A couple of years ago, I bought a copy of a famous Lelee poster from a man I know in Eygalieres. I’d been told by a number of ‘experts’, including a woman in Arles who claimed to have worked for the publisher of Lelee’s estate, that it was impossible to purchase a facsimile of this work that included the writing below the Farandole-dancing Arlesiennes. It’s true that the words are missing on all the cards and posters easily available. However, it wasn’t too tricky. Monsieur has, over a number of years, sold me a few items including a beautifully illustrated Lelee map of the Bouches du Rhone. Every time he sees me coming down the street he jumps out to shake my hand.
I took my poster home, had it expertly framed by Nigel, and hung it on the wall next to my bed. I love Fontvielle: I’m a huge fan of Daudet, his writing, his house in which I’ve stayed and his windmill. I’ve written elsewhere about the aqueduct at the bottom of Fontvielle which is one of my favourite places in Provence so it’s a pleasure to go to sleep and wake up looking at my poster. However, it’s taken me two years to notice that it contains writing that I’ve never bothered to translate: Autel de la Coquille. The Shell Altar. Qu’est-ce que c’est? I sent an email to the Kiwi: ‘do you know where this is?’ ‘No, but you always find the interesting things. We’ll go’.
We set off at une bonne heure on an unusually overcast, but stifling morning. I generally come to Provence slightly later in the summer when the sunflowers are bowing their heads so we make an unexpected stop on the side of the road to take a few snaps. Here’s the Kiwi trying to hide amongst the blooms. The lorries thundered past on their way to Arles and the Camargue but we were happily immune to their busy noise.
She has a sat nav which is just as well because the Shell Altar is not something you’d just come across. This is France where, no disrespect intended, no-one seems to bother with the wonders of the ancient world. ‘Turn right’, she said so I turned into an olive oil producing domaine. ‘Are you sure’, I ask? But the domaine is called Moulin de la Coquille’. Bit of a clue there. At a fork in the road – and I use the term loosely – the way to the right is marked ‘private’. We take the left and arrive at the centre of olive oil production whereupon we try to explain to a random youth what we’re looking for. He can’t translate our garbled French but assumes we’re looking for ‘the shell’. Others have been this way before. He tells us we should’ve taken the path to the right. I mention that this was marked ‘private’ and he tells me not to worry about that. And thus we find a place of significance.
The Autel de la Coquille is an altar carved out of a limestone cliff. It was a place of worship for pilgrims along the Via Aurelia which is one of the routes to Santiago de Compostela. The shell is the symbol of St Jacques i.e. Coquille St Jacques. On the other hand, this so-called Gallo-Romano edifice was probably placed on a point where earlier folk worshipped a water deity and was a site of sacrifice of bulls – hence the term, a ‘taurobolic altar’. I love all this stuff. And I loved the opportunity to explore with the Kiwi.