The Cote Des Maures
( Originally Published 1938 )
Extending from Hyeres to Frejus, from the sea to the old highway between Gaul and Italy, whose course both the modern road and the railway that serve the popular resorts of the Riviera follow, is the region of the Maures. Geologically and scenically, it is sharply differentiated from the remainder of Provence. It is a region of moderate and rounded hills, whose southern slopes are clothed with broom and lavender and heath, with pine woods, groves of cork trees and myrtle-thickets, amongst which the cistus blooms as it does in the foothills of the Pyrenees. The coast is rocky and indented; and its bays are stretches of pale sand extending from one promontory of dark and jagged outline to the next. It is a region largely unknown to the ordinary Riviera tourist, who passes north of it. The road from Hyeres to St Raphael goes through it, by way of the forest of the Dom to la Mole and Cogolin, and on from la Foux by the sea. But in order to see the most distinctive and unspoilt part of its coast, you must take the twisty Corniche route that turns off to the right from this road about five miles past la Londe, or commit yourself to the little Ligne, du Sud.
A bus goes as far as Cavaliere; and this is as good a way of travelling in the south of France as any. Travelling by train, except for long distances, I have never cared for; motoring is only enjoyable when one is driving, and when one is driving one does not see the scenery. In a bus you have all the advantages of being driven, and none of the fatal disadvantages: you are in a vehicle which you have no desire to drive yourself, there can be no argument about the route, and you have neither the expense nor the bother of a private chauffeur. I should be very sorry if I ever grew too proud to travel in this pleasant fashion. I am speaking of country travel, of course; the town's another thing; for no one, I take it, would choose to sit down opposite the towns-man's peevish countenance more often than he lacked taxi-fare. But about a country bus there is always something friendly and agreeable; and in the south, where even good-will ripens quickly in the sun, this is especially so. It's very pleasant, even though the sensation may rest partly on illusion, to feel that for the time being one is made, as it were, an honorary participant in the good life of the wine and the sunshine and the toil as one travels in the honest company of these who live it. For that the life of the Provencal peasant is a good life, a very good life indeed as modern lives go, I believe is as true as any such generalization ever can be; any one who compares his bearing with that of the average of civilized mankind will be bound to think the same. When every sentimental glorification of the noble savage is discounted, it remains true that the best life for the ordinary man is one of simple toil, in the fields or on the waters, when lived in such circumstances that peasant hardship and meanness are redeemed by a good climate and a touch of laziness. In this respect the Roussillonais, I think, does even better than the Provencal, being more inclined to philosophic sloth, which is what preserves him from the peasant vice.
There is an air of liberty and friendliness about Provence, in those regions where popularity has not destroyed its character, which has often been remarked. You might imagine that it would be as dead to-day as the traditional politeness of the Parisian; but you have only to go a mile or two from the professional friendliness of the big resorts to find that it still exists. And there is always a pleasant informality about travel by these local services. You can take anything you please in the way of luggage: a suitcase, half a dozen of them, a big trunk, two or three young trees: I have seen all these carried. Sometimes you pay a franc or two, more often nothing; and if you present the driver or conductor with some three or four francs for the transport of all your luggage a score or more of miles, he will be delighted. You need not give him anything. Travelling by railway in similar circumstances, you would be made to pay heavily, and to spend perhaps half an hour filling up forms and making explanations. For the railway is run by a bureaucratic organization under State control; but the bus service is an individual enterprise in competition with it. From such instances one gathers much instruction.
Riding in a bus between Hyeres and Bormes I found a lead pipe under my feet: a good, thick, immensely heavy lead pipe, which rolled from side to side as we went round corners. Looking about me casually I could see no one sitting near me who seemed likely to be carrying a yard or so of piping as his walking-stick. However, there it was; perhaps someone had left it behind, perhaps it had come loose from somewhere; but that was not my business; and I confined my interest in it to the avoidance of its intermit-tent lurchings, whenever they threatened to deprive me of my toes. We had left the golf-course on our left, and the Old Salt Marshes on our right, and were passing through a forest of pines and cork trees, cutting across the neck of Cap Benat. We turned off the main road, crossed the single track of the Chemin de Fer de Provence for the fifth time since leaving Hyeres, going underneath it on this occasion, and negotiated some alarming bends at a spanking pace. At Pin-de-Bormes a number of people sitting in the front of the bus got out; a miscellaneous collection of parcels, agricultural implements, and nursery produce was handed down from the roof; and the piece of piping suddenly began to move from under my feet, as if by magic. After a moment of that uneasy bewilderment we feel when natural laws appear to be suspended, I saw that it was being hauled out by its forward end, for it extended underneath the seats almost the whole length of the bus. This is the sort of thing you can take with you when you travel by this method in the south of France.
