I recently saw a piece in The Guardian on Vincent van Gogh’s Peach Blossom in Arles (1888) and it reminded me of the beauty of this short moment in Provence when the blossoms on the fruit trees carpet the countryside in shades of white and pink. There’s a feeling of optimism in the air as the cold chill of the winter months and the Mistral wind have hopefully past and people are out and about again enjoying the warmer days.
Van Gogh painted many paintings of the blossoms in and around Arles, and more than 120 years later you can still see the same trees in the orchards all around. The paintings, in comparison to some of his other works depicting heavy skies and foreboding stark trees painted with thick strokes and dark layers of paint are light and airy, maybe even Van Gogh’s mood was lightened by the sight of the blossom.
I was also reminded how the last time I was in Arles was on a freezing cold day at the beginning of February to meet Heather Robinson who has the lovely blog Lost in Arles. I had asked her to show me some of her favourite places in Arles and despite it being the coldest week of the year, and it really was cold, my hands and feet were numb, she kept to our plan and we met up on a Saturday with Julie Mautner of The Provence Post at the Bar du Marché, 8 Blvd des Lices, Arles. It was market day (Arles has the best market around on Saturday mornings, see my post here http://provencecalling.com/provence/autumn-market-in-arles/), and it is customary to go the Bar du Marché after you’ve been to the market, to rest your arms and legs and reward yourself with a glass of wine and snack on the olives, saucisson or cheese that you have bought.
But not this Saturday, with the best will in the World, there was no way we were going to be sitting outside anywhere and so Heather suggested that we go to the Brasserie des Lices, a few doors down at 14 Blvd des Lices instead for an apero of a glass of wine and some oysters.
The bar had only been open a few months, but the locals had already claimed it as theirs; it was packed even though it was the coldest Saturday of the year! Heather ordered 3 glasses of wine and half a dozen oysters, which came with vinegar and chopped échalotes (shallots) otherwise known as a mignonnette. I asked if they had a sauce piquante, “Tabasco?” the man at the bar asked in shock and disbelief and dispatched one of his cronies to find the pepper mill. He explained that freshly ground white pepper would enhance the taste of the oysters whereas Tabasco would override it and he was quite right; I will never be so crass as to ask for Tabesco for my oysters again!
As we drank our wine and shared the oysters, Heather told us a bit about herself; how she and her partner, the photographer Remi Benali came to live in Arles, after she had moved from New York, where she had been an actress. As a consequence of moving in with Remi and not being able to practice her profession on a foreign language, she had become a travel writer accompanying him on his photographic trips around the World. It all sounded deeply romantic to me, however it was now close to 1 o’clock and we had a lunch reservation and as everyone knows, if you arrive late for lunch in France you face the consequences. We braced ourselves once again against the cold and Heather guided us through the town to her favourite restaurant in Arles called l’Autruche, which was down a little back street at 5 rue Dulau,Arles 0490497363.
The restaurant was full, but the owners had kept our table for us and even welcomed us with a kiss, phew!
There was a simple lunch menu with two choices porc sallée, salt pork with lentils or Coquilles St Jacques with winter vegetables. Both were tempting, but I decided to go with the Coquilles.
When my plate arrived I knew I’d made the right decision. The coquilles were accompanied by a foamy reduction of a bouillabaisse cooked with saffron, the mashed potatoes were violet, the carrots orange and the dabs of yellow aioli sauce with the green fennel created what looked like flower petals on my plate. It was a lovely sight to brighten up a winter’s day and it tasted delicious.
The pork looked pretty good too.
Later the chef came out to talk to us, and told us that he had worked in Paris under the chef Sylvestre Wahid and came to Provence with him when Wahid was appointed chef at Beaumaniers (the renowned restaurant in Les Baux de Provence) and worked there for four years before coming here.
Fortified with food, we wondered back out into the cold. Walking through the town, Heather pointed out many of her favourite buildings. She pointed out that the reason so many of the windows in the buildings had been bricked up was because there was a tax on windows at one time and that there was a tax on the amount of ground space a building was built on, so the buildings tended to be tall and narrow rather than low and spread out.
She also showed us how the facades of the houses were pushed back in the 19th century to widen the streets as ladies dresses got wider and the carriages had to became wider to accommodate them.
She invited us back to her house for coffee and we were glad to come in from the cold and to meet her lovely dog Ben who dutifully posed for us.
Even he was wrapped up in a blanket, it was so cold.
She later showed us around the area known as La Roquette, which has become the ‘arty’ quarter of Arles with art galleries, artist’s studios and individual design shops. As we walked around a tall stone wall, Heather pointed out a doorway set into the wall and almost hidden away down a narrow street, which leads to the courtyard of L’Hotel Particulier (meaning grand town house), at 4 rue de la Monnaie, Arles 13200, 0490525140. The building was originally built in 1824 by the town’s mayor and was restored in 2002 and turned into the beautiful boutique hotel it is now. Condé Nast Traveller described it as having “some of the best bedrooms in Arles – quirky and spacious, with all modern amenities”.
We wondered back through the Place du Forum, which is where Van Gogh painted the famous painting The Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum, now housed in the Kröller-Müller Museum.
Which brought us to Arles’ other stylish hotel Le Nord Pinus, at 14, Place du Forum, 0490934444 which unfortunately was shut for the winter, but in the Spring and Summer you can sit in the restaurant and bar and pass the time looking at the many photographs on the wall taken by Peter Beard and Peter Lindbergh. This is where everyone congregates during the Arles photographic Festival, known as Les Rencontres in early June.
In front of the hotel you can see the statue of Fréderic Mistral, local poet from nearby Maillane, who famously denounced the statue by saying it looked like someone waiting for a train…..you can see his point. Part of the outer wall of the hotel contains the Roman portico which once lead to the forum, I love how many of the Roman ruins in Arles have been absorbed into other buildings.
With thanks to Heather for sharing her time and her love of the city she calls home. Please take a look at her blog for more on her life in Arles along with beautiful photos of the town and the surrounding countryside at http://lostinarles.blogspot.com/.
Also thanks to all of you who commented on my last post, the winner of the book The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry goes to John Eadington, I must confess that I didn’t use the random number generator as he and his wife, age 60, are setting off to walk the 500 mile walk along the Camino de Santiago later this year and I decided they needed all the encouragement they could get!
And I hope you like my new look website…..thanks to Garth Wilson, however it is still a work in progress, so please excuse any glitches, we are working on them……