Hills and Olives
I was to walk through the country from the Italian border, but it rained so heavily on the first day that I went to Mentone and took the mountain tramway to Sospel, where in any case I had intended to spend the night.
Two years ago, before this tram-line was quite finished, I motored up to Sospel to play golf. It was a pleasant experience, though not without its thrills, for the road zigzags and corkscrews up mountain sides and across deep gorges in a way to make one thankful for strong brakes and a reliable driver, especially on the return journey. The hillsides are cultivated everywhere. The precipitous slopes have been terraced with infinite labour, and orange and lemon groves surrounding pretty little lodges and cottages, only give way as one mounts higher to the grey-green of olive plantations.
When you have climbed up 2,300 feet, the road, as if tired of twisting and turning, boldly attacks the mountain side, runs through a tunnel pierced in the solid rock and comes out on the other side of the peak. Then it takes a turn so sharp that not long ago a car coming too fast through the tunnel went over the precipitous edge and all its occupants were killed.
The crowning danger safely surmounted, you drop down into a green mountain valley, surrounded by what Smollett, who passed through Sospel on his way from Nice to Italy a hundred and fifty years ago, described as “prodigious high and barren mountains.” The valley is all verdant pasture, watered by a broad, shallow, tree-shaded river, which, to quote the same authority, “forms a delightful contrast with the hideous rocks surrounding it.” All mountains were “hideous” and “horrid” in the eyes of our ancestors. We, as we play along the grassy meadows, and cross here and there the clear river rippling over its pebbles, have come to think that the towering rock-ramparts, upon which the sun and the clouds play with infinite gradations of light and colour, have as much to do with the beauty of the scene as the verdant valley itself, or the little old huddled Italian-looking town which hugs both banks of the river.
It was that little old town, which the golfer coming up from Mentone only skirts on his way to the links, that had remained in my memory, even more than the unusual charm of the links and the excellence of the greens. It stands curiously aside from the wave of modernity that has washed up to it from the wealthy delocalized coast. Turn to the right when you reach the corner, and you are still in the atmosphere of the Côte d’Azur, although you are fifteen miles inland from Mentone; turn to the left and you are in southern provincial France, in a street of little shops and little cafés and buvettes, and pick your way amongst a crowd of peasants and townspeople, buying and selling, talking of their crops and their commerce, and as little concerned with what is going on half a mile away as if they had never seen a mashie or a putter, and none of them had ever shouldered a bag of clubs for a curiously-garbed curiously-spoken foreigner.
Probably it is only the caddies or the ex-caddies who ever mention golf in the town of Sospel. It stands so aloof that even its prices have not yet been affected by the lavish ways of the holiday coast, with which it has formed this late new connection.
So I turned to the left. I wanted to have done for a time with everything English, and more particularly with the sort of hotel that has an English-speaking waiter, or indeed a waiter at all. Sospel was to provide me with my first genuine experience of a French inn, as used by the people of the country and not by the tourist.
Sospel rose adequately to the occasion, as I had thought it would. I found an hotel facing the market stalls and the river beyond them. I went up a flight of stone stairs and into a kitchen, which was also the bureau of the patronne. Yes, I could have a room for the night, and the charge would be two francs. I went up to see the room. It had a tiled floor, which was very clean, a large four-poster bed hung round with muslin curtains, and a few old cumbrous pieces of furniture besides—just the sort of room I wanted.
I had a good dinner, which I ate in company with four commis voyageurs and an engineer, all of whom were cordially interested in my coming expedition, and none of whom had a word of English or seemed to have any idea in their minds of connecting Sospel with golf. I felt that I had fallen plumb into it by taking that left-hand turn, and it needed an effort to call to mind the great new hotel at the other end of the links two miles away, where no diner had tucked his napkin inside his collar, or would soak his dessert biscuits in his wine; where the waiter brought a clean knife and fork for every course, and the proprietor would have requested me to leave if I had sat down in the clothes in which I intended to walk on the morrow. I felt happy, as I went to bed at nine o’clock, after a look at the rapid-flowing river on which the moon was now shining through the parting clouds. The fun had begun.
