Arles: Van Gogh’s CafeTerrace at Night – then and now

Ever wanted to put yourself in the picture? It was evening and the sky was precisely the deep Prussian Blue that Van Gogh portrayed in his painting of “the Café Terrace at Night”. The lights under the awning reflected warmly in the wine glasses as we toasted our meal and our time in Province. It was Autumn in Arles, and the smell of lavender mingled with the delicious food smells. It hadn’t changed much since Vincent (yes we’re on first name terms now) painted the café at around the same time of year in 1888.

 

Van Gogh's CafeTerrace at Night

In those days, the café terrace was lit by gas lamps beneath the awning, as the evening brought out the vibrant stars. Van Gogh did the painting as a companion piece to his Night Café in which he depicted the interior of this same cafe.

Van Gogh wrote about this painting to his sister Willemien Van Gogh on 14 September 1888:

“I was interrupted precisely by the work that a new painting of the outside of a café in the evening has been giving me these past few days. On the terrace, there are little figures of people drinking. A huge yellow lantern lights the terrace, the façade, the pavement, and even projects light over the cobblestones of the street, which takes on a violet-pink tinge. The gables of the houses on a street that leads away under the blue sky studded with stars are dark blue or violet, with a green tree. Now there’s a painting of night without black. With nothing but beautiful blue, violet and green, and in these surroundings the lighted square is coloured pale sulphur, lemon green.12 I enormously enjoy painting on the spot at night. In the past they used to draw, and paint the picture from the drawing in the daytime. But I find that it suits me to paint the thing straightaway. It’s quite true that I may take a blue for a green in the dark, a blue lilac for a pink lilac, since you can’t make out the nature of the tone clearly. But it’s the only way of getting away from the conventional black night with a poor, pallid and whitish light, while in fact a mere candle by itself gives us the richest yellows and oranges.”

– [Source:  www.vangoghletters.org].

There were other cafés nearby on the plaza that once formed part of the Roman Forum here, and over the ten days we stayed there, we sampled most of them. Here, the steak was tasty and the Beaujolais formed the perfect accompaniment, along with the traditional baguette. A cool wind blew, but we didn’t mind. The occasional scooter clattered past on the cobble stones  – damp after a recent shower – leaving an oily smoke in its wake. It is a real place. Yet somehow the damp ground added vibrancy to the colours, rendering the scene more painterly. I can see why he chose this town, this part of the south of France. It is the light.

 

Van Gogh's CafeTerrace at Night

[source: photographed by me from a print erected at the spot from which he painted the cafe.]

The cafe itself – as you can see – is still there on the Place du Forum in Arles, just down the road from the Roman Amphitheatre which is still in use today for concerts and bull fights. Sharon and I had a wonderful dinner there – very French – with a nice carafe of wine. It was a magic evening 🙂

As for the actual painting? You can find Café Terrace at Night on display at the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, Netherlands.

France: Les Machines de L’Isle in Nantes

Les Machines

Some go to Nantes because it was the birthplace of visionary C19th author Jules Verne; others for the quirky botanical gardens, but for something truly unique, visit Les Machines de l’Isle. In 2004, as the former Naval shipyard lay closed and abandoned, two theatre designers –François Delarozière and Pierre Orefice – had a dream to revitalise this industrial corner of Nantes and transform it into an artistic wonderland inspired by Jules Verne. And so the Machines de l’Isle was born.

Les Machines de l'Isle, Nantes

It is like entering a world of the imagination. There are giant mechanical puppets, including a four-storey elephant that can take 50 passengers for a ride around the precinct; a giant heron, a mechanical ride-on inchworm and a fantasy tree stretching tens of metres. There are carousels and marine creatures and it is all created in front of you. You can visit the huge workshop where artists, engineers and craftspeople transform metal, hydraulics and intricate wood carvings into the next generation of giant mechanical sea monsters, birds, insects and plants.

Les Machines de l'Isle, Nantes

From their theatre origins, the designers place performance before engineering and as a result, the place takes on a wonderful narrative form. They have worked together for over 20 years in street theatre and urban performance. They produced giant puppets for the Royal de Luxe troupe and saw an opportunity when the shipyards closed in 1987. A street theatre company was formed in 1999 and the first machines were animated in 2007 with the inauguration of the Great Elephant and followed soon after with the Marine Worlds carousel.

The Great Elephant

It is said that being on the back of the Great Elephant is like being on the 4th floor of a travelling house with a great view over the whole place. There are movies on how the machines are made – many go on tour worldwide – and everywhere you see designs and other machines in their environment.

