Essence of Provence
In the shady streets and squares of Saint-Rémy, Jon Bryant discovers a rich cultural heritage amid a landscape that inspired Van Gogh
If all the elements of Provence were distilled, the result would probably look something like Saint-Rémy. The town is the quintessential vision of charming, shuttered hôtels, delicate iron gates, shady squares, tinkling fountains and lively terrace cafés.
Saint-Rémy-de-Provence is one of the oldest towns in France. The first inhabitants settled nearby in the 6th century BC and the Roman town of Glanum survived until around 260AD when it was abandoned and the settlers moved a little downhill into what became known as Saint-Rémy. Like many Provençal towns, its centre is almost heart-shaped, surrounded by thick-walled ramparts and a moat (now transformed into the modern-day ring road), and with a maze of narrow lanes that protect residents from the hot sun and fierce Mistral wind.
In the countryside around the town, olive groves, orchards and vineyards are divided up by tree-lined driveways that lead to dreamy, wisteria-clad mas (traditional Provençal farmhouses) with pools and arcaded patios, the kind you see in the windows of Émile Garcin Propriétés.
Garcin’s estate agencies in Aix-en-Provence, Ménerbes or Saint-Tropez attract the château hunters, but it all started 50 years ago in Saint-Rémy, with a young man who had no real plans and no real experience. “When I first opened an agency here, it was just me. Parisians began arriving in the early 1970s with the autoroute link down south, then the airlines started to attract foreign clients here and then, of course, the TGV arrived.”
Garcin says people found a sense of history and authenticity in Saint-Rémy. “They were attracted by a universe they had never encountered before and, of course, there were lots of buildings to restore. Parisians who had places in Normandy realised they could get here in the same amount of time.
“Saint-Rémy is especially popular with the English as they love to preserve the past. Here, we have both rural and sophisticated, and the light of the Alpilles mountain range is different. It’s a light that inspired the artists.”
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Opposite Garcin’s offices, the galleries in Boulevard Mirabeau are full of regional landscapes and contemporary exhibitions, showing off the heritage of a town that received an unexpected cultural jolt with the arrival of Vincent Van Gogh in 1889.
The Dutch-born artist spent a year at the asylum in Saint-Rémy after cutting off part of his left ear while staying in nearby Arles with the French painter Paul Gauguin. He was confined to Saint-Paul du Mausole, a former monastery just south of the town. Staff there let him paint in the garden and walk into the Alpilles foothills. Little has changed here; today’s visitors can still see purple irises and mulberry trees that Van Gogh painted more than a century ago.
Upstairs in a wing above the cloisters is Van Gogh’s old room, complete with a bed and solitary chair, and bars at the window. Across the corridor are the giant metal baths with restraining planks over the top to assist in cold-water treatments for the ‘mad’ patients.
Van Gogh painted 142 pictures in his year in Saint-Rémy, including some of his most dazzling works. The tourist office has created an hour-long walking tour around the town, featuring reproductions of his paintings on panels exactly where they were created. The tour starts at Glanum, beneath the grey Alpilles hills, which darken at dusk as the sky turns purple. It is amazing to think that Van Gogh set up his easel over the top of one of France’s most complete (yet then undiscovered) Roman settlements without ever knowing. Glanum was not excavated until 1921, 30 years after the artist’s death.
The biggest stones visible are still Roman: Les Antiques comprise a giant triumphal arch and a mausoleum that marked the entry to Glanum. They were cleaned recently and sparkle under a blue sky, freshly cleared by the Mistral and the Provençal sun.
Besides the Van Gogh walk, the tourist office has designed a tour incorporating the town’s industrial heritage. There is a grinding mill in the centre and beside the monastery a giant capstan which was used for breaking rocks from the nearby quarry. After the French Revolution, the town began developing industries based on carding (cleaning and blending fibres), plant dyeing and herbs.
One of the world’s first great herbalists, Michel de Nostredame, was born in Saint-Rémy in 1503. He is better-known as the astrologer Nostradamus, whose cryptic prophesies of world events are still in print. He lived in the town before leaving for university in Avignon, but all that remains of his house, down a narrow alley near the Impasse du Lapin Blanc, is a creamy façade with a simple plaque.
