Arles is a modest-sized French city in the region of Provence. Its more specific location is the Camargue, a large, development-free expanse of breathtaking flora and fauna that includes pink-hued flamingoes, white horses, and bulls. Most famously, Arles is where Vincent van Gogh spent a brief, highly productive sojourn. Not many of the sights that van Gogh painted are still extant in modern Arles, where nature is in short supply.
Arles has taken full touristic advantage of van Gogh’s time here, with van Gogh walking tours and souvenirs. In this sense, Arles is comparable to Salzburg, Austria, which has capitalized on its native son, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Vincent van Gogh, of course, was not a native son of Arles, nor was he even French—nor did Arles accord him an iota of respect or recognition. At best, he was simply ignored. At worst, derided. New accounts of van Gogh’s death postulate that the reception he received in Arles ranged from mockery to lethality. The painter’s death might not have been suicide but could have been, in fact, murder. How would he have viewed this posthumous honor as Arles’ favorite son?
Arles has the expected abundance of enticing cafés and historic churches. One of the town’s main streets was actually constructed under Roman rule. There is a mammoth Roman amphitheater to visit and explore as well as a smaller forum. Scooters zip on by while a priest can be observed—robes and all—riding his bicycle. Almost the entire city is visually dazzling. There is something intriguing as well about the older, more threadbare Arles, with its distinctively outdated signs, utilitarian eateries, hair salons, and shops. Can something be a cliché even though it’s an accurate representation?
Arles is filled with the sounds of music. Most of these sounds, surprisingly, are of the sub-par variety. Anemic American pop oozes forth at practically every eatery and retail outfit. That supposed Gallic hyper-pride at all things French is painfully absent. Arles’ historic Roman forum is utilized for an endless series of very amplified youth concerts—most of it in the syrupy Eurovision variety—which reverberate throughout town. Christmas carols are sung in English, while visions of snow and sledding pouring forth into the warm Provencal night.
On another warm night in the midst of the city center crowded with hotels, cafés, and restaurants, a French guitar-vocal duo entertains the crowd. The female singer’s repertoire is mostly of the classic American songbook variety, with a few French chestnuts thrown in as well. At some point she departs from this format to embark on a slow, soulful rendition of Radiohead’s “Creep.” And thus, the delicately phrased lyrics, you’re so fucking special—carefully enunciated—waft pleasantly over the crowd.
Arles, for its modest size, is a cultural powerhouse. Actes Sud, the renowned French publishing house, operates an enormous bookstore and smaller movie theater. Galleries and photography foundations have allowed photography to take root in Arles.The Luma Foundation, a well-funded, multi-tiered arts institution, is a prominent and growing presence here. Housed in a dazzling Frank Gehry–designed structure, it is composed of ten stories of twisting metal and thousands of stainless steel panels. The foundation is poised for expansion and it’s very probable that Arles, in a matter of years, will be a different place.
At dinner one night, we fall into conversation with a pleasant couple from Liechtenstein, here for a brief vacation. It is the first time I have ever met anyone from Liechtenstein. This gets me—also for the first time—thinking about Liechtenstein, one of the world’s smallest countries. Liechtenstein—along with Uzbekistan—is the world’s only doubly-landlocked nation. Who knew that doubly-landlocked was even a thing? Liechtenstein is entirely surrounded by Switzerland and Austria, themselves also landlocked. Europe is dotted with these micro-states. Are these charming anachronisms? Or relics of Europe’s psychotic nationalism, this mania of boundaries, borders, fiefs, flags?
However, a Muslim presence is immediately visible in Arles. Food stands are redolent of the Middle East: the colors of its foods, spices, and its scents. An Arles café bears the Greek flag—the proprietor tells me her parents came from Greece and there is a significant émigré community. Apparently Arles was also a refuge for Italian anti-Fascists and displaced Spanish Loyalists. The mayor of Arles is a Communist, a glad-handing sort who burst into a café one morning as my daughter and I were eating, enthusiastically shaking our hands and then immediately losing interest when he realized we weren’t his constituents or even French. Arles, politically, is the regional exception. The greater Provence area is of the hardline, right-wing variety.
In the recent past, the American traveling through Europe would have changed dollars into francs or lira or pesos or guilders. There would be a ream of carefully annotated traveler’s checks. Reading the International Herald Tribune was a time-honored ritual. The newspaper had utilitarian applications as well, of course. It was the best conduit to see what was going on back home. Postcards were sent to friends and family back in the States, packed with informative, chatty details and bearing faraway stamps.
Then there were the longer, more evocative letters one sent home from one’s stay in Arles—ones even more distinctive than postcards. They were mostly blue. A blue envelope immediately signified foreignness, as American envelopes were almost never that color. These also included the par avion emblazoned along the front, along with French stamps. A letter from Arles, of course, was even better than receiving a postcard. It was not something to be taken for granted, this letter from Arles.
Where is your favorite place in France other than Paris? What city has stood out to you?
Header image by Lily Prince.