The Great Elephant is a giant in every sense, and everything about it is … well… big. It stands 12m high 8m wide and 21m long. It comprises 48.4 tonnes of steel and wood (American tulip wood) and it is powered by a 450hp motor driving the beast 1-3km/h. As you will see in the video below, it is highly articulated, driven by 44 hydraulic cylinders, 6 pneumatic ones and 10 gas ones. the trunk is highly segmented and snakes in all directions, blowing air and water at the will of the driver. The ears flap, the eyes blink, the mouth opens and closes and the legs walk in a synchronised fashion as it takes its load of passengers on a tour of the grounds.

 

Les Machines de l'Isle, Nantes

The Machine Gallery

The Machine Gallery is a performance space – open since Feb 2012 – which houses a wealth of plants and puppet machines revolving around the Heron Tree project. Real plants combine with mechanical ones in a dazzling wonderland. The machines are explained by the machinists who built them – in French – and performers interact with the machines providing mini shows for students and adults alike.There is something to fascinate and delight everyone from children to the childish in all of us

Les Machines de l'Isle, Nantes

How to visit

There are various modes in which you can visit – the ‘discovery mode’ is the one we chose, so we could wander through the galleries and machines and workshops. You can take a ride on the Great Elephant and/or you can take the ‘fairground’ mode in which you get to ride on the carousels and explore the marine world more deeply.

Here is a sample of our experience and what you can expect to see:

The place is continuously being developed so more attractions are being designed and added as time goes on. For something completely different and only in France – Les Machines is well worth the visit.

Les Machines de l'Isle, Nantes

Getting there

Two hours by TGV from Paris’ Gare de Montparnasse.  Then take the tram on line 1 from the station to the Chantiers Navals stop (translates as ‘naval shipyard’) and cross the Pont Anne de Bretagne bridge to the other side of the river. Information on how to get there is on this page. You can find their opening hours and entry fees here. Please check their website for enhanced security measures – and leave your large luggage items back at your accommodation.

 

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Camino Frances: St Jean-Orisson

It is quite a challenge to start the day with a mountain. We stopped in at the Pilgrim Office early to get a weather report, then paused at the bridge for a photo before passing under the Town Gate, and remarked ‘we are not in the Shire any more…’

St Jean Pied de Port

It is said that the Camino has three stages. The first is physical – knocking the body into shape, dealing with pain, learning the routine and finding your stride. The second is mental – testing your tenacity to keep getting out of bed; walking day after day can be, well, boring, and a challenge to keep focus on the destination. The third stage is the spiritual journey, once the physical barriers have been dealt with, and the routine is settled, there is time to consider and reflect. But first there is a mountain to deal with.

One thousand six hundred metres in 7.9kms is a long steep climb. It begins right out of St Jean with a steep climb that just gets steeper. It is known as the Napoleon Route as Napoleon marched his troops over this pass in the Pyrenees.

Other pilgrims have described this first day as ‘brutal’. They’re right. It is probably the hardest day’s walk I have ever done. We were both struggling within a couple of kilometres, and we stopped frequently to catch our breath. We saw a super fit team of Italian cyclists making little headway against the hill, with some people walking faster than the riders. The stops also gave us fantastic views, but the climb was relentless.

View from Huntto

The packs are still a little too heavy, and we could not have managed the climb without the trekking poles. I read once, that used properly, they can take around 18% of the load off your knees.

Almost at a standstill,  we finally reached Huntto and refilled our water bottles and bought coffees and baguettes. Our breakfast at the Gite had been sparse, just a couple of thin slices of baguette, a pot of yoghurt and coffee – nowhere near our energy requirement for the climb. Lesson learned.

As the afternoon approached we were very slow, but conscious of a 3.00pm deadline for our reservation. We made it with 20 minutes to spare, and as the Orisson albergue came into view we cheered aloud and walked into a great welcome with many who had passed us earlier, cheering us in. We got our credential stamped and signed in for our room. Luxury! a room with one double and two single beds. We shared with another Australian couple – very like-minded people and we got on well.

Orisson Albergue

It had taken 7 hours to get just over 7kms, a salutary reminder of our journey ahead. We washed our clothes – though drying proved difficult as the air was humid.

The view of sunset was breathtaking.

Sunset over Orisson

Dinner was an event to remember! Wonderful food – three courses and endless wine. We were all asked to introduce ourselves – our country, and where we hoped to reach. There was quite a French contingent, so I made our introduction in French and English – the French appreciated it and came over to chat later. At one point the Italians broke into a passable operatic version of Oh Sole Mio! more singing and more wine flowed and then we called it a night. It was a night to remember.

 

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INDEX – If you wish to follow our journey from the beginning, or jump in to any of the Camino posts,
here is a link to the index page – which can also be found in the navigation bar at the top of this blog

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