There’s an interesting triangle of places to visit just outside St Remy, all within easy walking distance of each other. My American friend is beside himself with anticipation – we’re going to Glanum, a fortified town taken over by the Romans in 27BCE. I park under a tree on the lane that leads to the local sanatorium whereby Russell disembarks to study a pictorial sign which disturbs him greatly. He particularly dislikes the image of a fist clenching a hammer which is about to enter someone’s rear window. I am advised to move the car to somewhere less dangerous. He’ll wait in the shade. To be fair, he has a point: this looks like the very same hammer that smashed the rear window of last year’s hire car. The chauffeur moves the car and trudges back along the sweltering, dusty track to re-join the seasoned passenger.
First, we visit the mausoleum and triumphal arch – the latter being the oldest in France – which are situated on the other side of the road. Established Donald followers know this story only too well: local folk wandering up and down the road for eons, never bothering to question why these two antiquities might be thus situated. Poor old Vincent, busy painting views of Les Alpilles from the point where I originally tried to leave the car, without the slightest inkling that there was a whole Roman town between him and the mountains; let alone any idea that folk would soon be passing by with hammers. Even my companion, who knows everything about anything, and whom I’d previously primed like one of Vincent’s blank canvases, was astounded: ‘didn’t they think the arch was the entrance to somewhere?’ Je te l’ai dit mon ami, je te l’ai dit.
Following my astute advice, Glanum is our next port of call; in this searing heat, I don’t think it will be possible to remain standing in the place much later in the day. As it happens, the woman who collects the tickets we purchased three steps before advises us that the place will close for the remainder of the day at noon. Strange, I think, and think no more. Russell views the ruins and is positively orgasmic. Nice to have it to ourselves, I remark. Just then a crowd of three hundred schoolchildren appear noisily around the corner and he’s off; pushing and shoving his way through the unwelcome intruders. The stride has practically evolved into a sprint. But I thought you were an educationalist. Russell, I screech, you’re missing the well, but he’s gone, leaving only a cloud of Roman dust.
I love this place, probably for all the wrong reasons, and decide to try a few botanical snaps: random poppies juxtaposed against the ancient stones; that type of thing. Sometimes, I catch a fleeting glance of him, knocking children to the ground, but largely he’s lost in the midst of time. Eventually, I catch up with him by the sacred spring where he’s muttering about sewers. Then he’s off up the hill and I’m gasping for breath in his wake. Finally, we get back to the entrance to find the place crawling with gendarmes and a variety of police vehicles. Do you think there’s been a murder, I ask excitedly. He has lunch on his mind and, as usual, no interest in the quotidian. These academics are clever types but I sometimes feel a whole layer of life passes them by. Me, I’m just plain nosey and have to ask someone what’s occurring. A crime of passion, apparently. They’re filming the one and only episode of NCIS St Remy. Lovely.
We take our luncheon on the terrace of Villa Glanum, another old favourite of mine. Today, it’s a somewhat tired but, nonetheless, enchanting hotel. Once, it was the home of Alphonse Daudet, who sometimes pretended he was writing letters from a windmill in Fontvielle. Back in Blighty, I gave Russell a choice of bedtime reading: Daudet or Mistral. He chose the latter but I think he missed a trick. To my simple mind, Mistral is too arrogant whereas you learn a lot of social history from Daudet. But what do I know? Another time …
And so to St Paul Mausole, the sanatorium where Vincent placed himself after the disaster that was Arles and where he painted many of his most famous pictures. When I first came to these parts, I had little knowledge of or interest in Van Gogh, but you don’t have to be here long to realise how he captured the very essence of Provence. I’m pleased to report that my travelling companion has, at last, noticed this and threatens to return home and study the paintings of the genius. Personally, I’m just thrilled to be in Vincent’s garden with the lavender.