Traveller's Guide To: Van Gogh

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On the opening day of the first London exhibition in 40 years dedicated to the work of this artistic genius, Cathy Packe paints a picture of the man, his life and his travels

A tour of Provence?

Vincent Willem van Gogh is best-known for the works he painted in the south of France, particularly in and around the village of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, and for the colour and light usually associated with that region. But he spent only two years of his life there. There are many van Gogh connections for the traveller further north: in the Netherlands where he was born, in Belgium where he first started painting seriously, and even in London, where he lived for three years.

Start at the very beginning?

The house where he was born, at 27 Markt, in Zundert, in the far south of the Netherlands, is no longer there; it was pulled down in 1903, and has now been replaced by a new museum, known as the Vincent van Gogh Huis (00 31 76 597 8590; vangoghhuis.com). On the first floor is an exhibition that tells the story of van Gogh's early life, with images projected on to the furniture in the room. None of his paintings are on display, but the museum does have temporary exhibitions of the work of his contemporaries. It opens 10am-5pm Wednesday-Friday, noon-5pm at weekends, admission €5.

Another of the town's attractions is a statue of van Gogh and his brother Theo, made in 1961 by the Russian sculptor Ossip Zadkine, and one of several erected in Vincent's memory; others are in France, in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence and Auvers-sur-Oise.

Van Gogh was christened at the Dutch Reformed Church, where his father was a preacher; in the churchyard is the tomb of the artist's older brother, also called Vincent, who was stillborn. The church can only be visited on a guided tour, available through the tourist office which shares the premises of the Vincent van Gogh Huis.

To reach Zundert, the best approach is on Eurostar (08705 186 186; eurostar.com) from London St Pancras via Brussels to Antwerp, which takes less than three hours and starts at £59 return, Zundert is about 20km to the north-east.

From there to art school?

At the age of 15, van Gogh got a job with a firm of art dealers in the Hague, and when he finished his training he was sent to London to work in their offices near the Strand. He lived first on the borders of Stockwell and Brixton, at 87 Hackford Road – now marked with a blue plaque. According to his letters, he was particularly impressed by the gardens attached to all the houses in the area.

He acquired an enthusiasm for the English countryside, which he was able to see when he visited the Dulwich Picture Gallery, and signed its visitors' book.

In the 1870s Dulwich would have been a village outside the capital, and its art museum was the first public fine art gallery in England. He studied the paintings of the 17th- and 18th-century masters which still form the backbone of the collection.

The gallery is between College Road and Gallery Road (020-8693 5254; dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk). It opens 10am-5pm Tuesday-Friday, 11am-5pm at weekends; £5.

A place that inspired him to paint?

From an early age van Gogh had a deep religious faith, which took him to southern Belgium, where he undertook missionary work among the coal miners in the Borinage, a working-class area west of Mons. He lived in a small miner's cottage in Cuesmes. This village is now a suburb of the city, and the cottage is the Maison van Gogh at 3 Rue du Pavillon (00 32 65 35 56 11). It opens 10.30am-12.30pm and 1.30-6pm daily except Monday, but the somewhat uninspiring exhibition inside contains little original material. More importantly for history, this is the place where he took up drawing as a serious interest, had a mental breakdown, and decided to become an artist.

Among the works inspired by his six-month stay in this poverty-stricken part of Belgium is The Potato Eaters, now on display in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam (see below). His first attempts at working in oils were possible when his art dealer brother, Theo, provided the money for him to buy paints, and he headed for the North Sea coast at Scheveningen, a 15-minute tram ride from the centre of the Hague. Once a place where wealthy travellers came to take the waters, a popular attraction these days is the Museum Beelden aan Zee, the Sculptures by the Sea Museum on the beach at Harteveltstraat 1 (0031 70 358 5857; beeldenaanzee.nl). Made of concrete dug into the dunes, its permanent and temporary exhibitions of modern sculpture are displayed on a series of indoor and outdoor terraces. The museum opens 11am-5pm daily except Monday, admission €8.50.

The Hague is an excellent base for an artistic exploration of the Netherlands; the ideal place to stay on a budget is Stayokay Den Haag, the youth hostel in the former National Lottery HQ at Scheepmakersstraat 27 (00 31 70 315 78 88; stayokay.com); besides dorm beds for starving artists from €24 including breakfast, it also has the "Brasserie Backpackers" – with a certain French style and low prices.

Next stop?

Paris. Van Gogh reached the French capital in 1886 at the age of 33, and for the next two years he lived with Theo at 54 rue Lepic, not far from the Moulin Rouge on the edge of Montmartre; a plaque on the front of the building marks it out. Theo introduced his brother to some of the Impressionists, whose eighth and final exhibition took place in Paris the year that Vincent arrived.

