ARLES, France — It's not often people can walk in the footsteps of a legend, seeing the things he saw and experiencing life as he lived.
When Vincent van Gogh settled in Arles in 1888, he entered a hyper-productive burst, producing works such as "The Yellow House," "Starry Night Over the Rhone," and "Cafe Terrace at Night." During his two years in Arles, he produced an estimated 200 paintings. The colors may have drawn him to southern France in 1888, but it is his art that draws people there today.
A van Gogh walk has been mapped out in town, and several of his paintings have been re-created on cement easels and sited about where the artist may have positioned himself when he painted them.
Want to see what he saw? Follow the trail.
My first stop was "The Yellow House." Located near a park just outside the city walls, it is a three-minute walk from the Arles train station. Passing through the park, you may notice a memorial dedicated to two Americans, fliers William Tippett and Walter C. McConnell, who were shot down over Arles and killed during World War II. The monument was rededicated in the park in 2002 — so much for the French being blase about American contributions to the war.
Ahh, the Yellow House. Well, at least you can see where it was before bombs destroyed it during the war. The building seen behind the Yellow House in the painting is there. Looking at the painting replicated on the concrete easel, you can see what van Gogh saw, only his colors may have been a little more vibrant.
The next easel is where he painted "Starry Night Over the Rhone" in September 1888, just a few steps from the Yellow House site. Nowadays boats run tourists up and down the river, and a new school provides a lively scene during lunch, but one can still sense the peace and conflict van Gogh experienced as he captured the scene at night.
Following the trail past the 2,000-year-old Roman arena (still used for bullfights and concerts), past the Roman theater ruins, and down the crooked, narrow streets of Arles, you eventually come to the "Cafe Terrace at Night," or the van Gogh Cafe.
If you have worked up a thirst, it's a touristy thing to sit and enjoy a beverage in the van Gogh Cafe, now painted a vibrant yellow to match the artwork. As I sat and sipped my pastis (a potent anise-flavored liqueur; pronounced "pass-tees"), I watched dozens of people stop and take pictures of the cafe van Gogh made famous in 1888.
Well, that may not be exactly accurate. He painted the cafe in September 1888. But van Gogh was not a popular artist. In fact, the van Gogh museum reports he sold a total of one painting (other than to brother Theo) before he died. One. "Red Vineyard" was painted in his Arles years and was bought by someone other Theo.
The bridge over the Rhone, in "Trinquetaille Bridge" (October 1888), is still there, though it does look different 120 years after his easel and colors froze the scene in time. Standing and looking, I wondered if the tree there now was the tree that shows as a tiny sapling in van Gogh's work. Or perhaps, it is an offspring of the original tree.
My final stop was the "Courtyard of the Hospital at Arles" (October 1888). No longer a hospital, it is where van Gogh went for treatment of his partially severed ear. The painting on the concrete easel looks almost exactly the same as the courtyard does today, though the bushes and trees are taller and there are no restaurants or souvenir stands surrounding the courtyard in the painting. But the blooming flowers and centrally located fountain create an atmosphere of peace.
Arles is a community of about 52,000 people, but van Gogh is its most famous resident. Despite his short time there, it's where he came to greatness as an artist — and possibly lost his sanity.
After Arles, he spent time in a sanitarium in Saint Remy before returning to the Paris area to be nearer his brother.
It was always believed that van Gogh committed suicide, but a recent book, "Van Gogh: The Life," by Gregory White Smith and Steven Naifeh (Random House), includes the possibility the famous artist may not have died by his own hand.
Whether he shot himself or was shot by someone he knew may be irrelevant to admirers today as they sit in "his" cafe in Arles, sipping pastis and pondering the genius of a man who accomplished so much in such a short time.