“Cree, cree, cree” went the cicadas, everywhere we went. The ubiquitous sound of these insects is the soundtrack to Provence in summer.
They start to ring in your ears, and become one with your subconsciousness that you almost stop hearing them altogether.
And the same with my eyes. I just have to close them and I’m back in the blazing heat of summer in the south of France, sipping on rose and stumbling onto fields of lavender and sunflowers.
The memories of my trip last year are still vivid in all its glorious light, and oh, that light. The light with which so many artists are enamoured, so many who chase after the Provençal clarity, that they uproot themselves to indulge in their creative selves and make the rest of us dream of moving to a teeny home in the hills of the Luberon.
And none who chased it more passionately than Vincent Van Gogh who made his second-to-last home in St Remy, where his creative genius produced 150 pieces of art while he was institutionalised at the St Paul monastery and hospital after chopping off part of his earlobe.
Because it is still a functioning hospital, visitors are encouraged to keep their voices down, which to be honest, makes for a peaceful visit. And one that can become quite moving if you really stopped for a minute to reflect upon this great artist’s life.
We didn’t have enough time to visit another nearby sight, the ruins of the ancient Roman site, Glanum, that was founded in 27BC.
Plus, we were there during one of the hottest times in Provence’s recent history (la canicale!) and walking around the unshaded remnants was the last thing we felt like doing.
There is more to St Remy than just these two sights, of course. It is widely acknowledged to be the most sophisticated of the Luberon towns, and on Wednesdays, a busy market takes over the small town.
With its many cafés and restaurants, it’s also a good place for a meal stop on your drive around the Luberon.
Les Baux des Provence
We arrived rather late to St Paul, around 4pm because we had visited two other important and interesting sites earlier in the day.
(I think the reason why we couldn’t bring ourselves to walk around Glanum was because we had already strolled around in the blazing heat while exploring the medieval hilltop town of Les Baux.)
It is a 15-minute drive from St Remy, or a 35-minute drive from Avignon.
Les Baux comprises the tourist-friendly Lower Town with many boutiques and cafes, but where people flock to is the Chateau des Baux.
I won’t get into the details of the castle ruins, since this article is really more about my brush with Van Gogh on this trip. But in short, this was the 11C fortress of the mighty Lords of Baux who fought the counts of Barcelona for control of Provence… they lost though. After a few more big fights with the French king and Rome, eventually this powerful regime and town was crushed.
But what a coincidence that on my flight to France, I had watched At Eternity’s Gate, a 2018 movie starring Willem Defoe as the artist.
And there were images thoughtfully placed among the ruins of the stone fortress carved out of a rock 250m above the valley.
Les Carrières de Lumières
We had parked our car at one of the free limited parking spaces at Carrières de Lumières (Quarries of Lights) and then walked up for about 15 minutes to Les Baux.
The quarry is huge with many vertical walls on which wondrous light shows are projected. What a good fortune that they were featuring Van Gogh when I was there!
You can just lose yourself there for a good 30 minutes. Plus after all the heat of Les Baux, you will certainly enjoy the cool of these caves.
Dreamed Japan, Images of the Floating World was the other exhibition. Japanese printmaking was a huge inspiration for Van Gogh so it was wonderful that they combined this exhibition as well.
The new exposition starting in March 2020 features Dali and Gaudi (wow, another artist and an architect whom I adore!) looks superb too.
All the better because of Van Gogh
Whether I was just lucky or the starry stars had aligned, my trip was made all the more poignant, romantic, evocative because of Van Gogh. He is my favourite artist, not just because of his work, but because of his life’s struggles and my own personal “connection” with him by way of my brother, who is also mentally ill.
Thank you Provence for continuing to showcase the brilliance of this genius!