I felt happier still at six o’clock the next morning, when I took the road with my pack on my back. The clouds had blown away from the mountain tops, though wisps of them hung about the lower slopes, and the cup of the valley still held a light mist. It was going to be a lovely day, and perhaps hotter than would be altogether comfortable for a walker habited and burdened as I was. For it was still early in March, and I had come down from Alpine snows. Moreover, the replenishments of clothing that I had sent on ahead were at least a week away, and I carried “changes” to a rather nervous extent; also some reading matter, which is a mistake, for books weigh heavy, however light their contents, and if your day on the road is not filled with walking, eating and sleeping, and whatever recreation in the way of talk may come to you, you are not throwing yourself enough into the spirit of your adventure.
The road wound and turned and twisted, always going uphill, but never very steeply. I was on the old high road from the north, where it enters on its last stage of about five and twenty miles to Nice. I thought I must have come near to its highest point when I had climbed up on a level with the heavy fort that frowned on me from a hill near by, and sat down to take my last look at the green valley now lying far beneath me.
It showed as a level carpet of vivid green, broken by the grey mass and outlying buildings of the town, with the river threading it lengthwise. The hills rose up sheer on every side. Their lower slopes were so regularly terraced that at this distance they had the effect of horizontal “shadings” in a pencil drawing. Above that they were grey, and dark green, and red as with heather, and the summits of some of them still held snow. White roads jagged them here and there, but the flat valley floor had the effect of being completely cupped and confined by the rugged heights, as indeed it is, except just where the river, having filled up the bottom of the cup with a rich layer of alluvium, must have broken through at some time, and left the fertile plain all ready and waiting for cultivation. It was like looking down on a miniature Promised Land, so marked was the contrast between the fresh green of the valley and the sombre tones of its encircling hills.
This southern country flushes to tender spring green only here and there. The cultivated hillsides keep their darker colours, though they may be most sweetly lit with the pink of almonds. March would be a glorious month in Provence if it were only for the almond blossom. Mixed with the soft grey of the olives it makes delicious pictures, and it is to be found everywhere. And the wild rosemary is in flower—great bushes of it, lighting up the rocky hillsides with their delicate blue. They were all around me as I sat on this height, and there were brooms getting ready to flower, and wild lavender, and thyme. The air held an aromatic fragrance, and as I walked on between the pines and the deciduous trees, not yet in leaf, the birds were singing and the water rushing down its channels from the snowy heights very musically. There were primroses and violets by the roadside, as if it had been spring in England, and juicy little grape hyacinths to remind one that it was not. There was something to look at and enjoy at every step.
I was nowhere near the top of the pass, as I had thought, but reached it at last at the Col de Braus, where I found a rude little inn, and entered it not without reluctance in search of refreshment.
I found myself in a vaulted stone kitchen, its floor below the level of the ground outside. An elderly woman sat by the hearth, winding wool, with a child playing at her knee; a younger woman brought me wine and bread and cheese. The place was very dirty, but the wine was good and the viands eatable.
The older woman was a picture of grief as she sat under the great stone chimney and told me how hard life was in that exposed spot, especially in the winter, when they were sometimes flooded out of the lower rooms. And now they had taken away her only son, for his military service, and what she should do without him she could not think. It was a hard tax on poor mothers. In three years, when he had done with the army, who knew? She might be dead.
“But you have a husband, madame, isn’t it so? Otherwise they could not take him.”
Yes; she had a husband. She nodded her head slowly with infinite meaning, and as if to interpret it there entered the room an extremely unattractive person, dirtier even than his dirty surroundings, who addressed her, or the younger woman, or perhaps me, in a flood of intemperate speech, of which I could not make out a single word. Nobody answered him, and he slouched out of the room again.
“Is that your husband, madame?”
She nodded her head slowly up and down, without speaking. I could see for myself.
