. Too heavy to explore with ease we decide on a compromise. We will take it in turns to explore. Caroline will wait at a cafe with our rucksacks and I will explore alone, free from the weight of all our belongings. Afterwards, we will switch and Caroline will explore.

We pick the square (Place du Forum) where Van Gogh famously painted Café Terrace at Night. We decide not to sit in the actual restaurant he painted because, well, the reviews are absolutely terrible. Eat in a different cafe, you will be thankful. Admire from outside, imagine the emotions Van Gogh felt as the streaming light from the lantern illuminated the cafe and reflected from the cobbled square underneath the deep blue night sky. Come back at night and enjoy it just as he did.

Vincent van Gogh - Café Terrace at Night

Arles is larger than one might imagine, so instead of aimlessly wandering around we decide on a plan to visit some significant sights related to Van Gogh. We can see some sights and wander off in between. We used the following website to pint point some locations including the amphitheatre, the hospital, Restaurant Carrel and a few others.

Van Gogh in Arles

Van Gogh’s time in Arles was fascinating and many important events in his life happened here, in just over one year. He painted some of his most prolific pieces and his style developed into a more expressive form. The colours and change in pace of life from Paris helped contribute to that.

It is in Arles that Van Gogh cut off his ear and gave it to a prostitute. He was admitted to hospital and recovered, however, some further minor incidents led to a few more spells under care after which he decided to leave Arles and voluntarily committed himself to a psychiatric institution in Saint-Rémy de Provence, just northeast of Arles.

The dark side of Arles

My first stop is the amphitheatre. Once home to brutal blood battles between man and kings of the animal world, now it is used for bull fighting, not much better in our opinion. You can find a bit more information about the amphitheatre here.

Vincent van Gogh - Spectators in the Arena at Arles

The amphitheatre is rather expensive, almost €10 euros per person. We are poor, hitchhiking camping backpackers so I decide to skip it and instead meander around the side streets. One particular street immediately catches my eye. The street begins on the east side of the amphitheatre and twists uphill. Lanterns hang from the narrow walls and cobbles line the path. The pastel shades bring a sense of calm and the numerous bushes and flowers perfectly decorate the fairy tale like scene. It’s an idyllic location and after waltzing to the top I sit on a step and enjoy the view, taking lots of photos in between.

The only thing that could make this moment in time even better is a fat ginger cat. I guess I am in luck, for a fairly friendly chonk brushes up my leg, politely requesting head scratches.Who am I to refuse such a task.

Cobbled street leading to Arles colosseum with lots of greenery

Eager to show Caroline my new favourite spot in Arles, I resist the urge to run back and drag her here. I’ve barely hit any stops on my Van Gogh trail, so it’s time to leave and find the next spot. Next up is Restaurant Carrel where Van Gogh rented a room when he arrived in Arles. Here he painted his first few works in Arles. Later he moved on to a different hotel due to differences with the manager. Nowadays the hotel does not exist, but there is a plaque on the existing ugly looking concrete building. The street itself is pretty and just opposite the old hotel is a very cute looking newer restaurant, Le QG. Being just outside of the main tourist locations, the prices and quality seem to be better, it also has good reviews.

Darling towns

Thun with wide expansive river in the foreground
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June 12, 2019
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A swam on the canal in front of cute houses
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Annecy: lakes, bikes, canals and catastrophes

It’s late and dark, we arrive at our Couchsurfing host’s place hours later than expected. Our journey to Annecy was a bit of a disaster. We’ve kept them updated but we still feel really uncomfortable for keeping them up so late. Yann and Cecile are super friendly though and make us a tea as soon […]

June 27, 2019
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Looking over Lucerne castle in the morning
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Wild and without worries in Lucerne

Lucerne is our end destination after a day of epic hitch-hiking-road-tripping through Switzerland. We’re exhausted, hungry and tired but also immensely grateful for the experience and soon doze off. Feeling refreshed the next morning, we get ourselves ready for a day in Lucerne. This takes a while. After all, we’re in a city now and […]

May 15, 2019
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An ear for a prostitute

The next location is one we have inadvertently already visited! The hospital where Van Gogh was treated after cutting off his ear and presenting it newspaper wrapped to a prostitute. Read more about the gruesome event at the Van Gogh museum website. Nowadays the interior court of the old hospital boats some beautiful flower arrangements and the outer buildings house a library, gift shop and a restaurant.