Now, the most comprehensive Impressionist collection in the French capital is in the Musée d'Orsay at 1 Rue de la legion d'Honneur (00 33 1 40 49 48 14; musee-orsay.fr), and it includes 14 of van Gogh's paintings, including a self-portrait, and his painting of the church at Auvers-sur-Oise. The museum opens 9.30am-6pm daily except Monday, until 9.45pm on Thursdays; admission €9.50.

Much of the Paris that van Gogh knew and painted is still on the visitor trail. Montmartre, dominated by its Butte, or hill, is less rural than it was in his time but is still recognisable from his paintings of the streets and rooftops. The area was once dominated by windmills; most have now gone but two remain, on the street where van Gogh lived. The vegetable gardens that he painted are no longer there, but were replaced during the 1930s with a vineyard, the Clos Montmartre at 12 rue Cortot. The wine produced here is sold in a number of shops in the area, and every year, on the second weekend of October, there is a festival to celebrate the harvest.

Montmartre has several good hotels, including the Terrass at 12-14 rue Joseph-de Maistre (00 33 1 46 06 72 85; terrass-hotel.com), which is close to the main attractions but away from the tourist haunts; rooms here start at €280, with breakfast an additional €17 per person, though cheaper deals are often available. Lower down the price scale, the Bonsejour (00 33 1 42 54 22 53, hotel-bonsejour-montmartre.fr), at 11 rue Burq, a lovely location on the slope of the V V Butte de Montmartre, has double rooms available from €50, without breakfast.

Other parts of Paris familiar to anyone who knows van Gogh's paintings include the elegant buildings of the Boulevard de Clichy, and the Pont du Carrousel, with the Louvre beyond it, which he painted from the left bank of the Seine. In the north-west suburbs of the French capital is Asnières-sur-Seine, accessible from central Paris on Métro line 13. Although somewhat less bucolic in atmosphere than it would have been when van Gogh and other artists including Seurat visited and painted it, the pleasant riverside scenery and parkland that are portrayed in van Gogh's paintings still make it a pleasant area to visit.

Paris is easily reached either by air from many UK airports, or by Eurostar trains from London.

Where did he see the light?

Provence. The intense light and bright colour so often associated with van Gogh's work comes from the two years he spent in the south of France, basing himself in Arles.

The first place he lived in, the "Yellow House" on Place Lamartine, is no longer there but it is still possible to visit several of the places he painted. Best-known is the Café la Nuit, in the Place du Forum (00 33 44 90 96 44 58), which still has the familiar yellow front; it is one of the stopping points of tourist trips around the town. In the same square is one of the best hotels in Arles, the Grand Hôtel Nord Pinus (00 33 44 90 93 44 44; nord-pinus.com), an attractive 26-room establishment which offers double rooms from €160; continental breakfast is an extra €14. Among other notable subjects for van Gogh's paintings are the Arènes, or amphitheatre, the most striking of the town's Roman remains, and the Alyscamps, or Roman burial ground. One of his best-known works, Starry Night, was painted from the banks of the Rhône.

The hospital, on Place du Docteur Felix-Rey, to which van Gogh was transferred after he tried to cut off his ear, has now been renamed the Espace van Gogh (00 33 4 90 49 39 39) and contains a bookshop and several university departments. The courtyard is a recreation of the original garden that he painted during his stay there.

Opposite the amphitheatre, the Fondation Vincent van Gogh contains a collection of works donated by artists inspired by the Dutchman, including Francis Bacon and David Hockney. The Fondation (fondationvangogh-arles.org) is housed in the Palais de Luppe, and opens daily 11am-5pm October-March, 10am-6pm April-June, and 10am-7pm July-September; €6.

Exploring Provence has never been easier. Eurostar trains run from London St Pancras each Saturday from 10 July to 11 September, with easy connections to Arles. The closest airport is Nîmes (actually half-way between Nîmes and Arles), with flights from Luton on Ryanair.

Vincent van Gogh made several visits to, and paintings, of the seaside village of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. This lies on the edge of the Camargue, the natural park in the Rhône delta that is renowned for its salt marshes and abundant birdlife. Saintes-Maries is best-known for its annual gypsy celebration which takes place on 24 and 25 May, when religious statues are paraded through the village and into the sea, accompanied by men on horseback and women in traditional costumes. Regular boat trips into the Camargue operate from Saintes-Maries (00 33 4 90 97 84 72; bateau-camargue.com), departing several times a day from mid-March until mid-October; excursions cost €10 per person and last 90 minutes.

