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TRAVELING IN STYLE : PROVENCE IN DARK AND LIGHT : The Air Is Sweet and Warm in the Alpilles Region of the South of France, but Watch Out for the Monsters

March 07, 1993|JUDY FAYARD | Judy Fayard was senior editor of European Travel & Life until its demise last year. She has covered Europe from Paris for 17 years and was previously Los Angeles correspondent for Life magazine.

SPRING ARRIVES EARLY IN THE ALPILLES. By the end of February, the almond trees are in blossom, snowy pink promises of more to come. In March, leaves suddenly appear on the chestnut, linden and plane trees that border every country road and village street. With April come roses, jonquils, irises and the flowering of the peach and pear and apricot trees. Soon everything explodes into color and the herbs of the garrigue (the Provencal moors)--thyme and rosemary, chervil and sage--perfume the soft, warm air.

The Alpilles are a short, sharp range of mountains in the south of France, just east of the Rhone River--great balding, pine-stubbled white rocks lurching out of the Provencal plain, carved into strange shapes by the violent lashings of the Mistral, the region's punishing north wind, and by the quarrying hand of man. Spread beneath them are the fertile fields of Provence, checkerboard acres of vineyards and silvery olive groves outlined by single files of black-green cypresses--Van Gogh landscapes, just as the artist himself painted them, again and again, during the two years he lived in the region, in Arles and St. Remy.

Sun-dappled St. Remy is the most seductive town in the Alpilles. It's the quintessential Provencal village: narrow streets of stone houses with jaunty blue-gray shutters and hanging geranium pots, a rectangular central square with a miniature City Hall and a Saturday morning market, a handful of shops, restaurants and little hotels, all enclosed within a circular avenue shaded by plane trees. St. Remy is lighthearted and uncomplicated. Its contagious joie de vivre erupts periodically in festivals such as the Carreto dis Ase (Donkey Cart) on May Day, when several dozen donkeys tow a flower-cart through town; or the Abrivados, the arrival of the bulls, held on Bastille Day (July 14), Aug. 15 and the last Sunday in September, when six bulls are run through the streets to general mayhem--a sort of mini-Pamplona.

St. Remy is the hub of the Alpilles. Shooting out from it are spoke roads leading to other nearby delights: The houses in the village of Fontvieille turn into floral bouquets in spring, and on the hill behind the town sits the famous windmill in which the writer Alphonse Daudet lived and worked. At Maussane--one main street and change--the local olive-growers cooperative produces the best olive oil in the world. Maillane was the home of Frederic Mistral, the poet, writer, Nobel Prize winner and founder of the Felibrige, a turn-of-the-century group of writers dedicated to the preservation of the Provencal language. He spent his life writing about his beloved Alpilles. The superb ruins of the 10th-Century Abbey of Montmajour appear in many of Van Gogh's paintings and drawings. The church and crypt are overpowering in their vast emptiness, but there are many fanciful stone carvings on the capitals and walls of the cloister.

There are ruins at St. Remy, too, on the outskirts of town. Two 1st-Century Roman monuments sit all by themselves within a curious circle of flat stones on one side of the road: a triumphal arch with its top missing and a tall funereal memorial, in perfect condition, with superb carvings of battle scenes on all four sides.

Across the road are the ruins of the Greco-Roman town of Glanum, discovered under an olive grove in 1921 and still being excavated. Next to the temple of Valetudo, goddess of health, a pool still fills with water from the Sacred Spring around which the town developed. The original settlement was destroyed in the 2nd-Century B.C. battles between the Roman general Marius and the invading Teutons. (Marius eventually won a decisive victory against them near Aix-en-Provence, rendering the empire safe for another 300 years, and ensuring that Marius would become a common given name in Provence ever after.) Glanum was rebuilt, and then wiped out once again when the barbarians returned in the 3rd Century A.D.

VAN GOGH SPENT THE LAST FULL YEAR OF HIS LIFE IN the asylum of St. Paul-de-Mausole, adjacent to Glanum, where he painted the gardens, the rock quarries, the olive groves and the view toward the hills. Visitors today may wander in his footsteps in the countryside outside the hospital walls. The 12th-Century chapel and its graceful small cloister are open to the public, too, but the main buildings are still in use as a psychiatric hospital and closed to outsiders.

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