We need to get away – and fast. It’s been crazy with work recently and when our day trip to the seaside doesn’t go exactly as I planned, I have a complete melt down- a disproportionate reaction to a minor annoyance (we went to check out a new beach only to find ourselves in an ugly, commercial harbour). I tell my husband I can’t see things in colour any more. Three days later we are on the train hading for Avignion. Once there, a little slow train takes us through fields of sunflowers to Arles.
I have no expectation of Arles. When we booked our hotels (we are staying in three different ones, with one out in the countryside for a weekend), I’ve completely forgotten about the town’s fame arising from Van Gogh’s Cafe Terrace at Night or the Starry Night. Arles was going to be a gateway to Camargue I dreamt of seeing.
Little do I know that Arles is full of sweet surprises. Les Rencontres d’Arles, an annual photography festival and Cannes of photography, is in full swing when we arrive. Photographs are everywhere- on the walls, in galleries and disused churches and even in a former hospital where Van Gogh was staying after the notorious, ear cutting psychotic episode. I take in all the photographs as greedily as I can. I come back to the hotel loaded with photography albums, my husband ever more worried about how are we going to carry it all back (I bought baskets, too and truck load of lavender which is now in bloom). One night we stumble upon a wine bar, which hosts Louis Vuitton pop up books shop and their Fashion Eye series (they are not really about fashion but travel photography) and LV city guides. I return a few days later to buy Iran by Harley Weir for my husband and Paris City Gide for myself. As I’m paying for the books, three women walk in having seen a LV logo. They seem confused when they see a wine shop and books.
I fall in love with the town, with its vanilla coloured houses and duck egg blue shutters. With narrow streets full of bougainvillea flowers, every corner, every street is charming, inviting to take too many photographs. I love the colours, too, faded into subtle pastels in the hot sun and taking on deeper, richer hues as the sun starts to go down.
I contact a local photographer to take photos for Sascha & The Boys online shop and social media. I finally have all dresses with me, in a new fabric, and the shop is due to go live in 2 weeks. We meet in the morning on the ancient square and go in search of locations. It’s not difficult- just around the corner we stumble upon a charming combination of stairs, blue door against creamy wall and bougainvillea flowers. We finish up with a breakfast of coffee and croissant on the terrace of Julius Cesar hotel, formerly a Carmelite convent.
A walking tour in the footsteps of Van Gogh is a must. Foundation of Vincent Van Gogh is worth visiting too even though it only hosts a few of his lesser known paintings. It also houses a small, well curated exhibition (well, not according to some reviews on Trip Advisor- it seems that some people came to see Sunflowers and other masterpieces in Arles without reading up first, and were furious not to have found them there. Truly, some reviews were so hilarious I took screen shots because they are a pinnacle of stupidity).
In the evenings, we stroll past an ancient Roman arena bathed in golden light, in search for a restaurant. My favourite local food (we both don’t eat meat so the local beef is strictly off limits) is a plate of tellines en persillades, small wedge clams in a garlicky, buttery sauce with parsley. It’s so good I lick every mussel and my fingers, too.
For Apero, that French tradition of cocktail hour, we go to Hotel Grand Nord Pinus on Place du Forum. Yes, that famous square from the painting. Hotel feels as if we stepped into Almodovar’s movie set. The bar has stained glass windows and chandeliers, and photographs of famous guess, including Picasso’s, on on the walls. Some evenings, we sit outside and watch people crowding by famous Le Cafe la Nuit.
I’m not into bullfighting in any shape or form but it’s a local tradition and takes place in the ancient arena. “Here, we don’t kill the bull at the end of the fight- explains our guide Sandrine when we ride in an open jeep across vast landscape of Camargue- here it is the bull who is the star, not a man. The job of a raseteur is to grab one of the prices from bulls’ horns. Some of the prices can be worth as much as 2000€. Bulls who want to play, come back to the arena year after year, even wiser and cunning. They retire of old age and we put up statues for them”.
“And the ones who don’t want to play?” – I ask. Sandrine makes a silent gesture across her throat.
We stop at Saintes Marie de la Mer where there are two statues of famous bulls. One of them named Garlan, Sandrine tells me, is still alive and retired with a herd on a pasture nearby. We saw him when we stopped to admire a herd of these mighty looking animals, however, which one was Garlan in a herd of all black males, is anyones guess.
Saintes Marie do la Mer hosts an annual Gypsy pilgrimage. The Romas, the Gitans, the Manoushes, they all come here to celebrate their patron saint, Sara le Kali (Sara the Black). On 24th May, her effigy dressed in colourful clothes and jewellery, is carried into the sea.
We carry on driving. Once we pass Arles and the fields of sunflowers, the landscape changes. It’s wild, and harsh and moody. We see famous semi wild white horses of Camargue. Sandrine tells me that after a year with their mother, they are let to run wild for three years. After that they either work with gardians (French cowboys) and bulls or-if they are not interested in working- they are used for horse riding for visitors. They are born brown and when they are 6 years old, they turn completely white.
We drive through marshes full of birds, stop at lagoons to admire pink flamingos and see swans floating in the pink tinged waters of Camargue famous salt pans. The area is so wild and vast I can’t believe we are in France. I stand up in the jeep and feel the wind on my face. For the first time in months, I see colours again.