We talked about the little child, and her face lighted up. Presently the husband came in again, and expressed himself in his unrecognizable tongue with as much freedom and fervour as before. Again nobody took any notice of him, and again he went out. I don’t know whether he was drunk or not, but am inclined now to think that he only wanted to be. I was sure that he was annoyed with me, for some reason, by the way he glared at me, and as I was a customer and prepared to pay for my entertainment it must either have been because I did not offer him any or because I was interfering with the hour of his own repast. I think it is likely that his bark, which was strident enough, was worse than his bite, that he was merely a ne’er-do-well with an unusual gift of self-expression, which had ceased to interest those about him. His wife took no steps to carry out whatever may have been his wishes at this particular juncture of circumstances, and her attitude of frozen grief, effective at the time, thawed enough to enable her to make a mild overcharge when I came to settle up. She gave me permission to take a photograph of the room and its occupants if I wished to do so, but I said that the light was not good enough, and came away.
Now I changed my view for a different set of hills, and began to descend on roads that zigzagged more than ever. There was a good deal of quarrying going on. Great blocks of stone were lying by the roadside ready to be built up into the parapet, and presently I came upon a group of Italian workmen busy with their picks and crowbars. I don’t know why, after all these years, the enormous work of protecting this old road should be taken in hand, but certainly there are places in it at which a fall over the edge can hardly be thought of without a shudder, and with the surface in the muddy state in which I found it a motor-car might easily skid with danger. At one place, if you stand where it rounds a point and look down to where it takes another slope, it looks just like a temperature chart, where the thermometer has taken a series of rises and drops and at last runs off steadily downwards.
This long downward slope led me at last to welcome shade, and I found a little lawn under olive boughs, below the road and above a river gorge which was an ideal place for a siesta. If food and drink are so good when one is on the long steady tramp, sleep is no less so. There are those who scorn it except at night between sheets, but when one has made an early start, and has covered many miles by the time the sun has reached its greatest power, it is pleasant enough to sleep for an hour under the shade of a tree, and to wake up refreshed for what remains to be done of the day’s journey.
The sound of the river beneath me, and the birds singing all around, lulled me to sleep. But for this there was no sound, except a very rare noise of wheels, and once a motor-car, on the road above, to arouse me for a moment and to make the sinking back into sleep more blissful. The first time, on an expedition of this sort, that you take your pack for a pillow, mother earth for your bed and green leaves for your canopy, there is something that falls away from you of the troubles and irritations of the world. You are as near to nature as you are ever likely to be in this sophisticated age, and nature will smooth things out for you if you trust yourself to her.
I dropped down to L’Escaréne, a picturesque old town with an ancient bridge straddling across the quick-flowing river. But before I reached it I was met by a man with a drum and several intoxicated youths carrying a flag, who cried “Vive la République” and “Vive l’armée,” with the most patriotic fervour. I had begun my walk just at the time when the conscripts were being called up from their homes all over France, and lived in the thick of the concomitant disturbances during the next few days. These rather pathetic little processions of service-old boys, usually accompanied by middle-aged men more drunk than they were, trailing out of a town and back again, became a commonplace. They shouted at me frequently, but never rudely.
I sat under a naked vine-trellis on a raised terrace outside an inn and drank wine. A talkative damsel, with needlework to occupy her hands, but nothing to keep her fine eyes from noting everything that happened in the place, for the observation of which this was a vantage-ground, kept me company. She explained to me, with much shrugging of shapely shoulders, some of the differences between the patois used in this part of the country and the true French, but she disclaimed knowledge of Provençal. I was in Provence, but not yet among the true Provençals—unless I mistook her altogether, which is quite possible.
She gave me excited and exhaustive instructions how to reach the hill town of Berre, where I had thought to spend the night. I had had a description of it from the engineer in whose company I had dined the evening before, and when I came within sight of it, perched on its rock summit, an hour or two later, its high walls and dominating church tower lit by the westering sun, it gave me a little thrill—it was so beautiful, and so just right.
It was just right to look at from a distance, or for a walk through its narrow twisting alleys, part staircase, part passage, part drain. There is nothing more picturesque than these little rock-perched towns and villages that lie behind the Italian and French Rivieras. They are as untouched as anything in the way of congregated buildings can be in these days, and carry your imagination right back into the past. And I had thought that a night spent in some old inn in one of them would strengthen that touch of romance for me.