Provence is a land of festivals and in Saint-Rémy a highlight of the year comes with the Fête de la Saint-Eloi. Locals give thanks to the patron saint of farriers and horses as decorated draught horses pull flower-decked carts of produce through the streets. Another, more frequent attraction is the Wednesday morning market that floods the Place de la Mairie and the Place de la République with crates of tomatoes, garlic, oranges, cheese and vats of soaking olives. In fact, most people come to this kernel of Provence for the food. Saint-Rémy has more than 50 restaurants as well as the lure of sweet-toothed seduction at chocolatier Joël Durand.
The master craftsman has been in the town for 15 years and specialises in an original chocolate alphabet of flavours. Each creation is covered with a letter or calligraphic symbol to denote its flavour. Local favourites include L – lavender, V – violet and P – a Provence special which contains almonds, praline and black olives from the nearby Les Baux valley.
Durand has a dynamic approach to chocolates, changing fillings according to the season: caramel with salted butter and fresh verbena from May to September and Provence almonds and liquorice the rest of the year. Durand began his career in Brittany, but found that he was making chocolates in the north-east of France while all his favourite ingredients were coming from the south. For this summer, he has developed a cube of frozen chocolate on a stick, an idea which came to him in a dream (if you ever wondered what chocolate makers dream).
A couple of doors down is Le Petit Duc, a Provençal paradise of cakes, biscuits, nougat and spiced bread. Pâtissier Hermann van Beeck says Provence never had a dairy tradition, so butter wasn’t used in pastries. “They used olive oil instead, so food tasted differently in the south-west. Biscuits consequently were hard and lasted longer. Likewise, fruit was conserved in sugar for the winter months in the same way as meat was salted.”
His creations are inspired by sweet and pastry recipes from the Roman era and the Middle Ages, and many are given religious names. His Oreille de la Bonne Déesse, which contains wine, cumin and dried fruits, apparently pre-dates the time of Christ. He also does a Pignolat de Nostradamus with pine nuts and rose water.
On the other side of town is the even more colourful Confiserie Lilamand which has vats of candied fruits and uses a confit recipe from Nostradamus himself. Summer fruits are preserved in syrup and then eaten as one of the traditional 13 Desserts of Christmas – representing Jesus and the 12 Apostles; nothing could be more Provençal than that.
By road/ferry: Saint-Rémy-de-Provence is ten hours’ drive from the northern ferry ports.
By rail: The closest TGV station is Avignon (20km). A bus for Saint-Rémy leaves from the depot near Avignon central station (a shuttle ride from the TGV station).
By air: The nearest airports are Avignon (20km; 30min), Marseille (70km; 1hr) and Nîmes (46km; 55min).
WHERE TO STAY
18 Place de la République
Tel: (Fr) 4 90 92 06 14
Hotel on the corner of the main square and where composer Charles Gounod wrote his opera Mireille in 1863. There is also a tea room. Doubles from €99.
WHERE TO EAT
16 Boulevard Victor Hugo
Tel: (Fr) 4 90 92 05 95
Restaurant in a walled courtyard beside the town’s truffle centre. Dishes include lamb with olives and polenta, a goats’ cheese burger and apple crumble with the almond-based calisson ice-cream. Menus €30.
WHERE TO VISIT
Glanum archaeological site
Route des Baux-de-Provence
Tel: (Fr) 4 90 92 23 79
Saint-Paul de Mausole
Avenue Docteur Edgar Leroy
Tel: (Fr) 4 90 92 77 00
Musée des Alpilles
8 Place Favier
Tel: (Fr) 4 90 92 68 24
Joel Durand – chocolatier
3 Boulevard Victor Hugo
Tel: (Fr) 4 90 92 38 25
Le Petit Duc
7 Boulevard Victor Hugo
Tel: (Fr) 4 90 92 08 31
5 Avenue Albert Schweitzer
Tel: (Fr) 4 90 92 11 08
Saint-Rémy-de-Provence tourist office
Tel (Fr) 4 90 92 05 22