We began cruising at 4.30am, which brought us to Arles just as we were sitting down to breakfast. Arles, of course, is the place in southern France where Vincent Van Gogh spent fifteen months nearing the end of his life. It was here that he painted some of his finest works, many of which led people to comment on the extraordinary quality of the light in this region. So it was very pleasing to look across to the town from our mooring and see how beautiful the light was on the buildings. The ruins of the Two Lions Railway Bridge were also bathed in brilliant light at 8 am in the morning. The bridge had been destroyed by the Allies in August 1944 in order to disrupt German shipping. Later in the day I heard that the famous mistral wind from the north west quickly disperses clouds over Arles, leaving only blue skies, hence the quality of the light people talk about.
Immediately after breakfast our groups went off on their various Freechoice activities. One choices had been a guided walking tour of Arles, a visit to a family-run olive farm, a trip to La Camargue National Park where you might see flamingoes and wild white horses, and a visit to a hilltop village named Les Baux which included an immersive art exhibition. Marg and I chose the latter. Our coach took us through vineyards and olive groves to the foothills of the Alpilles, a small range of relatively low mountains. In the final stages of our journey, the road climbed into a rocky landscape dominated by white limestone ridges.
Before entering the village, we stopped to visit the art exhibition. It had been installed in the cavernous interior of what had once been a limestone quarry. The immersive exhibition was very similar to the Van Gogh and Monet exhibitions we had recently visited at The LUME in Melbourne, where constantly changing images of famous works and projected on all of the surfaces of the exhibition space, occasionally animated and often accompanied by a soundtrack. Marg and I were fortunate that the current exhibition at Les Baux was ‘From Vermeer to Van Gogh, The Dutch Masters’, featuring the works of so many of the painters whose works we knew and loved. The acoustics in the room were sublime, and the rugged surfaces of the former quarry added something extra to the viewing experience. The Dutch Masters show ran for about 45 minutes and was paired with a much shorter Piet Mondrian show. We had arrived to see the latter half of the Dutch exhibition and stayed on to see Mondrian and, eventually, the first half of the Dutch Masters when the experience began again on its next cycle. I had personally really enjoyed the Melbourne LUME experiences, but this one took it to a new level. It was breathtaking. We absolutely loved it.
We went a little further up the road to the car park below Les Baux. It’s a very old village. There are no cars, only foot traffic. Our guide told us that only 23 permanent residents live in the village. But plenty of people work there, as its winding lanes are populated with enterprises aiming to lure the tourist dollar. There are charming little bars and coffee shops. You can buy famous local products like wine, olive oil, hand made soap, ceramics and lavender. What was pleasing is that most of the goods on sale, including the souvenirs, appear to be of excellent quality. In some places that attract tourists, the souvenirs can be quite cheap and nasty, but we didn’t see much of that here. At the very top of the hill are the ruins of an ancient castle. Unfortunately we didn’t have enough time in our visit to have a close look at that, but the rocky ledges nearby allowed for excellent views out over the flat plateau ahead of us. We could see the vineyards and olive groves our coach route had taken us through, and in the distance, on the horizon, we could just make out a large city. Our guide claimed this was Marseilles. Marg and I stopped for an ice cream, which topped off what had been a really enjoyable morning for us.
We arrived back at our ship just in time for lunch.