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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The Old City of Jerusalem and Yad Vashem

Western Wall with square

I stepped into the darkness from the bright sunshine. I could not see a thing.  I slowly shuffled my feet forward, inching along into the void, afraid of bumping my big toes or my nose into something solid.  My eyes started to adjust and I began to see a myriad of lit candles surrounding me. I heard a solemn voice reading names, ages, and place names aloud.

This was the Children’s Memorial at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem, Israel.  It is a tribute to the 1.5 million Jewish children killed during the Holocaust.  The memorial was hollowed out from an underground cavern on Mount Herzl.  While walking through the memorial, the visitor hears the names of murdered children.

While I was in the memorial I felt transported to another world. It was a disorienting experience but utterly absorbing.

Yad Vashem includes an excellent museum commemorating the six million Jews and other people murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators.  It explains events of the 1920s-1940s in sobering and informative exhibits.  I’ve always had an interest in history and I found this museum wholly engrossing.

mosaic
A mosaic in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem, Israel.
Jerusalem street
A backstreet in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City.

I visited Jerusalem with my Israeli friend Moshe. After our tour of Yad Vashem we drove to the old city in Jerusalem and parked by the Jaffa Gate.  Jerusalem is built on a hill, with the Temple Mount as the highest place.  The Temple Mount was where the first and second temples were sited.  The old city was accessed in ancient times by one of four gates in the city walls.  The current walls, built by the Turks in the 16th century, have 11 gates, only seven of which are now open. We passed through the Jaffa Gate and wandered the narrow and winding lanes of the Jewish Quarter.

At one location in the Jewish Quarter archeologists have excavated a base section of the original town wall. Only rubble remains of the base, with a sign on the wall indicating the original height of the wall.  I couldn’t read the sign, but it looked like it was about 30 feet high.  The base was about 15 feet wide.  The wall must have been quite impressive in those times and very useful as part of the defense of the town.

wall base
The destroyed wall in the Jewish Quarter.

In another spot there is the excavated main road of Jerusalem built by the Romans.  This road, called the Cardo, was situated on the north/south axis and was lined with tall columns with carved bases and tops.  Only a few of the columns remain.  Part of the Cardo is now covered by buildings but the original road level is a lane filled with fancy shops.  Along this road is a well-like structure where one can look down to see the remains of two earlier structures, one from Roman times and the other from the time of Nehemiah (approximately 440 BCE).

Roman cardo
A portion of the Roman cardo.

After lunch in a small café hidden away among the back streets of the neighborhood, we made our way to an overlook of the Western Wall Plaza.  From our vantage point we had a fantastic view of the Western Wall and the Temple Mount.  The base of the Western Wall is made up of large stone blocks that were part of Solomon’s Temple (the second temple).  The Temple Mount today is where the two mosques are located – the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque.  The Dome of the Rock mosque is the one with the golden dome.

Western Wall with square
The Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock.

We walked down to the square and entered the area in front of the Western Wall.  Moshe and I covered out heads with paper yarmulkes provided to us.  The wind was blowing and I had a hard time keeping mine on my head!   With one hand on my yarmulke we approached the Wall.  The area is divided up into two segregated sections, a men’s section and a women’s section.  For reasons unknown to me the men’s section is twice as large as the women’s section.  Did the authorities think more women than men want to pray to God at the wall?

Worshippers write their prayers on pieces of paper, stick the papers in cracks of the wall, and pray at the spot.  The wind was blowing some of the prayer papers onto the ground.  I wondered if a cleaning crew came out at night to clean up the papers, including the ones still stuck in the cracks so that the next day’s worshippers would have empty cracks to fill.

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Many of the worshippers were Orthodox Jews in black clothes, with black hats and the sides of their heads sporting ringlets.  Moshe and I walked to the side of the wall where there is a cavern dug into the hill.  This opening is a prayer, library, and study room for Orthodox Jewish men.  As we were walking out a couple of Orthodox Jews approached us for a handout and said something in Hebrew to us.  As we got out of earshot I asked Moshe what they were saying.  He replied that they were trying to convert him to become Orthodox.

Moshe told me that he was in Jerusalem right after the end of the Six Day War in 1967 and the site looked very different.  Prior to this time the Arabs had control of Jerusalem.  The Arabs over the centuries had built houses at that spot (which was called the Moroccan Quarter). The base of the Western Wall was covered up, and higher parts of the wall were visible only in a small space behind some buildings.  The Israelis tore down the houses, excavated the base of the wall to expose the temple wall and provide better access, and built the plaza.

After a stroll down the market street it was time to go.  It was very interesting to visit Yad Vashem and Jerusalem with an Israeli.  It was experience to remember.  Thanks Moshe!

The Fortress of Masada

Masada ruins

I can’t imagine a more inhospitable place to build a palace than Masada in Israel.  It is on a butte hundreds of feet above the Judean Desert.  Sheer cliff walls surround the top of the butte.  A narrow path called the Snake Path winds its way up the cliff’s side.  There is a nice view of the Dead Sea from the top, but the heat is unbearable in summer.  How did they get water up here?  What were they thinking?  Surely, a palace along the Mediterranean Sea would be better.

view from Masada in Israel
A view from Masada

Herod the Great had the palace built in 37 B.C. as a redoubt in case of trouble in Judea.  If he had to flee Jerusalem, at least he could still live in style in this palace in the sky.  In fact there were four palaces on the site, so that four of his wives could live separately.  Maybe the plan wasn’t so bad after all…

He never visited the place.  Instead, the last remnant of the Jewish rebellion against the Romans, approximately 1,200 men, women and children, fled there in 70 A.D.  It was the perfect stronghold.  It was easy to defend from attackers trying to scamper up the Snake Path one or two at a time.  Herod had stored water in large cisterns and there was plenty of Spam and baked beans in the cellar (or whatever food could be stored in those times).

Another Masada view
Another Masada view

The Romans were too proud to allow the remaining rebels to stay there so they marshaled their forces and laid siege.  Three Roman legions (about 48,000 men) set up camp in the valley below. They tried everything in their bag of siege tricks to capture the fortress, as shown in the 1970s movie called Masada.

The Jews held out for three years.  Eventually, after a moving speech by their leader, they chose to commit suicide rather than live as Roman slaves.  Each man killed his wife and children.  Only two women and two children survived.

Masada ruins
Ruins of Herod's Palaces in Masada, Israel

The Romans destroyed the place.  Almost 2,000 years later, not much remains of Herod’s palaces except for a few walls and cisterns.  Yet the dramatic story of the rebels lives on.  It is passed down through the generations of Israelis with the phrase “Sheynit Masada lo tipul,” which means “Masada shall not fall again.”

Visitors no longer have to hike up the Snake Path to the top of Masada.  A cable car whisks you to the top in a couple of minutes.  Even so, when visiting in the summer bring sun screen and lots of water!

desert landscape
Desert landscape surrounding Masada

Our tour guide to Masada was excellent.  His name is Shraga Rosensaft.  If you are visiting Israel and would like a personable, interesting, and expert guide, please contact him at shragaia@aim.com or www.tiyul.weebly.com

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