ARLES, France -- In this Provencal city of Roman ruins, the schizoid artist Vincent van Gogh, probably whacked out on absinthe, went bonkers and sliced off his ear. He presented it to a local prostitute, the story goes.
In a majestic amphitheater the Romans built, Les Arenes Romaines, gladiators whacked each other to eternity and Christians were fed to lions and other beasts.
Blood still flows in that same arena, but these days it's the animals that are the losers. Arles is one of the few cities in southern France that allow bullfighting the Spanish way. That is, when a bull leaves this ring the next stop is the butcher's shop.
Like van Gogh, the bull loses an ear. It goes as a trophy to the matador.
Much to the chagrin of animal-rights activists, attendance at bullfights in the South of France has increased impressively over the past 10 years or so and nobody is sure why. The Arles arena, which seats 20,000, is usually almost full. Annual attendance nationwide is upward of 600,000.
Festivities such as the running of the bulls that put Pamplona, Spain, on the map are also spreading in the small towns and villages across the Provence and Languedoc regions of southern France.
Bullfighting in Provence usually begins in February and runs through October. In Arles, festivities during La Feria Pascale over the three-day Easter weekend focus on bullfights. During October bullfights are held every Saturday and Sunday. Most of the bulls are raised locally.
It was in the Arles arena in 1989 that France's greatest bullfighter, Nimeno II, was hooked and thrown to the ground by a 1,210-pound bull. The matador landed on his neck, broke two vertebrae and was left paralyzed. He later committed suicide.
Up the road in the rival city of Nimes, a 21-year-old matador was placed under investigation for cruelty to animals in June for killing five bulls to entertain some friends at a party.
It was also in Nimes two years ago that Cristina Sanchez was promoted to matador after killing the required 60 smaller bulls as a novice. The 24-year-old Spaniard was the first woman to achieve that status in Europe.
There's no evidence that van Gogh was a fan of bullfighting, which was introduced to France in 1853 at the urging of Empress Eugenie, the Spanish-born wife of Napoleon III.
Van Gogh left Paris in 1888 and spent a frenzied 15 months in Arles, excited about the colors of the region, the cobalt blue sky. He felt the people of Arles were "more artistic than in the north in their own persons and manner of life."
He painted the few friends he made, the flowers and roads of Provence, a bridge over the Rhone River, the river at night, his chair and pipe, cafes and streets, the yellow house where he lived.
His paintings of the original Cafe de Nuit, the Pont de Trinquetaille and the Jardin d'Hiver are among his best.
A self-portrait he painted here in 1888 sold for $26.4 million at an auction at Christie's in New York in 1990.
Van Gogh never sold a painting and committed suicide at age 37.
Perhaps it was fitting that this city of ancient edifices was home to the world's oldest human being (according to the Guinness Book of World Records) until she died in August at age 122.
Jeanne Calment, who claimed she knew van Gogh as a young girl, was riding a bicycle around town and released a "rap" record around the time of her 120th birthday. She told reporters at the time there was no real secret to her longevity.
"I took pleasure when I could," she said. "I acted clearly and morally and without regret. I'm very lucky."
The first inhabitants of Arles probably were the Greeks, who arrived from Marseille in the sixth century B.C., but it was the Romans who left the deepest footprints.
Arles stands on the left bank of the Rhone, where the river divides. Once a major port, it was a commercial crossroads for merchants on their way from Rome to Spain or northern Europe.
The city used to sit on the edge of the Mediterranean, but over the centuries silt from the river pushed back the water so that today it is in the middle of the Camargue region, a unique ecosystem of pastures, dunes and marshes.
The Camargue is France's cowboy country, known for black bulls (raised for the bullfight arena), white horses and pink flamingoes.
Arles, a former capital of Gaul, was an important city at the time of the invasion of Julius Caesar, who favored developing the city economically and culturally over the Mediterranean port city of Marseille to the south. Arles was pillaged in A.D. 270, but restored and embellished by Constantine, who made it his principal home and founded Trinquetaille.
After the Roman Empire fell, the city passed into the hands of the Visigoths and rapidly declined. It was plundered by the Saracens in 730, but in the 10th century became the capital of the kingdom of Arles.
Arles, with its twisting narrow streets, is built around the Arenes. The Romans also built a theater nearby, where the famous Venus of Arles was discovered in 1651.
During the summer the ruins of the Theatre Antique are the site of classical concerts, dance and theater performances.
On the central Place de la Republique stand the hotel-de-ville, a museum and the Cathedral of St. Trophime. Founded in the seventh century, the cathedral has been rebuilt several times. Its chief portal, 12th-century Romanesque, is a masterpiece.
The museum, occupying an old Gothic church, is rich in Roman remains and early Christian sarcophagi.
The Musee de l'Arles Antique is said to house the finest collection of early Christian art outside the Vatican.
There is also a museum of Provencal arts and crafts founded by the poet F. Mistral, an ancient obelisk, the ruins of the Baths of Constantine, the forum and the remains of Roman ramparts and aqueducts. A Roman cemetery known as the Alis-camps consists of an avenue bordered by tombs.
THE BEST WAY FOR visitors to become oriented in Arles is on the open-air tour train that snakes through the city's narrow, winding streets where cars are not allowed. It leaves from the tourist information center in the heart of the town.
Special events during the year include Les Premices du Riz, the Rice Festival, Sept. 5 and 6. The farmers of the Camargue have grown France's rice for more than eight centuries.
The celebration begins with the election of an ambassadrice (woman ambassador) who comes up the Rhone to Arles, where she is welcomed by gardiens (Camarguais horsemen) who escort her to the town hall.
SEVERAL PROCESSIONS THROUGH town are capped with a parade of gardiens and folkloric dances performed by women decked out in their Arlesian costumes and lace headdresses.
May Day is celebrated with a rodeo and another parade through town by mounted herdsmen from the Camargue.
The 1998 Christmas Market (Provence Prestige) will be held Nov. 22-25, with more than 80 booths offering food baskets, faience, Provencal-style fabric, furniture, art, decorations and the popular figurines called santons.
As for night life, a good place to sample pastis, that licorice-flavored cousin of the now-outlawed absinthe, is Bar La Corrida in the Hotel Nord-Pinus on the Place du Forum. This popular hangout of matadors and their groupies is decorated with the pictures, posters and costumes of toreros.
Le Tropicana on Rue Moliere features a piano bar and Pub le 37 Degrees 2 on Olace Honore-Clair offers ice cream and cocktails from 10 p.m. until dawn.
RESTAURANTS RANGE FROM the inexpensive Restaurant d'Arlaten, a rustic and homey place crowded with locals, to the pricey Lou Marques, located in a restored 17th-century convent that is now the Hotel Jules-Cesar. With prixfixe menus ranging from about $35 to $75, the menu features fish dishes ranging from the local baudroie to sea bass and lobster, all prepared with Provencal herbs and seasoning.
Art lovers perhaps gravitate to Cafe van Gogh, located on the site of the original Cafe de la Nuit. It's an evocative place to sit and absorb the sights and sounds of Place du Forum and contemplate why the artist mutilated his ear.
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