Gliding into the Roman beauty of Arles


Once aboard, we found our assigned seats, stowed our luggage, got out our magazines and then felt ourselves gently gliding out of the station. No noise or clanging as we slipped out of Paris. In three hours and forty-five minutes we’d be in Arles.

And when we got there, it would be sunny and warm. This is in stark contrast to Van Gogh’s journey. After traveling overnight, he arrived midday on February 20, 1888. To his surprise, Arles was unseasonably cold and under 15 – 18 inches of snow! So much for his vision of a sunny studio of the south.

Snowy Landscape with Arles in the Background

On March 3, 1888, Vincent wrote to Theo, "Down here it is freezing hard and there is still some snow left in the country. I have a study of a landscape in white with the town in the background."

Conditions didn’t improve until the second week of March. But he made use of it – from these weeks, we have a few landscapes with snow, not his usual subject matter, and a portrait of an Arlésienne woman, something he would revisit later.

I always find it interesting taking a train out of a large city. You see aspects of the urban environment that are normally hidden from view – the backs of buildings, informal dumpsites, loading docks, industrial canals, the real underside of the city. The contrast is especially striking in a city as beautiful as Paris.

What you can’t miss is the prevalence of graffiti everywhere. Not that the buildings or surfaces it was on were beautiful, but it was just everywhere – covered every square inch of everything.

Paris Grafitti

Now before all the grafitti fans complain, yes there are some masterpiece murals in Paris. A quick Google search will find them. But most of it? Just noise.

And as usual, most of it was crap. There was some interesting art, but a lot was just senseless tagging or badly-drawn slang. You wish that at the very least there was a place they could practice first before they made their mark in public.

But soon enough that’s behind you and you’re out into the countryside. That’s another thing I love about Europe – not nearly as much sprawl as in North America. You can draw a line where the town or city ends and the countryside begins. That’s what real urban planning is all about.

We read for a while, watched the scenery go by, and then of course, got hungry. Should have brought something for the trip. Off to find the dining car. Not bad – found two lunch combos that included tasty sandwiches, a cup of couscous and fruit pudding for dessert. Add two beers and call it lunch!

For a while we were right next to a highway. It was only then that we got a sense of how fast we were traveling, easily flying by anything on the highway. How civilized – city centre to city centre, smooth and relaxing. Around us, businessmen (commuters?) were getting some work in on their laptops – free WiFi on the train – while still others were napping.

TGV at the Arles station

Such a sleek train in a small town station. The beauty of French rail travel

Soon enough they announced Arles. We had booked at the Hotel Le Calendal based solely on online reviews. The hotel even had a spa which also had great reviews. Their website had provided instructions on how to walk from the train station to the hotel, and it seemed straight-forward, but with two big suitcases, I figured this wasn’t the time to save a few Euros. A ten Euro cab ride and we were in front of the most charming little hotel directly across from the Roman amphitheatre, and just around the corner from the Roman forum.

Arles - Hotel Calendal from amphitheatre

Our Hotel Calendal with the green umbrellas in front. Roman amphitheatre on the right, 500 year old tree behind the hotel in the courtyard restaurant. So it was only about 380 years old when Van Gogh walked these streets. It's likely he passed right by here on his way from the Yellow House to paint the tombs of the Alyscamps.


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