One of the interesting if also offputting aspects of traveling around Arles is the amount of Van Gogh related siteseeing. In the summer months especially, individuals, walking tours, and even tour buses hurry from place to place inside and outside the city, looking for the exact spot where Van Gogh painted this or that painting, catching amused sneers from the natives who--probably rightly--are sure there are lots better ways to spend a day in southern France. I have to admit that in conducting research for my novel I too have been just such an individual and even a member of such tour groups. One of the first places I sought out when I arrived in Arles for the first time in 2005 was the "Langlois bridge,"designated clearly on all the tourist maps as the place where Van Gogh created his first important Arles painting. In fact, nowadays it's also referred to as the "Pont Van Gogh" (the Van Gogh bridge).
The bridge is outside of the city, a ten minute drive at most. It's a curious combination of bustling tourist spot and hushed artistic retreat. It sits peacefully on a thin canal with little in the way of modernity nearby, except for the paved road that drops you off there. A modest stretch of roadside gravel exists for parking. It's a homely but enormously quiet, even reverent, spot, with this small and antiquated and inoperative bridge sitting in a permanently raised position, a dilapidated house beside it, and a nearby cover of trees that once passed through puts you out on a foot-worn path that runs alongside the canal. You can walk as far as you want northward or southward, with nary an interruption or distraction. When I visit the bridge I immediately want to stay. I want to sit. I want to absorb. Each time I go, I stay longer. Not just photographing, but sketching and journaling, soaking in the quiet, the greenery. I know I'm not alone in this feeling. Usually I see at least one other person there--always alone--lounging on a stretch of earth, with book or picnic basket or sketchbook in hand. You should not be surprised, however, if while you visit a enormous coach pulls up for ten minutes to let out a gaggle of Japanese tourists, who take a flurry of pictures and then get back on in search of the next Van Gogh destination. The tourists come and go in a cycle. The place takes them in, absorbs them, and then sends them on their way. You stay, getting the longer, richer experience; and quickly you stop noticing them.
The place has a feeling of genineness and subdued beauty that has in fact little to do with Van Gogh and his painting, though that it is his painting that brings all the visitors. You see, this bridge, proudly proclaimed on the nearby sign as subject of Van Gogh's Langlois Bridge, actually isn't. If you read a little deeper into Arles information you find out that a string of fourteen or so identical small bridges once spanned the canal. At some point in the 20th century they were removed for being useless vestiges of an outworn technology. And, sad but true, one of the bridges removed was the actual bridge Van Gogh painted. In the name of historical preservation, however, a single bridge was left standing. Since this bridge is identical to Van Gogh's bridge it is proudly (and self-servingly) proclaimed by the tourist industry as his bridge, which in some sense it is. For the working novelist trying to soak up atmosphere, it's certainly accurate enough. And a pleasant place to vist. Things get even murkier though. Later in my 2005 visit I was told by a tour guide in Arles--a white-haired American woman who moved between a kind of noisy and nasal, northern accented English to a fluid, deeper-toned French within which you couldn't hear a trace of the American midwest--that everyone had the name of the bridge wrong. It's true name in Van Gogh's time was not the "Langlois" bridge but the "L'Anglais," or the "English," bridge, because the man who tended the bridge was known to be an Englishman. I've not heard that story from any other source--and Van Gogh's painting always goes (and always has) by the title The Langlois Bridge--but nevertheless I immediately jumped on the story. It captivated my imagination, and it ended up affecting what happens in the Arles section of my novel. More on that next time.
(Photos: Van Gogh's The Langlois Bridge with Women Washing, and the still extent "L'Anglais" bridge on a peaceful if cloudy day last May.)