Where is Van Gogh’s Ear in Arles?

Van Gogh cafe

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“Can you recommend a good place for dinner?” I asked Georges, the nice man behind the counter at the Hotel du Forum.  I had just rolled into Arles, France after checking out the King’s second homes and managed to finally get to the hotel despite having a lot of trouble navigating through the narrow, old lanes in the heart of the ancient Roman town.

colesseum ruins
The Roman ruins of Arles, France

“Don’t go to any of the cafes or restaurants on the Place du Forum (the main square in town),” replied Georges. “They cater to the tourist crowd and are crowded, over-priced, and the food is not good.” Georges then gave me directions to a small street a couple of blocks away that had four small restaurants catering to the locals and the foodies in the know.

This was the kind of advice I liked to hear when traveling. Although it can be nice to sit in the main square of a European town on a spring or summer evening and people-watch, if you want good food you have to seek out other, out of the way places. I ventured in to two of the recommended restaurants during my stay in Arles, and had some of the best food I have ever had in France.  It wasn’t cheap, but the freshness, preparation, and excellent taste of the food was worth the expense.

Van Gogh portrait
Vincent Van Gogh self portrait with straw hat

To a traveler, Arles, France is known mainly for two things: Van Gogh’s visit and the Romans.

Van Gogh moved to Arles in February 1888, hoping that the sunshine of Provence would help him feel better.  Considering that he subsisted on bread and coffee, and excessive amounts of tobacco and absinthe, it’s doubtful that going to the south of France would make a difference.

Van Gogh painting
Cafe Terrace at Night, van Gogh, 1888.

Art critics contend that he painted his best work in Arles, including a famous painting called “Café Terrace at Night” of a café that he frequented.  This café still stands today on the Place du Forum square, across from the Hotel du Forum where I stayed. He painted the café in a bright yellow color, although it wasn’t actually yellow at the time. Of course, today it is indeed yellow, and is called the Van Gogh café (what else?). I saw crowds of tourists stop by this café every day to hear the story of Van Gogh in Arles.

Van Gogh cafe
The Cafe Van Gogh as it looks today.

Apart from his art, Van Gogh is famous for cutting off his ear in a psychotic episode while in Arles. He had suffered from mental illness for years, possibly influenced by syphilis contracted from frequent brothel visits. What I didn’t see in Arles was the brothel where van Gogh is thought to have delivered his severed ear. Accounts differ; one says that he gave it to a prostitute to guard it for him, another that it was given to the brothel’s doorman. Either way I don’t think it was meant as a tip.

Roman ampitheater
Roman ampitheater in Arles

The Romans captured the town from the Phoenicians in 123 BC.  Back then Arles was much closer to the sea and a canal was built to the Mediterranean Sea. For hundreds of years it was an important port and capital of the Roman Prefecture of the Gauls.

Among other things, the Romans built a theatre, a colesseum, and a bath house, the ruins of which can all be visited today. The old town is quite small and one can easily walk between the Roman sites and visit each one in an afternoon using a single museum pass. (Go here to see the ampitheater in Caesarea, Israel).

Arles colesseum
Roman colesseum in Arles, still used for concerts today

To escape the heat I went underground to experience the cryptoporticus, built in the first century BC. The cryptoporticus is a covered corridor or passageway, used as a semi-subterranean gallery whose vaulting supported portico structures aboveground. Because the subterranean parts were cooler, they were used to store perishable food and also included food stalls.

Arles cryptoporticus
Help! I’m lost in a cryptoporticus!

Today, the cryptoporticus is about 20 feet underground due to the building up of the town over the centuries. Some of the areas may have been used to house or confine slaves. It was kind of spooky down there, like being in an enormous cellar.

Van Gogh cafe
Dining at the Cafe Van Gogh…

Back at the Van Gogh café on the Place du Forum to rest my feet, I had a cappuccino and ordered some soup. As I dipped my spoon into the broth, a strange object bobbed up and down in the large bowl. Is it a strangely carved potato? I don’t think so.  Hey, wait!

“Garcon de cafe, il ya une oreille dans ma soupe!”

(Waiter, there’s an ear in my soup!)

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Three Days In Rome

The Colosseum in Rome, Italy

If you have a limited amount of time, you can see the main highlights of Rome in three days.  This will give you a good introduction to the city.  Here are my picks for things to do in Rome.

Day One

Most American flights arrive in the morning to Leonardo Da Vinci Airport in Rome.  Catch a ride to your hotel, eat a light lunch, and take a nap.  In the late afternoon, wander the narrow backstreets of old Rome in the area by the Campo de’ Fiori.  Stop for excellent traditional thin crust pizza at the tiny Pizzeria da Bafetto (on the corner of Via Sora at Vial del Governo Vecchio 114). Take a leisurely stroll around the Piazza Navona, Rome’s most interesting night scene.  Check out the art for sale by local artists.

strolling the Piazza Navona at dusk
Strolling the Piazza Navona at dusk on a summer evening

Next, walk over to the 1,900 year old Pantheon.  At night the inside is closed, but the view of the building lit up in the dark is mesmerizing.   Stop for a chocolate hazelnut gelato in one of the many gelaterias near the square.  Keep walking these streets if you aren’t tired; else go to bed.  It will be a busy day tomorrow.

A view of the Pantheon in Rome, Italy at night
The Pantheon at night

Day Two

In the morning put on your comfortable walking shoes and take the metro or a taxi to the Colosseum.  Originally called the Flavian Ampitheater and built in 80 AD, the stadium was an arena for spectator sports in Roman times.  It’s an impressive structure.  Afterwards grab a sandwich and a drink from a food stand. Next door is the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill.   The Forum is ancient Rome’s birthplace and civic center between the seven hills of Rome.  Today it is mostly ruins, but it is easy to image what happened here so many centuries ago.  Stand in the spot where Julius Caesar was murdered!  The Palatine Hill is where the Emperor’s palaces were.

The Colosseum in Rome, Italy
The Colosseum

After seeing those sights, you will be ready for a snack and a rest.

fresh fruit stand in ROme
A healthy snack for the tired traveller

Next, walk most of the length of the Via del Corso, the main shopping street of Rome. Look for leather jackets, handbags, and briefcases, or whatever fashions catch your eye. Take a right at Via Condotti to the Spanish Steps.  Climb the steps for a view of the surrounding area.

By this time, your feet will probably hurt.  Maybe instead of walking, you can ride a Vespa.  But watch out for the crazy Roman traffic!

the blue Vespa
The best way to get around Rome - a Vespa!

Sit outside to eat dinner at a café in one of the side streets near the Trevi Fountain.  After dinner, sit by the fountain to see the sculptures and watch the people of the world walk by.  Try to guess which country they are from.

Day Three

This morning go to the Vatican City.  Sign up ahead of time on the Vatican’s website for a guided tour of the Vatican Museum in English. You’ll be able to avoid the long ticket line, but not the crowds you will encounter inside.  The Museum tour includes a few minutes in the Sistine Chapel, and concludes with a tour of St. Peter’s Basilica.  The end of the tour deposits you in St. Peter’s Square.

One of the ceilings in the Vatican Museum
An example of a ceiling in the Vatican Museum

If you still have the energy for more walking, take a taxi to the Villa Borghese Gardens.  It is a large park perfect for strolling or napping on the grass in the shade of a large tree.  When you are refreshed, if you are an art lover, visit the Borghese Gallery.  Next, walk down the Via Veneto, through the old Roman wall.  If you have been traveling for a while, you may be tired of the pasta and pizza menus and crave some American food. In that case, go to the Hard Rock Café on Via Veneto, just before the Piazza Bernini.

Arrivaderci!