Bormes stands some three or four hundred feet above the sea on the left of the Corniche road. It is notable for the ruins of its medieval chateau, for its situation, for the view it affords across the bay to the islands of Porquerolles, Port-Gros, and Levant. On the principle that every place which might attract a visitor or two must have the name of a tree tacked on to it (by analogy with Juan-les-Pins and Hyeresles-Palmiers, it is occasionally called Bormes-les-Mimosas. From Bormes a road twists up the mountain-side, through forests of pine, cork, chestnut, and holm-oak, to the Col de Babaou, thirteen hundred feet above the sea, and thence down to Collobrieres, the only town inside the rectangle formed by the roads from Hyeres to Cogolin, Cogolin to le Luc, le Luc to Puget-Ville, and Puget-Ville to Hyeresan area of more than two hundred square miles. But the Corniche goes on to the coast, and comes to the sea at le Lavandou, a little fishing village and resort which is the place of embarkation for the Ile-de-Levant, and in character is a simpler, more unspoilt, and more charming Bandol or Cassis.
This coast is of an enchanting beauty. You are to picture it on a day when the mistral is blowing, but a day when the heat of the sun is so great that there is no discomfort in the wind that brings the chill of the mountain snows from Switzerland and the High Alps to the Provencal shore. Its vigorous and searching blast has banished every particle of dust and shred of misty vapour from the air, which is thus of an amazing crystal clarity, and everything you see has a distinctness of outline and a brilliance of colouring such as it is not easy either to imagine or describe. The sea is blue, but bluer than any one has ever painted it, a colour entirely fantastic and incredible. It is the blue of sapphires, of the peacock's wing, of lapis lazuli, of an Alpine glacier and the kingfisher and Reckitt's, melted together and concentrated to an intensity surpassing that of any of them by the reduction of a white and flaming sun; and it is streaked here and there with green, which is the green of the drake's poll and the peacock's eye; and yet it is like none of these, for it shines with the unearthly radiance of Neptune's kingdom; it is like nothing but itself, its colour is so rich and deep you would think it opaque, and yet it gleams, it is translucent, it shines as if it were lit up from below. And you see this unimaginable blue between the trunks of pines, and the cool green flames of the pine trees' needles burn against it, or it spreads a carpet of ultramarine, which is splashed with viridian and emerald, in a craggy inlet, or a sanded cove, where it is selvedged with a band of foaming white.
It was on such a day as this that I walked to the point of Cap Negre, just beyond Cavaliere. The rock of which this promontory is composed is called by geologists, I believe, a micaschist; wherever its surface has been scarred to make a path, the tiny crystals wink and glitter in the sun. Cavaliere consists of two hotels, a tiny station of the Ligne du Sud, and a few small villas. In the summer, though less esteemed than le Lavandou, it attracts such holiday makers as seek a place which is beautifully situated, and where life is complicated by no amusements. There were a few such staying there already; nevertheless, this morning I had the beach and the promontory to myself. I rambled among trees, shrubs, and flowers to the promontory's rocky end.
An emerald-green lizard darted across the path in front of me; a huge cigale, about two inches long, and as fat as my thumb, alighted on a bush beside me. He is the emblem of Provence, whose piercing and ecstatic song one associates with hot days in the fields, the pale glimmer of the olive orchards, and the sunshine on one's skin. Some people (in Provence as in China) catch and keep them in tiny cages with a leaf or two of lettuce, where they will sing all day fit to burst. One such, a jolly fellow sitting and working in his doorway in Aix, seeing that I stopped to admire the captive's music, called out that if I would come back next day he would give me one. "Is he happy so?" I asked. "With a little salad he lives like a prince," said the good fellow, "and he sings incessantly. Would you like one? I can easily get it for you by the morning." But it was the eve of my departure, I could not take the creature to the sunless north, and I must decline the offer.
Out of the mistral, in the lee of a rock, the heat was in-tense. The sunshine beat on the water with a merry clang. Beneath my dangling feet the sea clawed at the rock with pale fingers, or boiled with an oily stillness in translucent pools. If I stood up I, could see across the roadstead of Bormes to Cap Benat; in the other direction the coast re-ceded towards le Canadel; and seawards were the Islands. Only a day or two before I had received news of almost incessant rain in England since my departure. During that period I had experienced an hour's light rain one afternoon in Perpignan, and half an hour's at Amelie-les-Bains; some days of cold wind on the Cote Vermeille and in the Rhone Valley, and a shower at Nimes; a week of intense cold and one whole day of torrential downpour in Aix-en-Provence. With these exceptions the weather had been always mild, usually sunny, and sometimes very hot. Here was a sufficient answer to those who had kindly warned me, just before my setting out, that so far as the prospect of good weather was concerned I should do as well to stop at home. I must acknowledge, though, that as in England it had been an exceptionally unpleasant winter, so in the south it was a more than usually clement one.
I walked back to Cavaliere by way of the colourless dry shore, on which the camel-stomached mesembryanthemum extends its tough and fleshy tentacles and its round, bright flowers, at the same time prim and exotic, like a Victorian ball-dress of the seventies. This beach, with its great expanse of smooth, soft sand, and its groves of pines, is one of the finest from the point of view of the bather it is possible to imagine.