Arles, Nîmes and Montpellier are all convenient gateways to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.

Set in wilder countryside between Arles and Avignon, the cornfields punctuated by cypress trees, is Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. The artist was transferred here after he tried to cut off his ear. Inspired by the quality of the light and beauty of the landscape he produced a prolific amount of work. He lived in a hospice south of the village, the 10th-century Monastère St Paul-de-Mausole on the Avenue van Gogh (00 33 4 90 92 77 00; cloitresaintpaul-valetudo.com) which still operates as a clinic.

The room he lived in remains as it was, furnished with his iron bed, desk, wicker chair and easel. "Vincent's Room" is open to visitors from 9am-noon and 1-5pm (2-6pm in summer); €3.80. There is a path through the grounds of the hospice, and along it are marked the sites where he painted some of his landscapes.

And when no hope was left in sight on that starry, starry night?

Van Gogh spent the last few weeks of his life at Auvers-sur-Oise, a town in the Île-de-France region, some 20 miles north of Paris. Its best-known monument is the church of Nôtre-Dame, less colourful and somewhat more solid in structure than the image painted by van Gogh. The artist shot himself in the chest, aged 37, on 27 July 1890, and died two days later. He is buried in the cemetery of Nôtre-Dame alongside his brother Theo.

The house where van Gogh lived, at 52 rue du Général de Gaulle (00 33 1 30 36 60 60; maisondevangogh.fr), is now a restaurant, L'Auberge Ravoux. His room, number 5, has been preserved, and is open to visitors from 3 March until late November, 10am-6pm Wednesday-Sunday. Admission costs €5. The restaurant opens for lunch from Wednesday to Sunday, and for dinner on Fridays and Saturdays.

Close by is the Maison du Docteur Gachet, at 78 rue du Docteur Gachet (00 33 1 30 36 81 27), the home of the physician who looked after van Gogh in the final months of his life, became his friend, and was painted by him. The house and its attractive garden are now open to the public, and regular exhibitions are held there, as befits the former home of a man who painted himself and befriended many artists. It opens 10.30am-6.30pm Wednesday-Sunday from April to October, and admission costs €4.

A visit to Auvers is included on the four-day Seine river cruise offered by VFB Holidays (01452 716840; vfbholidays.co.uk). There is availability on the trip departing on 30 October, and prices start at £416 per person.

Man of letters: Pen portraits

The Royal Academy's exhibition, "The Real van Gogh: The Artist And His Letters", opens today at Burlington House, Piccadilly, London (0844 209 1919; royal-academy.org.uk) and continues until 18 April. The exhibition opens 10am-6pm Sunday-Thursday, to 10pm on Fridays, and to 9pm on Saturdays, £12.

The travel sponsor of the exhibition is Cox & Kings (020-7873 5000; coxandkings.co.uk), which has a one-week tour of Van Gogh's Provence led by the writer Ann Dumas, departing 10 May. It takes in Arles and Saint-Remy, as well as Auvers in northern France. The price is £2,495, including flights with British Airways, transport and accommodation with breakfast.

Going Dutch: Van Gogh hangs out in Holland

The Netherlands has the two leading collections of van Gogh's work. The best are the paintings that belonged to his brother Theo, and which are on display at the Van Gogh Museum on Paulus Potterstraat in Amsterdam (00 31 20 570 52 00; vangoghmuseum.nl). The museum also houses a collection of paintings by friends and contemporaries of Vincent's, as well as works by older artists that he admired and by whom he was influenced. The museum opens daily from 10am-6pm and until 10pm on Fridays, admission €14.

One of the temporary exhibitions at the museum this year will feature a series of prints, the Volpini Suite, by Paul Gauguin, made at the instigation of Theo van Gogh for the Paris World's Fair in 1889. It will run from 19 February until 6 June.

The second extensive collection of van Gogh's work is at the fascinating Kröller-Müller Museum (00 31 318 59 12 41; kmm.nl), which stands in woodland – a National Park, in fact – near the small Dutch town of Otterlo, between Arnhem and Apeldoorn. It features the collection of Helene Kröller-Müller, who built up a collection of Vincent's works at a time when he was still unfashionable. There is also a large and beautiful sculpture garden. It opens 10am-5pm daily except Monday, admission €15. To get there, Stena Line (0844 576 2762; stenaline.co.uk) has an excellent "rail and sail" deal, costing £29 from London Liverpool Street via the Harwich-Hook of Holland crossing to any station in the Netherlands. Alternatively, Ryanair flies from Stansted, Birmingham and Edinburgh to Weeze, just across the German border. The museum is about 20km to the north-west.

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