From Paris to Provence: Where to Eat, Walk, Sleep and View Art in Arles

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Two million people visit Arles every year, but it doesn’t feel like a tourist town. Its graceful streets and leafy squares are understated, signage is minimal, and the city’s rich cultural heritage mixes easily with modern life.

The best way to discover Arles is on foot, and I had the recent good fortune to take a walking tour with local private guide Agnès Barrier. From over 100 monuments classified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Agnès selected half a dozen for our morning visit.

As we made our way across town, she reconstructed the city’s history, from its strategic role in the Roman empire (Caesar founded a Roman colony here), through its medieval struggles, Renaissance flourishes, and 19th century traditions.

We went underground to see the foundation of a public square dating to 46BC; explored the elliptical 12,000 seat Roman amphitheater and a sumptuously decorated smaller theater (both are still in use). At the city’s archeological museum, we marveled at a 2000 year-old wooden barge that represented a complex shipping culture.

Agnès led me to more recent innovations, too: the classical town hall; the best gelato shop in town; le boucher whose window display honors the taureaux, the illustrious Provençal bulls raised in nearby Camargue. We followed in the footsteps of Vincent Van Gogh, who painted prolifically in Arles in 1888 and 1889.

The last whetted my appetite for art, and after lunch I followed a tiny side street to the newly inaugurated Fondation Van Gogh, where paintings by the Dutch master are shown in the context of contemporary works by American and European artists.

The building is a glorious renovation of a 15th century private mansion, and the exhibition, which included The Parisian Novels (a must for Zola fans), was a treat. I’ll go out of my way to return the next time I’m in Provence.

Another très intéressant mix of old and new is the Hôtel Jules César, a former Carmelite convent recently redesigned by a famous son of Arles, Christian Lacroix. The bar is a stunning space, mixing primary colors with lime walls, patterned carpets, classical sculpture and modern art—a great place to relax with a glass of wine after day of walking.

Where to walk. Nearly all of Arles is within a 15 minute walk of the city center, and the city’s tourism website makes it easy to locate and learn about historical periods and venues as well as festivals, local products, parks, and museums.

Where to eat. The charming Les Filles du 16 bistro is just around the corner from Fondation Van Gogh, and serves regional specialties including Camargue bull meat stew. Excellent food, value, and atmosphere for lunch or dinner.

Where to stay. Centrally located Hôtel Jules César is luxurious, bold and theatrical. Rich colors and a surprising mix of patterns, fabrics and periods make it visually arresting, rooms are spacious, and the grounds are peaceful and beautiful.

See a few photos of my trip to Arles here.

Paris via Williamstown, VanGogh and Nature

Van Gogh and Nature” at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, MA gave me a new point of reference for the artist’s work. The show—gorgeous, organized chronologically, and full of lesser known works—makes the case that the natural world wasn’t just important in VanGogh’s painting, but central to his life.

VanGogh was a curious nature-lover in his youth, and his early works were somber colored, detailed drawings of rural Holland. As a young adult, he moved to Paris for art training; influenced greatly by Monet, his depictions of the natural world brightened.

Where other artists painted Paris’ technological advances, VanGogh looked closely at its green spaces: sloping hillsides, garden patches, parks, flowers. (He revealed Haussman’s architecture as a few pale, brownish brushstrokes at the edge of the canvas.)

In Provence, VanGogh used brilliant color and abstracted forms to capture olive groves, grain fields, cypress trees. These are the paintings we most associate with the artist, and my viewing was made richer by the works that preceded them: small naturalist studies of moths, birds, and butterflies; still lives; Impressionistic renderings of Paris farmland; works by Monet, Millet, and Japanese print artists who influenced him.

If you have time, take the shuttle bus from the main gallery up the hill to the Lunder Center: Whistler’s Mother, normally at Musée d’Orsay, is there, in a room of its own.

Until Sept 13

Paris via Montreal, From VanGogh to Kandinsky at Beaux Arts

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From VanGogh to Kandinsky: Impressionism to Expressionism, 1900-1914, the current show at Montreal’s Musée des Beaux Arts, is a joyous riot of color, form, and conversation among artists.

The exchange begins in Paris at the turn of the 20th century, where French artists and poets (Matisse and Apollinaire among them) gathered with German artists, art historians, critics and patrons at the Café du Dôme in Montparnasse.

Word of new approaches in painting spread—the first museum to hang a VanGogh painting was in Germany.

The show, arranged chronologically, is wonderfully footnoted, with quotes by collectors and artists, historical overviews, and notes on many of the paintings. An exquisite charcoal drawing by Picasso, for example, “Bust of a Nude Woman,” draws a line of influence from Cézanne to the Cubists.

This is a wonderful chance to trace the development of many important French painters, including VanGogh, Gaugin, Matisse and Derain, and to discover an exhilarating collection of work by lesser known German artists, chief among them Kirchner, Heckel, Jawlensky.

Until Jan 25.

Philippe Meyer Collection at Musée d’Orsay

Looking for a few minutes of quiet in one of the city’s most popular museums? At Musée d’Orsay, go to the middle level, walk through the newly renovated grand ballroom, and spend time with the Philippe Meyer collection.

Two high-ceilinged rooms provide an intimate viewing experience; if it weren’t for the view of the Seine, you’d think you were in another part of Paris. So take the mental leap – imagine yourself in the exquisitely appointed, perfectly lit apartment of an art collector. All that is missing are a luxurious sofa and coffee table on the polished parquet floor.

The twenty or so works donated to the museum by French scientist and collector Philippe Meyer include a landscape and still life by Cezanne; a Bonnard nude; paintings by Odile RedonSeurrat and VanGogh.

I was once the only person in these rooms, and I’ve never seen more than a handful of others. We all lingered, knowing that the rest of the museum was jam-packed. The Orsay’s overcrowding should ease once renovations are completed this fall. In the meantime, enjoy this oasis of calm.