Wandering the tangle of picturesque lanes in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence’s old town early enough in the morning to mostly have it to ourselves, was a wonderfully atmospheric experience. It felt like a charming and relaxed sort of place, but up market restaurants, high-end boutiques and plentiful art galleries signal a town that caters to well-heeled tourists. Yet, it’s also a working town where authenticity just about wins out over cliche.
It’s a town with over 2,500 years of history under its belt, and both the ancient Greeks and Romans once called this region home. In fact, there are Roman ruins scattered all over this region, and to the south of the town are the ruins of the great Roman city of Glanum. The highlights of which are a triumphal arch and a remarkably well preserved cenotaph with intricate carvings.
Arriving early from Avignon we found our way to the main square, Place Jules Pelissier and took a seat in the sun. There’s something to be said for starting the day with coffee and croissants in the early morning quiet of a medieval square, against the backdrop of the 17th century town hall that was originally an Augustinian convent. Later, strolling around the historic centre, we discovered a fountain dedicated to Nostradamus.
Somehow, the fact that the famed astrologer, physician, and prophesy predictor was born in Saint-Rémy in 1503 had completely skipped my attention. He spent his childhood here before leaving to attend university in Avignon. Remarkably, he’s still famous today thanks to his book of undated prophecies, the infuriatingly vague predictions still used to selectively ‘prove’ he had foreknowledge of major world events.
For all its charms, the big draw of Saint-Rémy is its fleeting relationship with Vincent van Gogh. Just south of the town is the peaceful Monastery Saint-Paul de Mausole, the asylum where van Gogh lived between 1889 and 1890. He voluntarily checked himself into the asylum after the mental breakdown that resulted in the self-mutilation of his left ear.
Despite that, this was one of the most productive times of van Gogh’s life, perhaps of any artist in recorded history. While he was here he produced 300 drawings and paintings, and what paintings: The Starry Night, The Bedroom, The Iris series, as well as memorable Provencal landscapes, paintings of local workers, and exquisite self portraits, including the one with a bandaged ear.
It is impossible to enter the monastery grounds without feeling a sense of awe. What greets you is a building with origins in the 11th century set amidst beautiful Provencal countryside. With few tourists around, it was a tranquil experience. There is a small but pretty cloister and an interesting reproduction of van Gogh’s bedroom. It is the gardens though, familiar from his paintings, that really make this a special place.
We sat on a bench in the sun at the bottom of the garden and listened to the sound of birds. It’s hard not to imagine that this place must have brought some relief to van Gogh’s tortured mind. Dotted around the building and the nearby countryside are signs with reproductions of paintings van Gogh created while here. Accompanied by excerpts from his letters, they give a snapshot of his life while staying in the monastery.
It’s a shame that there aren’t any original works here, for those you have to go to Paris, New York or Amsterdam, but it is still a special place to visit. Remarkably, there are parts of the monastery that still receives patients. We strolled around the surrounding lanes trying to spot vistas that seemed familiar from van Gogh’s work, then we headed to yet another extraordinary Provence village, Les Baux-de-Provence.