Street in Arles

A street in Arles, France

The narrow streets are flooded with tourist groups, washed ashore by the mighty river Rhône swollen with cruise boats.

We are in Arles, the South of France. My prince and I have driven into town since we live not far away. We’re looking to soak up a bit of local culture, a noble endeavor for an expat, don’t you agree? It’s a sunny fall day and the town is buzzing with the sounds of many languages and the occasional insect.

Ladies of generous girth amble along the cobbled streets, their ample bottoms comfortably encased in elasticized cotton pants cut off at mid-thigh. Their husbands have their socked feet stuck in sandals or sports shoes and wear floppy shorts shaded by well-fed bellies. Like a troop of obedient school children they follow the tour guide, who, in one language or another, drones on about Vincent van Gogh painting here, cutting off his ear there, and so on and so forth.

I am a tourist too, if not part of a group, but no doubt I look like one. (We’re staying at this funky B&B I wrote about in my last post Bedroom Adventure.) My man and I cruise the streets too, getting lost in the labyrinthine allies of this ancient town. We are in search of the markers set into the street stones indicating the locations where it is believed Vincent van Gogh once put his easel to paint his famous masterpieces. (I know, greater excursions exist, but I’m not so much into rafting down the Zambezi.)

Have a good look at the painting below:

Tanquetaille Bridge

Tanquetaille Bridge by Van Gogh, 1988

See that little tree to the right of the stairs? Now look below at the picture I took of that same location, 126 years later. This is what happens to a tree in 126 years. Fantastic!

Tanquetaille Bridge in 2014

Tanquetaille Bridge in 2014

Okay, maybe it loses something in the translation. Maybe it’s one of those situations that make people give a sheepish shrug and mutter: “You had to be there.” Let me just say this: I’m there and I think it’s cool.

When I was a teenager, I had a poster of one of Van Gogh’s paintings on my wall, the Really Famous one called Café Terrace at Night. Here it is.

Van Gogh, Arles Cafe

Van Gogh, Cafe by Night, 1888

I thought it was sooo romantic. Being Dutch, I loved (love) sitting on terraces. Being a teenager at the time, I loved stars and dreaming of love and lingering on a romantic sidewalk café with an (as yet unspecified) boy friend. Little did I know that decades later I would find this place in real life, this same building, still a café. And wouldn’t you know, it’s called Café Van Gogh! And now I sit there, be it in the afternoon with no stars, but with the love of my life to share the experience.

Yes, I confess: we’re doing this tacky tourist thing, lounging at the Café Van Gogh. A humorless waiter with tired feet brings us the drinks we’ve ordered, a beer and a glass of rosé. We relax and sip while observing the other tourists engaged in the same activity. And then I do the Really Tacky Tourist Thing: I ask my prince to take a picture of me sitting here on the terrace. So he does.

Van Gogh Arles

Tacky Tourist at Café Van Gogh, 2014

What can I say? Van Gogh did it better. This photo will never be art, never hang on anyone’s wall.

We linger some more and I think about Van Gogh — poor, nuts, hungry, thirsty, and probably not having money to rest his feet and have a pastis.

The bill comes for our drinks, one beer and one glass of rosé: 10 euros, 13 dollars. I kid you not. Ten euros for a beer and a glass of rosé, in France, in Arles, in the Café Van Gogh.

If only poor Vincent would have known.

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Have you ever visited a place you’ve dreamed or thought about when you were younger? What was it like?

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VanGogh_Slaapkamer_in_Arles_300x238_textDon’t you love taking risks? It makes life so exciting and interesting! Okay, I’m not talking about the risks of the life-and-death variety, but the small ones that might land you in less dangerous waters. Such as finding a bed to sleep in when you take a trip, a place to stay for a few nights or weeks.

You surf the Internet. You look at pictures, read descriptions, and evaluate reviews. I’m not a fan of chain hotels, the ones that look the same the world over and where when you wake up in the mornings you can’t remember what country you are in. But finding non-standardized sleeping quarters via the Internet can land you in unsavory situations, as indeed it happened to us once. Mostly, though, we have had good luck finding cool places in various countries. Once we stayed in a renovated chapel in Italy, sleeping in what once was the sacristy. It was fabulous.

Onward: Wanting to take a break from our hectic life in our French village, we decide to spend a couple of days in the nearby town of Arles where Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh sojourned for some time, painted many pictures, and cut off his ear.

I apply my surfing skills and find something promising, an exotic looking B&B with a home gallery of contemporary photography. It has three rooms and is located in the historic center of Arles, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The B&B house is built on top of the ruins of the Roman baths of Emperor Constantine. Everything worth seeing is within walking distance. How cool does that sound? No, Tripadvisor has no information and no reviews, which is where the risks come in, right? But I tell you, the pictures and descriptions on the site seduce me.

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I send off an email and reserve a room. What is life without a bit of risk? Maybe the mattress once belonged to Constantine. Maybe the shower offers up nothing but a drip. Maybe the place is… Well, you fill in your worst fears.

The day arrives and we drive to Arles. The place is a warren of narrow streets and we crawl along, our GPS leading us astray with gusto, suggesting illegal turns and pointing us down blocked allies. We get lost and run around in circles. Finally we manage to find a parking space nearby.

We are warmly greeted by our hostess and we enter a building centuries old. We climb a narrow, curving staircase sporting a small jungle of potted plants on the steps. Interesting artwork decorates the walls. Already I am charmed by what I see.  Our hostess opens a door.

The bedroom (photo above) is a symphony of color, a burst of joy and cheer, decorated with objects from the owners’ travels in North Africa and beyond. The bathroom offers an explosion of brilliant shades.

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Everything is fresh and clean, the bed comfortable, the ambiance enthusiastic. Every detail has been lovingly chosen and applied — door handles, light fixtures, waste baskets, wall decor. Really, who wants a room in the Marriott?

Our night is restful, not haunted by the ghosts of souls who wandered these ancient floors in the past. Nothing mysterious bubbled up from Constantine’s baths below the floors. In the morning we climb up another set of narrow stairs to the kitchen and find another festival of color–wall paint, cushions, dishes, and art objects. If you suffer from depression, this is the place to be.

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We share the table with a lovely Korean couple on their honeymoon. We have fresh croissants, crusty bread, butter, jam,  good coffee, and interesting conversation.

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The hostess speaks French, English and Spanish, and we hear her story about the trials renovating the house, about her life and travels in other countries, about a Swedish couple who wouldn’t eat her French breakfast because they wanted fish…

There is more, much more, but I’m going to stop here so you’ll just have to find out for yourself: Go get a room!

Note: Since our stay there 10 days ago, one review showed up on Tripadvisor, in Spanish. Five stars and a glowing report, so there you have it.

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Have you ever stayed in a fun or unique place? I’d love to hear about it!

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