The Mistral blows Cold… Visiting Van Gogh’s Hospital & Roman Glanum

The sky today has been bright blue, the sun has been shining all day and the WIND has grown and grown until it was impossible to take a photo outside late this afternoon without bracing against a building or tree.

We ate breakfast outside again on the grounds that the sun was bright, so damn the cold…. Then off to Glanum, a Gallo-Greco-Roman town that has been unearthed just to the south of Saint Rémy.  It was a good idea to go early because we nearly had it to ourselves, but it was filling up as we left. It is in a beautiful  tapered river valley that narrows near the top and has great rock cliffs rising up on either side, and the way one is directed round it is very well planned.

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We decided it was probably as extensive as Vaison la Romaine, but Glanum has the complication/interest that there are 3 or 4 levels of civilisation present, from the original Celtic Gauls who decided that the spring must be sacred and named its God Glan, through a Hellenic civilisation, then ancient Romans and finally some less ancient Romans! Apparently the oldest layer is 8 metres down.

Again, the information boards were well designed and we learned a lot; what’s more the bright spring sunlight made everything look very striking.  At the end of the walk through it one climbs a hill to one side and the view across the site is almost as stunning as the view one sees by raising the eyes a little to the horizon which includes Mont Ventoux, the Rhône Valley and in the distance the Cévennes hills.

As one leaves the Glanum site, there is a short path through an olive grove to the Saint Paul de Mausole monastery, the psychiatric hospital where van Gogh was a patient latterly, and which is indeed still a hospital.  We strolled over to it and saw round the part where van Gogh lived and was treated for over a year, painting 143 oil paintings in the time he was there.  They  have ‘re-constructed’ his bedroom, based on an early photograph, and whether or not it was actually his room or his bed, you still look out of the small window and think you are seeing what he would have seen.

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The place has a calm feeling, although it also made me feel sad as I walked around it.  The small cloister, originally part of the monastery, was looking very peaceful and pretty in the spring sunlight.  We walked round the garden too, where the lines of lavender in front of the old building make you think of all the postcards of Provence that you have ever seen.

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Lunch was calling after this (“Hellooooooo,” it was calling from somewhere in the region of the stomach), and since we also intended to visit Les Baux de Provence, a hilltop town nearby, we headed in that direction to find either a picnic spot or a bistro for a snack.  We reached Les Baux, but realised when we arrived why we had had Glanum and St Paul de Mausole to ourselves – the rest of the world had gone to Les Baux.  They, and their cars, were lined up all along the roads up to the town such that there was no place for us to park and we drove on back down the hill on the other side and out again.  Well, it’s Les Baux’s loss…..

We drove to a town nearby called Maussanne and after we passed the 4th sign for a “4 star hotel/spa”, and one for a “4 star hotel / hammam”, we worked out that it may LOOK like a little Provençal village but Monsieur and Madame Je-Suis-Très-Riche-Chéri had their various holiday homes here and have pushed the prices up just a little.  We parked and walked past various restaurants that didn’t look too posh but STILL were expecting one to pay €45 for chicken and chips, and finally decided to go into the PMU Cafe du Centre for a cup of coffee before moving on.  On the off-chance I asked the waitress if they did food, and she said no but we were welcome to go next door to a man who did pizzas and we could bring them in to eat them in the caff.

We were a little doubtful, having seen the flashing neon “PIZZA” sign, not our usual stimulus to enter an eatery, but I went to check it out anyway.  It turned out to be a charming man in a tiny shop the size of a postage stamp, most of which was taken up by a massive pizza oven, and when I ordered a couple of pizzas they turned out to be the best-prepared pizzas we had had in a long time.  Serendipity wins again!  We munched through pizza, had a couple of Leffe beers, watched some rugby on the big screen and left in a much better mood than that in which we had entered.

We came back to our hotel (braving traffic jams in Saint Rémy, now completely full of holidaymakers), all needing a peaceful time.  Tim rested, Julia marked and I read (a bit like being with Barbie, really, except no-one was cooking).  The wind had increased in volume and decreased in temperature by now, but we found a sheltered part of the garden and made good use of the reclining chairs we found there to enjoy the continuing sun.

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Julia and I made a short foray into the wooded hills south of Saint Rémy to find a small lake we had discovered on the map, and it turned out to be a lake created by the Romans with a dam, in order to have water for Glanum just down the valley.  It may have been small but the wind was so strong by now that the lake had waves on it, and I could only take a photo by bracing myself against a tree.

On the way back we stopped to explore a little sign we had seen saying “cimetière des juifs” and found a locked and abandoned Jewish graveyard, and even more interestingly just to the side of it there is a monument to Spanish refugees who helped the people of Saint Rémy with “works of public utility” between the years of 1940 and 1942.  We pondered this for a while then decided that it had something to do with Spanish refugees, probably mainly Catalan ones, being offered the Hobson’s choice, having ‘escaped’ to France, of being sent back to Spain (to be shot or imprisoned) or being sent to Germany to work in a labour camp.

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Julia says I’ve mentioned food too much, so I’ll just say that we had a very nice meal at Les Saveurs de Provence restaurant this evening, after which we were blown back to the hotel by the wind, and we are probably still safe from vampires.

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