But in Berre there was no inn such as I had pictured, where one would sleep in such a room as I had slept in the night before and awake to a glorious view as from some commanding tower. There were two cafés, and I penetrated one of them in search of dinner and a bed. Militarism was being celebrated with much consumption of fluid, and much singing and shouting, and the place was very dirty, and had that air of hard discomfort and newness which is the peculiar property of French buvettes of the poorer sort. I was not sorry to be told that it was impossible for me to have a bed there. I think I could have got one by pressing for it, but I did not press. The romance of Berre was oozing out fast, and I still had in me the four miles or so that would take me to Contes, in the valley below.
The revellers here were all men of middle age, or at any rate long past the age at which the new three years’ service could affect them personally, but their enthusiasm for it was very great. One of them, who had detached himself from the rest while I had been making my enquiries and was reeling down the road waving a branch of mimosa and singing loudly, showed me the way to Contes; for I already knew better than to follow the road, which always approaches these high-perched villages in an over-deliberate fashion for pedestrians. He was very amiable about it, and I rather feared that he would offer to go with me. But he only came a little way, to where he could point me out a mule-track, and during our walk together I understood him to be persuading me, and possibly himself, that he was on the eve of gaining much military glory. But he was bald and pot-bellied, and I think that he was only touched by that noble and unselfish enthusiasm which takes patriotic men when there is question of other people doing their duty.
Dusk was falling, and I went down stony paths between olive gardens, which are very peaceful and mysterious in twilight. I met some of the inhabitants of Berre mounting slowly to their little town after their day’s work. Most of the women carried cut olive boughs on their heads, and some of the men drove asses laden with them. It was the time of pruning, and olive leaves are very acceptable to most animals as food. By and bye I had the track to myself, and sometimes lost it, but I did not much mind. I could see the lights of Contes below me, and whenever I found myself on a path that seemed to lead aside from them I took a straight line over the terraces till I found a more suitable one. I was rather tired, but rest and refreshment were not far off, and it was soothing to the spirit to walk in this odorous dusk, and in such quietness.
It was quite dark by the time I came to Contes, and I was quite ready for my dinner. But I did not reach it for some time yet. When I had gone down long, steep, paved paths between walls to what seemed to be the heart of the town I had to go down much farther still until I thought I should never come to the end of things. But at last, there was the bottom of the hill, and an hotel, no less, with a garden in front of it.
I sat down in the café, since, although a room was promised me, there was no suggestion of taking me to it, and at the moment I had no wish to mount stairs even for the sake of a wash. There are certain habits of civilization that are very easily dropped. One comes to the end of a day’s march, and one’s first desire is for rest, one’s second for food and drink; and in these little inns this sequence of desire seems to be well understood. It seemed quite natural to exchange my heavy dusty boots for a pair of slippers out of my pack, sitting by the table, to pass at once to the consumption of wine, and as soon as might be to the consumption of food, without any further preparation.
The wine was very good, with a slight tang that was almost a sparkle in it, and as I sat blissfully at rest with it the room was invaded first by a man with a drum, then by a man with a cornet, then by several more men with very loud voices. I was immediately whisked away by the youth who had received me, and who seemed to be in sole charge of the place, into another little room across a passage, where he presently served me with dinner, consisting of soup, an omelette, beef, potatoes and carrots, cheese, oranges, and biscuits, and another litre of the good wine. Soon after that he showed me a clean little room, in which I slept deeply, hardly disturbed by the voices of the jour de fête beneath me, and was only once thoroughly awakened, at about one o’clock, by a great bustle of arrival in a room adjoining mine.
The busy young man was still as active as possible at that hour, but he was quite ready to give me my coffee at six o’clock the next morning, at a little table in the garden. He had also thoroughly cleaned my boots, but before I left I heard him called a marauder for something or other he had omitted to do for the two gentlemen who had arrived in the night.
And so I came happily to my second day, in the bright spring sunshine.
Categories: English Literature