In the heart of Central Mexico lies an enchanting colonial-era city, Guanajuato. Founded by the Spaniards in the early 16th century, it became the world’s preeminent silver-mining center in the 18th century. Guanajuato’s captivating historic district and famous mines have earned a spot on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Yet, many have yet to hear of the place. I recently made an extraordinary day trip to Guanajuato from San Miguel de Allende and was thoroughly impressed by its beauty and historical significance.
Taking the Bus
I was dropped off at the bus station in San Miquel de Allende and, with a bit of wariness, hopped aboard a public bus. To my surprise, the choice was a luxury option at a bargain price. I found large and roomy seats like those in the first-class section on an airplane. I could recline, use a footrest, and watch a video screen- except everything was in Spanish – which I do not speak. I sat back in comfort and enjoyed the scenery.
A little more than an hour later, the bus pulled into the central station of Guanajuato, and I walked out the door to find a line of waiting taxis. An approximate 10-15 minute cab ride takes one into the historic district. Even though the driver spoke little English, he pointed out the underground tunnels in the old mining town, now subterranean streets. I was fascinated and wanted to explore them, but I had not allotted time. A few mines remain open to tourists, but if lucky, I’ll see them on a return visit.
My Viking Seine River Cruise allowed me to visit Malmaison, the former home of Napoleon Bonaparte and Josephine, in the western suburbs of Paris. Before this cruise, and like most tourists, I had never heard of the estate. Unfortunately, the property is difficult to reach via Paris public transportation, and a taxi would be expensive. So, lucky for me, but sad for all those who miss it.
The excellent Viking Cruise excursion guide provided some background information on Napoleon and Josephine during the bus ride to the mansion. Josephine de Beauharnais was quite the character, and the guide made me so interested I went home and read a biography on her fascinating life.
Over the past two years, numerous interactive and immersive Vincent Van Gogh exhibits appeared in museums worldwide. They attracted huge crowds. But, unless you are a devoted fan of Van Gogh, you probably haven’t heard of Auvers-sur-Oise. The little village, located in Normandy, France, near Vernon, rests about an hour’s train ride from Paris. The picturesque spot inspired many Impressionist Masters: Van Gogh, Camille Pissarro, and Paul Cézanne. At different times, they all lived and worked in Auvers-sur-Oise.
My Viking Seine River and Normandy Cruise included an excursion to the small town. Being curious, I signed on. Now, I am so thankful I took the opportunity to visit a seemingly obscure place that holds important artistic history.
What to See in Auvers-sur-Oise
Auvers is where Vincent Van Gogh lived the last two months of his life in 1890. The area gave him such a source of creativity that he completed 80 paintings in seventy days. Perhaps he unconsciously knew he needed to hurry.
When my group arrived, I spotted City Hall, called Hotel in Ville in France. The house-like structure looked like someone decorated it for Bastille Day with red, white and blue French flags around the windows. As I gazed around, the entire village seemed frozen in time, a nineteenth-century time capsule.
Take a Guided Tour
A guide met my group and began to lead us along. Before strolling down residential cobblestone streets, we passed a few inviting shops and restaurants. Then, we came upon homes with lace curtains hanging in the windows and flower boxes still in bloom.
We traveled along a discreetly marked Van Gogh Trail and stopped at the Eglise Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, the church Van Gogh famously painted. The interior seemed somewhat drab, but contained two Romanesque chapels, and held a copy of the well-known painting. I loved comparing the artwork to the exterior of the Gothic, 13th-century building more than 800 years old.
In a letter to his sister, Van Gogh described the church saying, “the building appears to be violet-hued against a sky of simple deep blue color, pure cobalt; the stained-glass windows appear as ultramarine blotches, the roof is violet and partly orange. In the foreground, some green plants in bloom, and sand with the pink flow of sunshine in it.”
The Viking Cruise tour group continued up a hill to the town cemetery, where we stopped at the ivy-covered graves of Vincent and his brother Theo. Mystery surrounds Vincent’s death, but the prevailing thought is suicide since he suffered from mental problems. He was supposed to be under a doctor’s care. History says he shot himself in the fields and somehow made it back to his room in the auberge (a French inn that provides meals). His brother was called and came from Paris. Vincent died soon afterward.
Theo wanted to organize a funeral in the church at Auvers, but the priest refused as Vincent was protestant and committed suicide.
As the tour left the graveyard, we noted the fields that inspired another Van Gogh masterpiece: The Wheatfield and Crows. (This painting is shown in the composite below.)
Vincent’s Last Home
We proceeded on to Auberge Ravoux, the artist’s final home. Only two or three people at a time could enter his tiny, dingy, rented attic bedroom. It was barely large enough to fit a small cot and seemed to emanate an aura of sadness. Hard to think of such a colorful artist living in these cramped and drab quarters.
A tour bonus at Auberge Ravoux included an excellent video/slideshow of art from the region. After seeing the area, I found it easy to imagine the scenes through the artist’s eyes.
I left feeling sad about Van Gogh’s short life, but appreciative that I toured this town. Ultimately, the way Vincent died doesn’t truly matter; what matters is that the world lost a creative genius: the man who gave us the spectacular work entitled Starry Night and his many colorful Sunflowers paintings. Vincent was only 37 years old when he died. RIP.