Les Alyscamps has a charm and unique atmosphere that haunt me still. It's the traditional start of the Arles pilgrim route which threads a path via Montpellier, Toulouse and Pau to the Col du Somport (the French-Spanish Pyrenean border crossing) and then down the valley of the river Aragón to Puente La Reina. I walked the short distance from Arles youth hostel to Les Alyscamps early on Sunday morning 7 September. The sun was already hot and there were few other people about. My pack felt heavy but my spirit was light.
Early Christians had subsequently built the Romanesque church of Saint-Honorat on this ancient Roman necropolis. Today it seemed forsaken as a place of worship, and pigeons flew in and out. It was very beautiful.
I noticed another coquille, or scallop shell motif, sign of Saint James and the Camino, high up in a recess. These symbols would pop up reassuringly in churches and cathedrals, on road signs and waymarkers, throughout the whole journey.
The site of Les Alyscamps (a corruption of the Latin Elisii Campi: that's Champs-Élysées in French and Elysian Fields in English) was for 1500 years a well known burial ground. In Roman and early Christian times coffins were transported here from all over Europe. (The Rhône boatmen made a very profitable living out of this.) You see, the Romans did not allow burials within their city limits - and Les Alyscamps lay just outside the walls of Arles, on the final stretch of the Aurelian Way. This last section of road quickly became lined with mausoleums, and with sarcophagi stacked one on top of the other. (Much the same kind of thing happened along the Appian Way as it led into Rome.) As is always the case, only the very well-off citizens could afford this funerary expense. The whole area was thoroughly ransacked and looted centuries ago, but some of these stone coffins still lie around today.