Latitude 43°N – Lourmarin, Arles and Lucca
I had the good fortune at the beginning of October this year to accompany my good friend Jim O’Neill to visit his place in Provence, in the very pretty village of Lourmarin. He bought the property nearly thirty years ago, acknowledging the fact his grandmother came from this region. Like the village itself, he has developed his property for holiday rental for discerning visitors to enjoy the area that has been immortalised by such writers as Peter Mayle since 1989 in the book, film and television series A Year in Provence.
Pierre, an old and close friend of Jim’s challenged us to a game of boule one warm afternoon where we were politely and gently routed but I got to understand more about the skill in what appears a very simple game. The next day Pierre generously gave us a day to remember; first taking us to an artist friend Michel Chambon’s studio to admire his work; then giving us a guided tour of the countryside towards Arles; then once in Arles to the restaurant Le 16, just one of several good restaurants in the Rue du Docteur Fanton, tasting some of the best local cuisine of the region.
Whereas Lucca is culturally rich in music, for me Arles is rich in the visual arts of painting and photography, particularly the painter Vincent van Gogh. I was delighted to recognise some of the places he painted now famous such as the Café Terrace at Night, the Garden of the Hospital in Arles and to try to visualise the site of the Little Yellow House at 2 Place Lamartine now a busy roundabout and car park.
Historically, Arles and Lucca shared the ancient group of people known as the Ligurians, whereas southern France had a stronger Celtic influence, Lucca and Tuscany had an Etruscan culture. Whilst both cities were important Roman provincial places, Arles boasts of a well-preserved almost intact amphitheatre as well important Roman remains at the nearby archaeological site of Glanum and Saint Rémy.
Geographically, Lourmarin, Arles, Lucca, Pisa and Florence all lay on the same latitude 43°N, and between 40´ (Arles) and 50´ (Lucca) in minutes of latitude. Together with river systems such as the Rhône, the Serchio and the Arno the regions around these places have similar climatic conditions and agriculture producing good olive oil, wine, fruits etc whilst Provence is often affected by strong north winds known as the Mistral.
To return to van Gogh, I had the pleasure of meeting Bernadette Murphy, a resident of Lourmarin and an art historian who, after years of pain-staking forensic research, has unearthed facts about van Gogh and solved the ‘mystery’ of his severed ear. Her publication Van Gogh’s Ear: The True Story has had international success and been the subject of a one-our BBC documentary with author and broadcaster Jeremy Paxman.
As a good friend of Jim, Bernadette is visiting Lucca and will give an informal talk about her work at my home in early December to a small group of friends.
It is fascinating to note that as a post-Impressionist painter, van Gogh was ‘ahead of his time’ and during his stay in Arles between 1888 and 1889 he produced over 300 paintings and drawings, none of which he or his brother Theo were able to sell. Amongst these works were the famous Sunflower paintings that he painted to decorate the room he hoped fellow artist Paul Gauguin would stay and work together. Although Gauguin stayed for only a couple of months their collective output of work during this period alone would now be worth something approaching two billion dollars in value!