The Alyscamps – two millenia of history in one walk
Our second day in Arles was as full and perfect as the first. Once again, perfect sun, not too hot, easy walking around weather. After my early coffee, I went back up to the room. Marlene was getting dressed and ready for the day. We decided to have breakfast in the courtyard. It was such a wonderful spot underneath the trees that there wasn’t much sense walking around looking for another place to eat. Just put it on the bill – we’ll settle it later!
After breakfast, our first place to visit was the Alyscamps. This Gallo-Roman cemetery is just on the edge of town, an easy walk from our hotel. A bit of history:
There are many legends surrounding this cemetery, one of the most famous in Europe. The name is a corruption of “Elisii Campi” (Elysian Fields, like the Champs Elysée in Paris). Roman cities forbade burials within the city limits and so it was common for the roads immediately outside the city to be lined with tombs and mausoleums.
The Alycamps was Arles’ burial ground for well-off citizens from all over Europe from about 250 BC for nearly 1500 years. It is located on the final stretch of the Aurelian way, which leads to the city gates. Memorials ranged from simple sarcophagi to elaborate monuments.
Apparently St.Trophime, the first bishop of Arles, was buried here, with Christ himself attending the funeral (believe as much of that as you like). So, you can see why those who could afford it would choose this for their final resting place. By the 4th century, thousands of bodies were resting here. Numerous churches surrounded the site.
However, in the 12th century, St.Trophime’s body was transferred to St.Etienne, and the cemetery began to lose its status and fell into disrepair. In the Renaissance it was pillaged for building materials.
Today only the wide tree-lined alley with its tombs leading to the St.Honorat church remains.
So, what’s it like to walk here? Other-worldly like so much of Arles. It’s very quiet on the old gravel and flint walkway. You imagine what it must have been like when these tombs and stones were new, when there was constant activity. You wonder what the ceremonies and celebrations were like. How did the Christians deal with what was originally a Roman site?
And the church itself – stained glass, gaping holes, pigeons, steps down into a cramped basement. I’m glad we were there on a sunny morning. It would be a spooky place to spend the night.
For Van Gogh fans, this is of course a very famous site. It was here that he brought Gauguin shortly after his arrival in Arles. This was the first place they painted together. And apparently this inaugural trip was already an indicator of how their relationship would go. While Vincent more or less painted what he saw, Gauguin created a more stylized piece based on the scene but changed to suit his vision of what he wanted his art to communicate. He suggested that Vincent start doing the same, to paint from his imagination. It didn’t become an issue here, but would later on.
On that day, however, Vincent was very pleased. In reference to one of his paintings of the Alyscamps (he did a few) Vincent wrote to Theo, “I think that you’d like the leaf-fall that I’ve done. It’s lilac poplar trunks cut by the frame where the leaves begin. These tree-trunks, like pillars, line an avenue where old Roman tombs coloured lilac-blue are lined up to right and left. Now the ground is covered as if by a carpet with a thick layer of orange and yellow leaves fallen. Some are still falling, like snowflakes. And in the avenue dark figurines of lovers. The top of the painting is a very green meadow and no sky, or almost none.”
For us, it was spring, not fall. It was very green, but a fresh green and there was lots of bright blue sky, shot through with brilliant sunshine.