Monday, 17 June 2013

Les Alpilles, Saint-Remy de Provence

Van Gogh's Mont Gaussier
Mont Gaussier from the hotel
The summit path
Mont Gaussier
Ladder to the summit platform
Looking north over Saint-Remy to Avignon
The final pitch to the right of the cave
View of Saint-Remy from the summit
The summit along a 3 metre wide ridge
Meadow by the Asylum
A few years ago, I happened upon Les Alpilles whilst visiting the Van Gogh museum at Saint-Remy. Van Gogh lived in the asylum and painted in his studio, a former cell, and in the surrounding grounds.  The location was the inspiration for many of his most acclaimed works, he produced over 150 paintings and drawings during his stay at the asylum. I was so taken by the limestone hills behind the museum that we returned a week or so later and I spent a day exploring the Alpilles and then having a morning run up Mont Gaussier, the most impressive limestone pinnacle that overlooks the town. I returned this week for the fourth time.

A night in Saint-Remy is a pleasure in itself but there is no finer way to start any day than by running along the road to Glanum beside the massive plane trees that were the subject of Van Gogh's painting, the Road Menders. From the museum there is a meadow to cross, then a trail past the Glanum site of Roman antiquities before snaking up the dry valley through cypress and pine trees. The trail steepens towards a col where you take a sharp right turn into the pine trees and follow a meandering path into the maquis below Mont Gaussier. Although only 307 metres high, it is the most spectacular of summits.  The path arrives at a steeply raking iron ladder and above this, there is a fine narrow limestone platform that leads towards a final pitch of climbing to reach the summit. I was a bit daunted by the climb but the knowledge that I had managed it on three previous occasions spurred me on and, despite flexible running shoes, there was a good grip on the limestone, although it was crumbling in places.

The views back to Saint-Remy are spectacular and all around the plains of Provence disappear into the hues of summer haze. I gave myself five minutes to absorb the mesmeric views and then began the run down. It was still early and the heat had yet to build up. The meadows at the foot of the slopes were alive with insects and butterflies and the mile or so back down the road to the town centre was an exercise in avoiding the tree roots of the plane trees as well as the traffic. I had made it in just under an hour, excluding the glorious dream at the summit. Hopefully, it will not be the last run up this superb architecture of nature. Even Van Gogh failed to capture its full inspirational character although he did pull this off with the roadmenders.

The roadmenders

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