French river cruise follows the footsteps of Van Gogh

To the locals at the time he was the "fou roux" (the redheaded madman) who, dirty and more than a little deranged, stomped around Arles with his brushes, oils and easels, painting up a storm.

Vincent Van Gogh's take on the locals, on the other hand, was a little more nuanced: "The Zouaves [French legionnaires], the brothels, the adorable little Arlesiennes going to their First Communion, the priest in his surplice, who looks like a dangerous rhinoceros, the people drinking absinthe, all seem to me creatures from another world."

Other-worldly or not, he thrived on it. Van Gogh lived in and around Arles for just over two years between 1888 and 1890 – the latter part at a hospital in a former monastery in nearby Saint-Rémy – and in that time, fascinated by the local landscape and light, he produced more than 300 paintings and drawings, including some of his best and well-known work.

"Starry, starry night, paint your palette blue and grey …" 

In the opening lines to Vincent, his 1972 tribute song, Don McLean was referring to the vibrant, violent swirls of Van Gogh's masterpiece, Starry Night, which he painted while in the nearby Saint Paul-de-Mausole asylum.

And it's the song that's trapped in my head during the 30-minute excursion from Tarascon, where our river cruise ship, the Scenic Emerald, is moored. And it only gets worse after we disgorge from the coach in a car park by the Rhone and stroll over to the river's edge where a colour image of the less angst-ridden but no less beautiful Starry Night Over The Rhone is attached to the embankment wall.

It's quite something to find oneself standing on the spot where one of the world's greatest artists painted, but it's also a slight let down during daylight hours. The perfect time to come would be after dark, when better comparisons can be made between our electric lights and the glimmering orange gas lights of the time and their reflections in the dark waters.

Our guide heads across the road, past the little park complete with obligatory boules court, and through the stocky old city walls at La Porte de la Cavalerie. From here we stroll up a long incline peppered with old cafes and shops that Van Gogh himself would probably still recognise. At the top, rising above the ancient town that surrounds it, is the 2000-year-old, beautifully preserved Roman amphitheatre.

In its heyday it was the scene of gladiatorial combat and chariot races that attracted up to 20,000 spectators. Today, as Arene D'Arles, it showcases bullfighting and pop concerts. "Sting has appeared here," reveals our guide.

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Arles was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1981 and its popular old cobblestoned centre is an amiable warren of typically Provencal buildings and narrow streets that all seem, eventually, to wend their way to the magnificent amphitheatre and nearby forum.

Both are stunning – and we managed to go back twice over two days – but for lovers of the post-Impressionist master, all the amphitheatres in the world pale beside following in the Dutchman's footsteps.

Luckily this is easily done with a map from the tourist office and the brass markers featuring Van Gogh's silhouette set into the Arles pavements. These lead to hotspots where permanent "easels" are set up featuring his portrayals of local scenes.

At the amphitheatre, for instance, a copy of Les Arenes D'Arles sits outside the main entrance and features a letter from Van Gogh to a friend in which he describes the "large multi-coloured crowds sitting on two or three rows with the effect of sun and shadows".

Deeper into the town, at the Place du Forum, we find a reproduction of the evocative Le Café Le Soir and, immediately behind it, the cafe in question. Now known as the Van Gogh Café, the tables and yellow frontage are exactly the same as when he painted them more than a century ago.

It is the same, too, at L'Espace Van Gogh, the former hospital where he was taken after famously cutting off part of his ear. Today the two-storey building, built arcade-style around a small ornamental garden and central pond, is a cultural and academic centre, and essentially unchanged.

There is also a small shop where you can buy pretty much everything Van Gogh – though whether he would have approved of his work being featured on tea towels, cushions and carrier bags is anyone's guess. He could certainly have done with the money.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

scenictours.com.au

GETTING THERE

All of the major airlines have frequent flights from Sydney and Melbourne to Paris.

CRUISING THERE

Scenic's 15-day South of France cruise from Chalon-sur-Saône to Tarascon has prices from $7545. Cruise through France from Chalon-sur-Saône to Arles. Visit Lyon, the famous wine region of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, papal Avignon and the spectacular Camargue National Park. Book a standard suite throughout 2016 and fly free to Europe including taxes. Book by October 31or until sold out. See scenic.com.au or call 138 128.

DINING THERE

The Scenic Emerald has several dining options, including an a la carte restaurant, a degustation-only restaurant (booking essential) and casual cafe dining area. Of course, you can always leave the ship and explore the local restaurants and cafes on your own.

The writer travelled as a guest of Scenic Tours.

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