A postcard from Arles

Making an early start to a day in which temperatures will again soar into the high thirties, we purchase a couple of those tickets that allow optimistic entrance to multiple antiquities. Our first steps into the past are taken at the atmosphere soaked Les Alyscamps, once the largest and most famous of Roman necropolises in the ancient world. Certainly, it’s my favourite venue in Arles but Russell is already perturbed by the noisy presence of three men, a chainsaw and a machine that pulps the overhanging branches they’re busy trimming from shady cypress trees. Get over it, Russell. Look at all the sarcophagi. And wait until you get to the church – surely the spookiest you might venture into.

Les Alyscamps is a remix of Champs Elysees – the Elysian Fields, through which that underpaid boatman rowed the dead across the Styx. Prior to that dangerous passage, many of those who found themselves in this necropolis had already been brought down the Rhone in their coffins from all over Europe courtesy of less esoteric mariners. A watery end to it all amongst 4000 other dead Romans. Tomb upon tomb upon tomb, literally at one time when they were stacked in threes due to overcrowding.

Russell’s striding on ahead knowledgably, oblivious to my warnings of looming phantoms. This travelling companionship is still in its infancy but already he needs to say nothing in order for me to know my helpful information is again dismissed. In a few days’ time, this sort of thing will have ceased but, for now, I linger awhile to inspect a lizard which has appeared between the cracks of a sarcophagus.

After this, I pass some time watching the graveyard cat which lives daily in the past and who, I think, was either never conceived of by T.S. Elliot or perhaps thought too scary to mention in Old Possum.

 

What practical use does a Roman cat serve other than to tidy up the ancient and modern vermin? Or possibly as an unexpected warning to the delights of Saint Honorat’s church? For even before I’ve attempted entry, here is Russell exiting with some speed and clothed in an aura of anxiety: ‘it’s the spookiest church I’ve ever been in’, he shudders. Well, who knew? Je te l’ai dit I don’t say as we go back inside together.

 

Here’s the rub with this church to which I once came alone and never ventured into the dark below stairs. It’s infested by pigeons. Pigeons that coo from their lofty, hidden heights but not in chorus. Unlike the consensually chattering cicadas, these pigeons coo – and I use the word loosely – independently.

At ground level, the received messages are mixed and fuzzy and unclear and sound not unlike the mumblings and moanings of the dead who have yet to reach the underworld. Pay the ferryman, Russell. (Can you see the ghost?)

Some time later, we find ourselves at another church – St Trophime which has been my companion’s goal since the idea of this trip was first conceived in another lifetime. I make a big effort given the potential overkill of church, chapel and cloister we’re experiencing. How I long for a provençal market or a little pottery shop, but he’s striding off again. I stop in front of an interesting looking stone frieze. Quite a lot of action it seems so I return to the lady in the fish bowl at the entrance to purchase a guide that will stay with me. It’s a heavily edited guide. The best word to describe it is ‘useless’. Clearly, it’s been written by some character who has subjectively picked out what they think are the best bits and omitted to account for anything that the uninitiated may be interested in. Hmm.

What I do like enormously is the reliquary. Just before I arrived in front of it, some easily bored type had popped a euro into the machine, lit up the sideshow and cleared off leaving it all for me. Let me tell you, the gang’s all here. There are fingers and skulls, hair and limbs, bones and organs, all sorts of pleasurably revolting body parts belonging to all the saints you may or may not have heard of in a variety of golden boxes and caskets. Slap bang in the middle are two santons on a boat – unnamed of course, but we know who they are…the ubiquitous Marys without whom no party would be complete.

Russell turns up later when I’m on the other side examining the blood clots of John Paul 2 and claims I have to visit the reliquary with him. I don’t want to spoil his fun by mentioning that I’ve already seen the bones and bits so I go back with him. It’s worth it as it’s the only thing in a church that will excite both of us, especially as he claims it’s the best euro he’s spent so far.

Of course, it was a mistake to show any interest as now we have to visit the cloisters. This is the third set of cloisters I’ve seen in two days and frankly my dear … Russell’s ecstatic and I am hot. I inform him I’m post-cloistus and I’m off outside for an ice-cream. I haven’t had an ice-cream since I arrived in France and I’ve already noted that there’s an artisan glacier in the Place de la Republique where I have my sights and taste-buds set on something infused with lavender.

With purple ice-cream dripping down the cone and along my arm, I sit in the shade opposite St Trophime in a spot where I’ll be able to see him emerge. ‘Bon Glace’, comes an unexpected voice or three and I look round to discover I seem to be part of a group of dog accompanying degenerates. This will become a theme over the next few days: every time I abandon the American, I will be immediately surrounded by down and outs and their canine accomplices. The police arrive but not to our part of the square. They’ve come to remove the man who’s staging a one-man hunger strike in the town hall and replace him in his tent outside the main entrance.

He’s a restaurateur who, apparently, has been put out of business by the mayor. It’s a complicated story – something to do with the re-routing of traffic. Anyway, he’s had nothing to eat since 16 May. I wander over to inspect his publicity but it’s just too damned hot to get energised. I sit down under some sort of Egyptian pillar.

 

This is the trouble with Arles: everywhere you look, there’s something else and we’ve barely touched the surface. Russell reappears and there’s talk of the amphitheatre, and the Roman theatre and the baths of Constantine but we’re beaten. We’ll save that for another day and another postcard.

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