Les Alyscamps comes from the Latin for the Elysian Fields where, according to Homer, the favoured enjoyed eternal peace. So, this is a cemetery wherein the tree-lined path leads to heaven. In this famous painting, it’s been forever immortalised by Van Gogh who, along with his pal Gaughin, frequently painted this lovely place during that tortured spell at the Yellow House. By that time, many of the sarcophagi had been destroyed and the avenue had become a favourite place for the Arlesiennes to promenade; perhaps on le dimanche.
Being Sunday, I’m up early for a little 21st century promenade and am first here. In the past, long before painters passed this way with their easels, pilgrims either stopped by for a spot of prayer on their way to Compostela or made this their starting point. In France, especially in this area, the roads to St Jacques are many. Both the Via Aurelia and the Via Domita pass through the town. I’m delighted to find this plaque on a stone at the entrance. It might not look like much to you, but if you could see the other so-called memorials on the route through Arles, you’d be impressed: scratched, scraped and covered in graffiti – same old story.
These days, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, probably for a number of reasons: apart from the cultural heritage of those two warring artists, here, in tidy rows, lay the remains of Roman and medieval dignitary. And to begin with, it’s a peaceful place that I relish, apart from the flies. Well, it’s a cemetery so I suppose you’ve got to expect a few flies. But then the mosquitoes arrive to pinch and prick unclothed shoulders and to sit on a head devoid of cover. There’s a canal to hand, plus the infested swamps of the Camargue – a breeding ground of all things unpleasant.
At the end of the promenade sits the 12th century Romanesque church of Saint Honorat. There’s all sorts of architectural information available. What’s available today is a sanctuary from the heat and the insects. Here’s a couple of snaps.
The ghostly moans of souls long since departed? It’s spooky and clammy within. Or maybe I’m spooked and clammy. I wander around tentatively, but even your brave explorer can’t force herself down those steps.
And now there’s a squeaky, squeal-like noise. It’s the sound of one who hasn’t yet crossed to the other side and doesn’t like the look of what’s over there. Then, I spot the source: it’s a baby pigeon that’s been abandoned by a million grown-up versions roosting in the eaves of this largely forgotten place.
Obviously, I became a little lost on the way to Les Alyscamps. I ended up on a rather unpleasant looking estate with the same name. I asked a man for Les Alyscamps. You’re here, he said. Then, seeing my confusion, he continued, oh, you mean the garden. Which made me think of the other Van. Maybe read the post again whilst listening to this?