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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Places I Didn’t Visit in Amsterdam

coffeeshop in Amsterdam

Amsterdam is known for many things.  Canals, houses that are hundreds of years old, thousands of bicycles, and diamonds come to mind.  I saw all of those things and enjoyed my time wandering around the old center of Amsterdam.  I especially liked seeing the narrowest house in Amsterdam (only six feet wide!), reading about the life of Van Gogh and seeing many fabulous paintings at the Van Gogh Museum, and having an Argentine steak dinner near the Rembrandtplein.  However, there are other more notorious things that many tourists come to Amsterdam to see.  Here are a few of the places I didn’t visit.

coffeeshop in Amsterdam
I don’t drink coffee and I don’t smoke the reefer!

There are hundreds of coffee shops around Amsterdam that serve marijuana. There was a small cafe a few doors down from where I was staying. It smelled so strong that I think I caught a buzz just walking by on the sidewalk a few times every day.

shop in Amsterdam, Netherlands
In case you need a new head.

I never understood why those stores were called by that name anyway. By the way, a good source for last minute airline tickets is Last Minute Tickets

Bulldog coffee shop in Amsterdam
For those mid-afternoons when you are tired from walking around the city and need a “pick-me-up”…

I didn’t go inside the Bulldog Energy Coffee Shop, but I liked their logo on the neon sign. There were several of these coffee shops around the old city center. I don’t know the combination of chemicals that they are selling in there, but it is a popular establishment. Perhaps the essence of visiting the Bulldog is a combination of drinking Red Bull and espresso while smoking a marijuana cigarette and eating a hash brownie. So you have the energy to paddle a boat around all of the canals of the city while feeling good doing it?

A friend recommended this restaurant near the train station. I meant to go there, but never made it back to that part of the city at the right time.

Restaurant in Amsterdam
I hear the food is good, but beware of the special brownies for dessert.

Museums typically include collections of really old stuff that are supposed to be educational. What could possibly be in this museum?
Hemp and Marijuana Museum
They need a museum for this in this town?

I also didn’t go down the narrow, old alleys of the Red Light district, although I saw the red lights above the windows from the canal boat as it cruised by. Don’t even ask about Casa Rosso, I regret even reading about it in the guidebook.

Even though I don’t agree with the hedonistic lifestyles of some of the people of Amsterdam, I liked the city.  It’s definitely worth visiting for a couple of days on any European tour.

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