Travel: The views of Vincent

In Arles it is still (just) possible to see the landscape painted by Van Gogh.
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The Independent Culture
Standing on the banks of the river Rhone, at the very spot where Vincent Van Gogh painted the Starry Night, Picasso is said to have looked to the sky and said "that is one thing nobody can destroy". He was alluding to the fact that the bridge and so much of the landscape depicted in the painting had changed.

Van Gogh's home, the "Yellow House", no longer stands. It was reduced to rubble by American bombers attempting to destroy the bridge during World War Two. But they are not the only ones to blame for wrecking much of Van Gogh's presence in Arles, the southern French town where he created some of his most famous paintings.

Until recently, the people of this former Roman capital of France had little enthusiasm for celebrating the life and work of a man they once considered a dangerous lunatic - so much so they had even petitioned the mayor to remove him from the town. Indeed, Jeanne Calment, who died in August 1997 aged an amazing 122, remembered Van Gogh from her childhood, and labelled him "a vulgar young man". Apparently, he made comments to the then 16-year-old that he shouldn't have, while visiting her father's paint shop all those years ago.

However, as his fame has grown, so Arles has begun to forget Van Gogh the syphilitic, absinthe-addicted neighbour, and started to remember Vincent the "painter's painter". Similarly, in the pretty, nearby town of Saint Remy, where Van Gogh spent a year in a mental asylum, his impact increases by the year. Now, a cottage industry of guided walks, exhibitions, bars and souvenirs has grown up around his name.

Van Gogh arrived in Arles in February 1888. He came in search of Japan.

Like many other Impressionist painters, his imagination had been captured by the beauty of Japanese prints. He hoped that by escaping the grey skies of Paris for the clear air and bright colours of Provence, he would find a substitute for the real Japan.

Among the places Van Gogh painted in Arles, it is still possible to see roughly what he would have seen at the Trinquetaille Bridge and the sarcophagi in the town's 1,600-year-old burial ground, the Alyscamps Avenue at Arles. Going out of town, there is a replica of a Dutch-style drawbridge he painted. Reproductions of Van Gogh's paintings have been placed at the sites where he worked, allowing visitors to compare their vision with his.

The first significant step made by the town of Arles to recognise Van Gogh was to reopen the 16th-century hospital in which he stayed after suffering a series of seizures. This became an arts centre, the Espace Van Gogh, in 1974. The courtyard buildings have been repainted orange and white, just as they were in his day, and a helpful reproduction of Van Gogh's painting of the scene is located there, too.

More recently, the cafe where Van Gogh painted Cafe Terrace at Night, has been restored and is open for business once more. But most impressive has been the opening of the Van Gogh Foundation. Here, dozens of internationally famous painters, including David Hockney, Roy Lichtenstein and Francis Bacon, have contributed pictures to a permanent exhibition celebrating the life and work of a man who was one of their biggest inspirations.

After suffering his most serious seizure, which led him to cut off part of his right ear, Van Gogh voluntarily entered himself into the asylum at Saint Remy, subsequently returning to northern France in 1890, where he committed suicide shortly after.

He made a lasting impression on the asylum, where the inmates of this now all-female institution are taught art as part of their therapy. Outside, in the driveway where he painted irises, there was a bronze bust of the painter. I say "was" because it was stolen, along with three reproductions of his paintings erected close by, several years ago. The thieves have never been caught and their motive remains a mystery.

Among the nearby sights he painted are the olive groves. Although many of the trees have been replaced, you would never know the difference.

Watching the wind rustle through the silvery green leaves and then comparing this reality with his painting of the olive grove, I could see why the locals say he painted the wind, because he captured the wildness of its movement.

Van Gogh's legacy has turned the quiet town of Saint Remy into a thriving artists' colony. Its Van Gogh Museum displays works of modern art, while more than a hundred painters live in the town, many of whom can be seen hanging out at the Cafe des Arts at most hours of the day and night.

While I was there, the town held the first of a quarterly series of exhibitions of local painters' work, grandly called the Exhibition of the Painters of Light. The canvases, of varying quality, were displayed by the artists themselves in clusters along the narrow medieval streets and alleys, and in the main town square.

While looking at these paintings, a fierce Mistral wind blew in from the Mediterranean. It gave me a headache and made my guide, Beatrice, feel "nervous". People are supposed to go mad when it blows, she said. On the other hand, the Mistral makes it easier for the artists to see the object they are painting because it is a dry wind that cleans the air, she told me. The effects of the Mistral explain much about Van Gogh the man and Vincent the painter, and is something else nobody can destroy.

The closest airport to Arles that has international flights from the UK is Marseille. Fares on British Airways (0345 222 111) from Gatwick start at pounds 249.80 including taxes, and on KLM UK (0990 074 074) from Stansted at pounds 345 including taxes. Alternatively, Eurostar (0345 303030) offers services via Lille or Paris, but through-ticketing is tricky. It is probably easiest to buy a return to Avignon for pounds 109 and take a local train from there.

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