Postcard from Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer

In the footsteps of Vincent van Gogh

Postcard from Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in search of van Gogh
25th September 2007 Jane Tomlinson

Stes Maries cabanes and church6 September 2007

In the 119 years since Vincent van Gogh came to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, the village has transformed from a tiny mosquito infested backwater of a fishing village with a the bones of a trio of Christian saints, to a touristy seaside resort with the bones of a trio of Christian saints.

This being France, you’ll find few tacky attractions or arcades here! Sandwiched between the Mediterranean Sea and the flat marsh land of the Camargue, it feels like an oasis on the edge of nowhere, a frontier town.

In 1888, Vincent reports it had “no more than 100 houses” with orange roofs and thatched white-washed cabanes or fishermen’s cottages clustered around the huge, dominating church.

This houses the relics of three early saints and has been a place of pilgrimage for centuries, especially for Europe’s Roma population. In Vincent’s View of Stes-Maries the church dominates the village  as it still does:

…but today the lavender fields he painted sweeping up towards the houses are gone, replaced by a promenade and car parking. The dunes on which he sat to draw seascapes are concreted over and the old cabanes he painted are gone:

… replaced by shops and cafes and ice cream vendors.

To the west of the town today a row of cabanes still stand, mostly holiday lets we thought, but a few looked tumbled down and unkempt enough perhaps to be occupied by the town’s older residents.

They are charming and exactly how I expected them to look having seen Vincent’s drawings and paintings of them, with lines of thatch, rounded at one end and a strip of concrete along the roof’s apex.

Once, these were inhabited by fishermen who hauled their brightly painted open wooden boats up on the beach for the night before setting their triangular sails again in the morning. Vincent painted the boats on the beach,  one of his most beautiful and accomplished paintings, I think:

Today the boats are long-gone, as are the fishermen, replaced by holidaymakers and sun-worshippers:

A small marina houses pleasure craft, expensive yachts and tourist bateaux. A few rough looking gypsy women hassle the tourists (including Moth, but not me  they must have see the words naff off with your mystical mumbo jumbo etched on my forehead) trying to give him useless, religious good luck trinkets in return for hard cash. A couple with five dogs and a CAT, would you believe, on leads strolled along the promenade where the dunes once stood.

We went up the church tower to the roof area to see the view from the top, well worth it to see all those orange roofs like Vincent saw:

Moth and I found a clear view to the west of the town where I could paint the cabanes with a view of the church in the background and flamingoes in the lagoon.

Vincent would surely have recognised the town from here. I sat happily in the blinding sunshine and quickly made my own little sketch: