Strokes of sadness

Irises grow by the roadside in the Avenue van Gogh in Saint-Remy-de-Provence. They are not in bloom but I recognise the dull green leaves, lolling like parched tongues in the dirt.

I am walking in van Gogh's world. It is as though I have been here before. Everything is strangely familiar. The images of his paintings are all around in the trees, the fields, in the rocks and the buildings. It is like walking in a living exhibition.

I have come to Saint-Remy for a friend's birthday  but I have been drawn into the artist's world. Saint-Remy was home to Vincent van Gogh for just one year when he admitted himself to Saint-Paul de Mausole asylum in May 1889. In spite of his mental instability, it was probably his most prolific period and he produced more than 140 paintings.

The asylum is on the outskirts of this small  town in southern France at the foot of the jagged Alpilles range. I am taking a short walking tour following in van Gogh's footsteps. I leave the town, with its narrow streets and square, shaded by plane trees, and follow a trail marked out by 21 panels displaying reproductions of the artist's paintings. The panels are placed at intervals on noticeboards along the three-kilometre trail so  visitors can see the real and imaginary world of the artist.

I walk along the Avenue Marie Gasque. In van Gogh's time this lane would have passed through broad fields of wheat and flowers. Today it is a quiet residential street. I come to a modern wall and a display panel shows a reproduction of The Road of Cypresses. I look over the wall and the scene is the same as the painting.

I tread a narrow passageway to the road skirting the Alpilles and see the reproduction of  Wheat Field with Cypresses, a scene typical of the landscape today.

The chapel bells are ringing as I walk up the avenue of pines towards the gates of the asylum. Olive trees, grey-green leaves and trunks, blackand twisted, fill the fields. Wild thyme casts a mauve hue over the grass.

At the end of the driveway, on another board, is a reproduction of Irises. Here are the blue and violet blooms missing from the roadside plants. These leaves are sea-green and pointed like swords. Van Gogh found the irises growing on a smallarea of raised ground just behind the garden wall of the caretaker's cottage.

After the walking trail I visit the asylum, which today houses a small van Gogh museum. I meet my guide, Marie Charlotte, and she first takes me into the olive grove. She holds up a reproduction of Olive Grove and, behind her diminutive figure, I see the same picture.

''When he painted olive trees, he painted fast to catch the light on the leaves,''  Charlotte explains.

We enter the asylum, the cloisters and chapter house. In the entrance hall I turn and look back at the door. This is another of his pictures.  I see a room, similar to van Gogh's room, with the iron bedstead and rush-seated chair.

I see the view from his bedroom window, from which he did a series of paintings. I walk out into the walled garden, where he walked and where he painted irises, lilacs, and ivy-covered trees.

The next day I visit Les Baux, a mediaeval hilltop village, built from limestone extracted from nearby quarries. Today the quarries have a different use. I enter the chill and darkness of the vast, interconnecting caverns and become enveloped in the paintings of van Gogh and Gauguin. Seventy projectors show a constantly changing view of 400 works of art on the 12.1-metre-high limestone walls, pillars and floors. There is nothing to separate me from the paintings. Imove about inthem.

I stand in a snow storm and watch large white flakes settling on van Gogh's rooftops; I see rain-lashed fields with peasants working; I see sorrow and pain in the eyes of the people he painted; and, in great magnification, I see anguish in the artist's eyes.

''I put my heart and my soul into my work and have lost my mind in the process,'' van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo.

When van Gogh arrived at Saint-Remy, he was on the road out of melancholy. When he left one year later, the medical report said ''cured''. A month later he died from a gunshot wound, generally accepted to be self-inflicted. He was 37. He had sold just one painting during his life.

Shortly before he died he wrote to his brother: ''I can't change the fact that my paintings don't sell. But the time will come when people will recognise that they are worth more than the value of the paints used in the picture.''

Irises  sold for $US53.9million in 1987, then a record for awork of art, to Australian businessman Alan Bond. It changed hands three years later and the painting is now in the Getty Centre in Los Angeles.

Trip notes

Getting there

There are regular flights to Paris or London, from where you can catch a flight from Southampton  to Avignon  with Flybe for $246. Double room in Hotel du Cheval Blanc, basic, comfortable hotel in centre of Saint-Remy, $80.  Or you could stay at the Chateau des Alpilles, one kilometre outside Saint-Remy, where rooms start at $240 a night, depending on season.

Saint-Paul de Mausole is open daily, March to December. Admission €4 ($5). Book guide, $10, at the tourist office in the town centre.

The walking trail is unguided and you can pick up a leaflet and map at the tourist office.

The Carrieres de Lumieres at LesBaux is open daily, featuring different artists. Admission €8.50.

This story Strokes of sadness first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.