Its 2000 year history embraces the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Jews, the Gypsy Kings and, of course, Vincent van Gogh, who lived here between February 1888 to July 1890. But although there is a defined tourist area, centred on the Forum, and although it attracts thousands of visitors every year, it remains defiantly a communist town, with a working class ethos. There is nothing pretty or twee here; Arles is as gritty and uncompromising as the dust which the Mistral blows around its streets and squares.
The excuse for our most recent visit was the new Fondation Vincent van Gogh, in which some 50 or so drawings and prints are on display in a beautiful hybrid building – half 15th century and half 21st century – located in a small street between the forum and the amphitheatre.
It is a refreshing exhibition, because none of the famous, iconic paintings are here – a fact which provoked an American family buying tickets ahead of us to cancel their visit (“You’re telling me you have no originals at all?”). Instead, we are encouraged to focus on his draughtsmanship, his printmaking and his subject matter. Appropriately for a resident of a communist town, van Gogh’s early ambition was to create prints which could be bought at an affordable price by the working class, showing activities inspired by their working lives. In Arles, he cut and trimmed reeds to make pens which which he drew peasants, artisans and labourers at work and at play. Many are poignant; all are dignified and none more so than the gravediggers in Cemetery in the Rain.
At Le Galoubet, one dines underneath the vines on a beautiful terrace and eats from a small but perfectly formed carte. On the day in question, it featured œuf mollet on a bed of ratatouille to start and suprême of pintadeau to follow. Perfect. And the demi pichet of red to accompany the meal was from Estézargues, wine I first drank in Terroirs in King William IV Street in London. We decided quickly that this would be our new house red and left Arles, raced down the autoroute and arrived in Estézargues (midway between St Quentin la Poterie and Avignon) within the hour. Another hour later, our degustation came to an end and we were cruising home with a boot full of sublime CdR – including an unfiltered Cinsault which I commend to all you fans of natural wines.
With the Mistral keeping the clouds at bay, we spent the evening in the company of this wine, sitting in the courtyard and looking up occasionally to admire our very own Starry Night.
A good day. Vin and Vincent is a great combination.
Today from the everysmith vaults: another great combination, thanks to Wolfgang. Jim Hall and Tal Farlow in Central Park back in 1973. Only a short set but every bar is exquisite.
PS. For our American friends, I should point out that there is an 'original' in the Fondation. Here it is - A Pile of French Novels.