Standing on the banks of the River Rhine at the spot where Vincent van Gogh painted The Starry Night, Picasso is said to have looked to the sky and said 'that is one thing nobody can destroy', because the bridge and so much of the landscape depicted in the painting had changed. Van Gogh's home, the Yellow House, no longer stands, reduced to rubble by American bombers attempting to destroy the nearby aforementioned bridge during World War II. But clumsy American bombardiers are not the only ones to blame for wrecking much of van Gogh's presence in Arles, the southern French town where he created some of his most famous paintings. Until recently, the people of this former Roman capital of France had little enthusiasm for celebrating the life and work of a man they once considered a dangerous lunatic, so much so they had even petitioned the mayor to remove him from the town. Indeed, one woman, who remembered van Gogh from her childhood and died only a year ago at the age of 122, labelled him 'a vulgar young man'. Apparently, he made comments to the then 16-year-old he shouldn't have, while visiting her father's paint shop. However, as his fame has grown, so Arles has begun to forget van Gogh the syphilitic, absinthe-addicted neighbour, and started to remember Vincent the 'painter's painter'. Similarly, in the pretty, nearby town of Saint Remy, where van Gogh spent a year as a patient in a mental asylum, his impact on the town grows bigger by the year. Now a cottage industry of guided walks, exhibitions, bars and souvenirs has grown up around his name. Van Gogh arrived in Arles in February 1888. Like many other Impressionist painters, van Gogh's imagination had been captured by the beauty of Japanese prints. He hoped that by escaping the grey skies of Paris for the clear air and bright colours of Provence, he would find a substitute for the real Japan. Among the places van Gogh painted in Arles, where it is still possible to see roughly what he saw, are the Trinquetaille Bridge and the sarcophagi in the town's 1,600-year-old burial ground. Going out of town there is a replica of a Dutch-style drawbridge he painted. Reproductions of van Gogh's paintings have been placed at the sites where he worked, allowing a visitor to compare their vision with his. The first significant step made by Arles to recognise van Gogh was to reopen the 16th-century hospital, where he stayed after suffering a series of seizures, as an arts centre, the 'Espace Van Gogh', in 1974. The courtyard buildings have been repainted orange and white, just as they were in his day, and a helpful reproduction of van Gogh's painting of the scene is located there, too. More recently, the cafe where van Gogh painted Cafe Terrace at Night has been restored and is open for business once more. But most impressive has been the opening of the Van Gogh Foundation. Here, dozens of internationally famous painters, including David Hockney, Roy Liechtenstein and Francis Bacon, have contributed paintings to a permanent exhibition celebrating the life and work of a man they consider one of their biggest inspirations. Many of the paintings are versions of van Gogh's own, his self-portrait with a bandaged ear being the most popular. Like van Gogh, the Provencal people love bright colours. Indeed, the fashion designer, Christian Lacroix, is a native of Arles. And walking about the narrow winding streets and alleys of Arles I saw plenty of the townspeople wearing the bright multi-coloured polka-dot shirts that are so popular in this region. After suffering his most serious seizure, which led him to cut off part of his right ear, van Gogh voluntarily entered himself into the asylum at Saint Remy, subsequently returning to northern France in 1890, where he committed suicide shortly after. Van Gogh has made a lasting impression on the asylum, where the inmates, of this now-all-female institution, are taught art as part of their therapy. Outside, in the drive, where he painted irises, there was a bronze bust of the painter. I say 'was', because it was stolen along with three reproductions of his paintings erected close by, several years ago. The thieves have never been caught and their motive remains a mystery. Among the nearby sights he painted are the olive groves, which are still there, but with many of the trees replaced. To look at them though, you would not know the difference. Watching the wind rustle through the silvery green leaves and then comparing this reality with his painting of the olive grove, I could see why the locals say he painted the wind, because he captured the wildness of its movement. Van Gogh's legacy has turned the quiet town of Saint Remy into a thriving artists' colony. Its Van Gogh Museum displays works of modern art, while more than one hundred painters live in the town, many of whom can be seen hanging out at the bohemian hotel/cafe Le Cafe des Artes. While I was there, the town held the first of a quarterly series of exhibitions of local painters' work, grandly called the 'Exhibition of the Painters of the Light'. The canvases, which were of varying quality, were displayed by the artists themselves, in clusters along the narrow medieval streets and alleys, and in the main town square. While looking at these paintings, a fierce Mistral wind blew in from the Mediterranean. It gave me a headache and made my guide Beatrice feel 'nervous'. People are supposed to go mad when it blows, she said. On the other hand, the Mistral makes it easier for artists to see the object they are painting, because it is a dry wind that cleans the air, she told me. To my mind, the effects of the Mistral explained much about van Gogh the man and Vincent the painter, something else nobody can destroy.