The hospital van Gogh was treated at after cutting off his ear

The Rhône in Arles

My last stop of interest relating to Van Gogh is the Musée Réattu. I am mostly interested in this location due to the fact that it is on the river and I thought it would be nice to walk back to Caroline via it. It turns out I got sidetracked and missed the museum. Never mind, Van Gogh never liked it anyway.

The women really are beautiful here, it’s no joke — on the other hand, the Arles museum is dreadful and a joke

The Rhône is huge and the views are impressive. All along the river are beautiful buildings, houses, cathedrals, Roman baths and even remains of what would have been a huge Roman bridge. I attempt to visit the Thermes de Constantin, the ruins of Constantin’s Roman baths, but the site is closed for restoration.

Remains of old bridge across the Rhône

Tag team exploring

I decide it’s time to give Caroline a turn to explore, so I hurry back to the cafe she is waiting at. We are both pretty hungry so before swapping we explore for some food, but it turns out Arles is just a bit too expensive for us. We settle on bread and chocolate from a newsagent. Budget life.

I choose a cafe in front of the amphitheatre to wait for Caroline. The waiter comes over and I order a coffee and then he tells me I cannot sit outside if I do not order food. I must sit inside. I’m rather flabbergasted at the ridiculous requirement and tell him to stuff it. Instead I sit on the steps of the amphitheatre, watching the crowds until Caroline returns.

Caroline manages to find a bunch of more cute places that I never saw, including the super kitschy blue house complete with bicycle, just perfect. For those interested you can find it here. Arles is truly a beautiful place! It seems me and Caroline went completely opposite ways. The old city of Arles is huge, you can explore for hours and find hidden gems everywhere. As you can see, most of these streets are empty!

After a great day exploring, it’s time to find our one euro bus to the Camargue, check in to our campsite, pitch up and eat something ever so slightly more nutritious than bread and chocolate.

Further exploring

A few more interesting spots relating to Van Gogh to visit, if you have the time:

Wikipedia describes The Starry Night as one of the most recognised paintings in all of western culture. Now think about this: Van Gogh sold one painting during his whole life. No wonder he suffered.

vang Gogh: Starry night

FACTS FACTS FACTS

How to get there

Arles is fairly easy to get to. There are trains and busses going to all the close large towns, such as Nîmes, Avignon & Salon-de-Provence.

If you are flying in purposefully for Arles, then fly to Marseille airport, where you can grab a bus or train connection.

If you are on a budget then hitchhike, we had trouble in France at first, but around Arles, we had lots of luck and lots of rides. We met some great people around here!

Things to do in Arles

  • Visit the amphitheatre
  • Retrace Van Gogh’s history and explore the museums
  • Abbey of Montmajour
  • Explore the Camargue nature reserve, we have a post about that.
  • Les Baux-de-Provence – a spectacular town carved into a mountain
  • Aigues-Mortes – a fortified town on the coast
  • Pont du Gard – the highest ancient Roman aqueduct in the world

Accommodation

Unfortunately for us we did not stay in Arles, instead we headed for the Camargue where we camped at Camping le Clos Du Rhône.

We tried to find some budget options in Arles but did not have much luck. It seems there are no hostels on Hostelworld. If you are tight on money it might be better to stay somewhere a bit further out and cheaper and just visit Arles for the day. That will be enough time to enjoy the city. Of course staying longer is always preferable, it’s a very enjoyable place.

Failing that, try Couchsurfing, it seems there are a lot of hosts for Arles. If you are worried, don’t be! You will have a blast. If you need some more encouragement check out some of our Couchsurfing experiences.

Booking.com

Pro Tips

  1. Get lost in the city, explore every nook and cranny, navigate each apparent dead end and find undiscovered treats around the corners. It’s easy to lose all the tourists and you will be rewarded for it.
  2. Bring your own food. From what we saw, there was nothing much interesting and it was very overpriced.

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