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Exploring Alyscamps in Arles

The article previously published on Ginger and Nutmeg:

Nutmeg agreed to accompany Ginger to the medical clinic in Arles so he could get a yellow fever vaccination for his Africa trip, but only if they could visit Alyscamps afterwards.

Alyssii campi is Latin for Elysian fields – the road leading to the kingdom of the dead.

Romans in Arles

It was believed that the living and the dead existed in different worlds during Roman times. Burials were not permitted within city limits. The net result was that roads on the outskirts of major settlements were often lined with tombstones. In the case of Arles, there were five necropolises situated on each of the main roads leading to this commune.

Alyscamps necropolis Sarcophages Provence Arles

Alyscamps or Aliscamps in Provencal was the most famous of the five. It was Arles’ main burial ground for almost 1,500 years. Located just outside the walls of the ancient town. Although not too physically distant from the Roman arena and theatre, the burial site would have indeed been a world apart from the lively productions held in those buildings.

Alyscamps necropolis Sarcophages Provence Arles

This Roman necropolis was situated on the final segment of the Aurelian Way, a road that connected Rome to Arles. From approximately 250 BC onward sarcophagi (stone coffins) and elaborately carved memorials became the final resting place for many of Arles’ wealthy citizens.

Alyscamps necropolis Sarcophages Provence Arles

Legend has it that around 250 AD, a Roman administrator by the name of Genest or Genesis refused to sign the death sentences targeting Christians. Persecuted for his actions, he attempted to thwart the Roman soldiers by swimming across the Rhone River. He was captured and beheaded. Buried in Alyscamps, his cult status became legendary, as miracles are believed to have occurred shortly following his internment. Subsequently known as Saint Genest, countless pilgrims and the wealthy alike from all parts of Europe sought to be buried under his protection.

Alyscamps necropolis Sarcophages Provence Arles

Also, the first bishop of Arles, Saint Trophimus, was buried in Alyscamps, imparting additional prestige to the site. Relics of Saint Trophimus, a Roman barge, and other artifacts can be seen in the Musée départemental Arles antique.

Alyscamps necropolis Sarcophages Provence Arles

At one time, Alyscamps would have stretched much further than the site’s current boundaries. The hallowed grounds have shrunk to what is now visible due to looting during the Renaissance and the 19th-century installations of railway lines and a water canal.

Alyscamps necropolis Sarcophages Provence Arles

Uncrowded Alyscamps

A little beyond the ticket booth are the remains of the Church of Saint Césaire-le-Vieux. A broad walkway, named l’Allée des Sarcophagus, is lined on both sides with the remains of stone tombs. This pathway leads you past a restored gardener’s house and the consuls’ monument.

Alyscamps necropolis Sarcophages Provence Arles

As you stroll along the poplar-lined path towards the semi-restored Saint Honorat’s church, reflect on the fact that the view is vastly different from what would have existed during antiquity. In the middle ages, Alyscamps would have been much more extensive; there were 19 churches and chapels on the site where two barely exist today. What you see now is similar to that which would have inspired the canvases by Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin in October 1888.

Alyscamps necropolis Sarcophages Provence Arles

The Alyscamps Necropolis is worth a visit; it is not too crowded, and you can tour at your own pace. On a sunny fall day in Provence, the locale continues to inspire painters, as evidenced by the number of easels scattered throughout the site during Ginger and Nutmeg’s visit.

Alyscamps Arles Provence

Other things to do in Arles:

Discovering the Roman Barge and Other Treasures of Arles

History In and Beyond the Streets of Arles

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Carolyne Kauser-Abbott

Carolyne Kauser-Abbott

With her camera and laptop close at hand, Carolyne has traded in her business suits for the world of freelance writing and blogging. Her first airplane ride at six months of age was her introduction to the exciting world of travel.

While in Provence, Carolyne can be found hiking with friends, riding the hills around the Alpilles or tackling Mont Ventoux. Her attachment to the region resonates in Perfectly Provence this digital magazine that she launched in 2014. This website is an opportunity to explore the best of the Mediterranean lifestyle (food & wine, places to stay, expat stories, books on the region, travel tips, real estate tips and more), through our contributors' articles.

Carolyne writes a food and travel blog Ginger and Nutmeg. Carolyne’s freelance articles can be found in Global Living Magazine, Avenue Magazine and City Palate (Published Travel Articles).

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