I just returned from a short sojourn in the Southern French city of Arles, which could, at some point, become a cool, mignon weekender destination for art aficionados (think Antwerp in the ’90s for fashion mavens).
Unlike its flashy French Riviera neighbors, Arles has more of a shabby-chic feel to it. Everything is rundown — some of it charmingly so, other parts just rundown. Arles is like some young, beautiful Bohemian hippie guy who could be on a catwalk in Milan if he just got scrubbed down and cleaned up.
And, by 2018 it will have been imbued with the requisite star power (more precisely starchitect power) to launch it as a small-scale European arts/design destination. Internationally renowned architect Frank Gehry is putting his creative touch on the 20-acre Art Resource Center located along the Eastern side of the Boulevard des Lices.
Another international design star —fashionisto Christian La Croix — also recently waved his magic wand over this small city (his home town) when he christened the 5-star Jules Cesar hotel last year. The property — where I stayed — oozes the ostentatious, bold, flamboyance that the designer is known for with vibrant colors abounding, and decadent Roman undertones.
In contrast to this, its location’s past incarnation was markedly puritanical: it was a nunnery (this is reflected in the unfortunately small single window in each fairly dark room).
The historic part of the city — whose Southern boundary the Jules Cesar sits on — is both Southern French and Roman. The former is evident in its colorful shutters and little cafes fronted by blackboard menus inscribed with handwriting.
The latter is embodied in Roman ruins and most notably the old city center’s focal point is its Roman arena where bullfights are still held — (one of macho Pablo Picasso’s man-haunts, back in the day).
Nowhere is the town’s romantic faded glory more evident than the salaciously named Grand Hotel North Pinus lobby lounge. In the height of the off-season, the whole saffron-lit room was empty yet replete with a haunting presence. Photography punctuated the space which was furnished with caramel-colored leather armchairs and old Moorish-looking chandeliers. This was apparently part of the stomping grounds of such intellectual heroes as Jean Cocteau and Ernest Hemingway (I can imagine the latter would have spent many an afternoon soaking up the death at bullfighting matches in the arena).
An inaugural stay in Arles necessitates a visit to the various Roman ruins which dot the old town like the aforementioned arena, as well as the stunning Roman theatre. Again, having gone there in the off-season I was privy to what every actress dreads (and every savvy tourist loves) — an empty venue. The weather was a moderate 65 degrees Fahrenheit but it felt like 80 degree weather in the theatre, I’m guessing, thanks to the Roman stonework which soaked in the sun.
With a fervor equaling my emphasis on visiting the aformentioned, I must conversely underscore that the Roman baths are a waste of time. There’s not much to see in the latter (just a fraction of the original baths) and let’s face it, you’re visiting a sex den. It’s akin to future-visitors to Manhattan paying money to view a gay bathhouse — a bit harsh, I know but true nonetheless.
Arles’ crowning jewel is the Musée Reattu. I had never heard of its namesake artist Jacques Reattu prior to my visit. He painted in the period between the 18th and 19th centuries — beautiful portraits and vivid Greco-Roman-themed tableaux. Like visiting say The Frick in New York, the Reattu’s lure is its context. Viewing artwork by M. Reattu, along with more contemporary works by Ton Zwerver in a late 15th century space (once Reattu’s studio and home) is unique and unforgettable. Picasso — perhaps committing one of the few acts of kindness of his life — donated some of his (lesser) works, drawings, to the museum, obviously feeling for the city in regards to its lack of Van Goghs .
Again, the off-season provided a special experience for me — simulating what it might have been like to have been invited into someone’s home to view their private collection. I was one of two people in the entire museum (not a huge one, mind you). The surly and regimented security guards’ insistance on visitors taking a prescribed route through the place notwithstanding, it was a beautiful experience.
Food-wise, I had a lovely meal at Le Jardin de Manon — a mom n’ pop restaurant in a not-so-pretty residential part of Arles. What the route to the eatery lacked in charm it made up for in quirky historical significance. To get there, I had to pass the final resting place of Jeanne Calment, Arles’ most famous non-famous resident — otherwise known as the oldest living human; she died at 122. Hopefully, touching the gate of her residence was like a magical rite that infused me with a vitality and a stick-to-itiveness to stick around — befitting of the grand dame.
However, the jewel of a dining experience that will perhaps never leave me were my two meals at La Gueule du Loup, located on a hilly old town street at 39 Rue des Arènes. The breaded oysters which sat on some sort of exquisite ham terrine base were gorgeous, the homemade foie gras to die for, the Coquilles St. Jacques, everything you’d ever want out of this French classic and lastly, their Fleur du Sel dessert (dark chocolate mousse delicately coated in salted caramel sitting atop some sort of lovely biscuit) was one of the best French desserts I’ve ever tasted! Even before sitting down to enjoy a top meal, as you enter the premises you smell the sweetness of the open kitchen in this charming little family-run restaurant situated in a space that echoes the old stonework theme permeating the historic center.
And last but not least, what about Arles’ most famous short-term resident, Vincent Van Gogh? Sadly, this shabby chic city does not own any of the artist’s paintings despite the fact that one of his most prolific periods was spent there (creating Arles-depicting works like Starry Night and Cafe Terrace at Night). The Reattu does possess a letter from Van Gogh to his brother Theo which I read — it truthfully felt a bit strange reading someone’s confidential missive. Last year, the Fondation Vincent Van Gogh opened to honour the master’s work and connection to Arles — however, again with a glaring lack of his paintings.
It is however perhaps just as well. This prompts visitors to Arles to explore the settings of Van Gogh’s works and be inspired by them: the banks of the Rhone where Starry Night was painted, the arena, the courtyard of the Arles hospital… And then there are of course those would-be artists who sit around the fountain in front of the Hotel de Ville sketching, hoping that some of Van Gogh’s genius (and no doubt brilliant madness) will possess their pencils, if for just a fleeting moment.