Ever since I moved here, in 2007, I’ve heard a recurring question: Julia, how did you end up in Arles? Subtext: what brought a Malaysian-born britannique to this crossroads of Mediterranean culture, an ancient town with scorching summers and mistral winds, and which, until recently, was not the place of choice for incomers such as myself, whose circle of international friends had opted for the softer climes of Les Alpilles or the Luberon, an idealised Provence awash with idyllic farmhouses, olive groves and swimming pools?
Usually I make a throwaway response, easy references to serendipity and synergy and that mesmerising first visit, in autumn 1981, with Georges, my flamboyant and considerably older French husband.
The Nord Pinus Hotel, where we were the only clients, was a snoring beauty, clearly in need of a wakeup call. Its glory days, Georges told me, were now over. He’d been coming here for years, as an aficionado of the corrida, as a friend of the Camarguais aristocrat and filmmaker Jacques de Baroncelli, and as a collector of Lucien Clergue’s photographs. To my huge relief, there was no bullfight to go to. Jacques de B., sadly, was long dead. But Lucien Clergue and Yolande, his beautiful wife, were very much in town and ready for lunch at Le Vaccares, the legendary first-floor restaurant on the Place du Forum.
Having lived for some years on the glitzy French Riviera, I now discovered another Provence – darker, more mysterious, and infinitely more secret. First, the visit to Lucien’s Atelier. Then, the gloomy yet enchanting Museon Arlaten where we gazed at life sized mannequins dressed in 19 th century costumes, submerged in settings of sombre wood and dusty chintz. At the ‘Souleido’ boutique I bought metres of the same printed textiles, and across the road at ‘Camille’ found a black velvet jacket, just like those worn by the Camarguais horsemen.
Forty years later, after living in so many different places, I still have those Provencal textiles, as well preserved as the precious Arles memories of that first visit when a door in a photographer’s atelier swung open into a poetic parallel universe. The poetry is still there, although the town has seen many changes. The Nord Pinus Hotel is now impeccably revived, the Museon Arlaten has undergone a major renovation and the LUMA Foundation has brought an extraordinary new dynamic to La Petite Rome des Gaules.
One day, from the book lined seclusion of the Writer’s Room nesting above the courtyard, I’ll find the meaningful words to respond to the ‘why Arles’ question which still hangs in the air. Meanwhile, in my beloved house on the rue de la Calade, echoes of past splendours, present adventures and future aspirations resonate in pleasing and sometimes unexpected ways.