While researching and drafting my novel, I took three separate trips to southern France. There are a few sites I have made a point to visit on each trip, mostly because of their connection to Van Gogh, but also because I find them unmatchably serene, visits worth making for their own sake. One of these is the "Pont Van Gogh" (which I blogged about last month); another is St. Paul's Hospital in Saint-Remy, where Van Gogh lived for over a year following the onset of his epileptic attacks. A third location is the Abbaye de Montmajour, located a couple miles north of Arles. The abbey, long abandoned even in Van Gogh's time, is mentioned in various biographies I've read and occasionally too his letters, but it really came to my attention during a guided walking tour I took around Arles in the summer of 2005. At the top of one street, the guide pointed to an impressive structure off in the distance and explained that Van Gogh often hiked up there to paint. I knew I had to go, and so I did a few days later, and it turned out to be one the highlights of the trip.
The abbey, a mammoth structure, is a tourist spot but an enormously quiet one. Visitors come, but in modest twos and threes, and the occasional loner (like me), with intervals between them. The place never feels overrun and for the most part people stay silent, even when outside. For how old it is, the abbey, which dates from the early medieval era, is well preserved and has an interesting history. It's worth the trip just to linger in its huge stone halls and read about the uses of each room. Too, there always seems to be an art or photo exhibition going on.
But impressive as it is, the inside is not why I go to Abbaye de Montmajour or why I stay. In fact, each time I surge through the interior, head to the upper floor, and out a doorway to reach the "courtyard" (for lack of a better term). From there, one enjoys gorgeous views of Arles in the distance, and, closer in, the area known as La Crau, featuring long fertile fields that Van Gogh painted repeatedly (see first photo above). People linger out here, leaning over the stone walls, taking in the scenery. If they speak, they speak at a low murmur. And then they stroll on. Except not me. In an effort to blend my experinece with Vincent's, I've always brought along a sketch pad and pencils. I find a comfortable if stony place to sit and start drawing. It's not that I'm a artist. It's not that I make good drawings. I just want the experience of rendering the place in pictures rather than words. I want that physical sensation. Occasionally, I get a curious stare, but almost without fail people leave me alone, as if this were the most natural thing in the world to do. The courtyard has different levels and you can gradually move to higher spots for different vantage points. The abbey also features a soaring stone tower, built for defense not religious purposes in the late middle ages. A circular stone staircase takes you to the top, from which you can enjoy the views of Arles and La Crau from a much higher altitude as well as catch glimpses Fontvieille and Tarascon, far in the distance and at different points on the compass. Anyone with a fear of heights might find this part of the visit a bit too thrilling (there's a thin opening where the floor of the tower top meets the wall, and you can see all the way down), but in my opinion if you go to the abbey you have to go up the tower.
When I visit the Abbaye de Montmajour I find that a couple hours just melt away like nothing. You wonder where the time went. I leave satisfied but also wistful: wishing I could stay longer, eager for my next visit back. I imagine that's exactly how Vincent felt.