As you climb the village road that winds from the river to a windswept plateau of wheat fields, a small country church midway up the hill may look strangely familiar. Its outlines don't undulate in the wind, nor do bonneted French peasants walk beside it anymore. Otherwise, though, the church at Auvers-sur-Oise looks exactly as it does in Vincent Van Gogh's famous painting of that title, from 1890.
SWIRLING SKIES. Van Gogh spent the last two months of his life in this rural hamlet just north of Paris. In a final frenzy of creation, he painted 70 canvases here in 70 days. Then he shot himself in the stomach and died at age 37 in his tiny room above a cafe. His body lies up the hill in an ivy-covered grave, next to fields he painted with swirling skies and flapping crows.
Claude Monet's home at Giverny may be the standard art lover's day trip from Paris. It is indeed charming, but the busloads of tourists who crowd the rooms and click cameras at the water lilies--even during the less frantic autumn season--can be overbearing. In contrast, Van Gogh's town of Auvers-Sur-Oise is relatively empty, and it offers a more intense experience. The stone village and open countryside, remarkably unchanged since Van Gogh painted them, draw you into the lonely, brooding vision of this great post-Impressionist artist.
The trip has become even more appealing since the recent restoration of the cafe below Van Gogh's garret. Bought by a Belgian businessman, the Auberge Ravoux now looks just as it did in 1890, from the cracks in the plaster of Van Gogh's room to the billiard table where his casket was laid for a funeral service. You can buy art books and prints and see a short video of his life--viewed by an audience of four on one recent summer weekday. Showings are daily except Monday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; entry, $5 (331 3448-0547).
Visit the cafe first to learn about the artist. Then, avoiding the drab highway through town, stroll along the parallel hillside street of old stone houses. Finally, climb to the cemetery where Van Gogh lies inconspicuously next to his brother, Theo, against the north wall.
On this walk, you'll see several roadside posts holding photos of Van Gogh canvases that were painted at those spots. The most entrancing site lies down a dirt road opposite the cemetery gate. There, Van Gogh painted Crows over the Wheat Field, a dark, haunting picture that some experts think was his last. The scene hasn't changed. The artist borrowed a gun to shoot crows here, claiming they disturbed his work. He used it on himself instead.
PICNIC PLACE. Auvers lies on the Oise, a broad, placid river with grassy banks that cry out for a picnic once you're through wandering. The town has a few so-so cafes, or you can have a full-course French meal in the courtyard at Van Gogh's Auberge Ravoux, which is open at lunch and for dinner from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. ($28 plus beverage).
Trains run almost hourly to Auvers from the Gare du Nord and Gare Saint-Lazare in Paris. You must change trains en route. Beware: Check before you board because connecting points vary depending on train and time of day. It will cost 56 francs, or about $11 round trip, and takes no more than an hour each way. Auvers is also an easy hour's drive from Paris, but car rentals in France are expensive--especially for models with automatic transmission.
Van Gogh's last home may not be on the major tourist circuits. But for that reason, you're likely to gain a deep, lingering new feeling for a great artist.
BY TRAIN Trains run almost hourly to Auvers from the Gare du Nord and the Gare Saint-Lazare in Paris. But note: You must change trains en route; ask at which station. The trip will take about an hour. Tickets, which cost about $11 round trip, must be punched in an orange machine near the platform before boarding.
BY CAR Take Autoroute A1 north from Paris, then Autoroute A86 west and later Autoroute A15 northwest toward Pontoise. Pick up Route D4 northeast into Auvers. The 25-mile drive takes under an hour.