That Cavaliere is not unknown to the English summer visitor was attested by some exoticisms and gentilities at lunch. There was a lounge. The table was laid with fish forks. There were no hors-d'ouvres. The meal was a light one, much more luncheon than dejeuner; and wine was not included in the price of it. But I am bound to say that the raie an beurre noire with which the meal began was excellent. The skate is a strange beast, a platypus, an echidna, a Billy Bennett among fishes. But his flesh, with its strange and individual consistency, is very good indeed, especially when served with a simple sauce of vinegar and butter, and perhaps a caper. It is curious that this dish, which is inexpensive, easy to prepare, and likely, one would think, to appeal to the English palate, is not more popular in England, where it is seldom seen outside the frenchified ex-pensive restaurants; and where, indeed, the skate in general is little esteemed except at the fried-fish shop, in which place he is subjected to the ordeal by boiling oil, though he is then eaten, I am told, as the gods intended he should be, with vinegar. The next course was, I think, an artichoke: a vegetable designed externally for the benefit of the still-life painter, and the amusement of the children; and of which the delicate and tender heart, whose flavour, pungent and yet melting, is like the salt sweet taste his biting kiss brings to the lover's mouth, should be laid bare, I am much inclined to think, before it comes to adult table. Still, unstripped and meet for stripping, it's a very pretty teasing kickshaw, one which offers half a hundred preliminary titillations, and a final sweet swift consummation. As for the sweetbreads, they were good, they were very good, though I have had them better cooked in England. That was very agreeable and pleasant fare, and finer cooking than some I had encountered lately, though not better on that sole ac-count. But in Aix, where we are trenchermen, we should consider ourselves much underfed by such a meal, I can tell you.
St Clair, Aiguebelle, and la Fossette, between le Lavandou and Cavaliere, are tiny places, each consisting of a summer hotel and a few villas. Pramousquier, le Canadel, le Rayol, le Dattier (where it is publicity's boast that les dattes murissent en effet) are similar. From le Canadel a road leads inland to la Mole, whence you may climb by footpath to the remote and deserted Charterhouse of la Verne, secluded in a grove of age-old chestnuts and a tangle of arbutus in the mountains. A name here is that of some local feature attached to a minute halt on the absurdly miniature railway, rather than a village. Each cove where there is a beach has its two or three small villas or cottages, here and there occurs a larger knot of them. They usually fit tolerably well into the landscape, they are dwarfed and made inconspicuous by their surroundings; for behind them rise the peaceful slopes of the wooded hills. The Cote des Maures remains still practically unspoilt; for human habitation on this scale does not spoil it. Its resorts have no large Casinos or huge uncomfortable hotels. They are sufficiently well patronized, they even furnish gaiety to those who, being capable of that emotion, do not seek a spurious objective substitute for it. But on the whole the neighbour-hood escapes the reproach of being smart or fashionable, and offers few attractions save to those of the better sort, who would rather see a tree and a hill or two than hear the miserable caterwauling of a dance band.
Cavalaire is larger than its neighbours. It occupies what is said to be one of the most sheltered situations on the Cate d'Azur; and long before it occurred to any but the eccentric few to go south in the summer, enjoyed some reputation both as a winter resort and a summer bathing station. It is impossible to estimate how often a traveller bound for Cavalaire has got off the train by mistake at Cavaliere, and perhaps stayed there, whether to his loss or profit it would require a nice balance of considerations to determine. Both these names, presumably, are connected with the local breed of small, strong horses, which tradition derives from the steeds of the invading Saracens, I dare say with entire falsity. Between the village of la Foux and the sea is a race course where these swift and sturdy beasts are matched against each other.
Tracing Arab influences is a favourite occupation of the amateur savant in this neighbourhood, where, over a long period, life and property were continually menaced by the piratical invasions of the Moors. The district is full of pirate strongholds, Saracen villages, nests of the corsairs, and the like. But the Moors, except in Spain, were raiders rather than settlers, destroyers rather than builders; and, although they penetrated more deeply into this corner of Provence than any other, it would be a matter of much difficulty or rashness, I imagine, to say how much they really left be-hind them. That they should have left the mark of their racial type on the people of this coast, as they did on those of the Cote Vermeille, is credible enough; for one knows that in secluded places, where close intermarriage is the rule, a handful of shipwrecked sailors or the stragglers of an army will succeed in doing that, to such good purpose that their features will persist for centuries. The question whether the name of the district is derived from them, or from a Provencal word which means dark, sinister, is disputed with some bitterness. Neither I, nor, I imagine, any one, knows how old the name is as applied to the district. But, since the Provencal word and that applied to the invader seem to come from the same Latin root, the discussion would appear to be a little academic.
Cavalaire stands at the western end of a fine, broad bay, which stretches eastwards to Cap Lardier. The coast turns north from there, and then bends back into the Gulf of St Tropez, forming the peninsula of Camarat. If you are going on to St Tropez or Ste Maxime, you will go through Pardigon, and then cut across the neck of this peninsula, leaving Sylvabelle, Ramatuelle, and Gassin on the right. The first is supposed by some to stand approximately on the side of a forgotten city of the ancients. Heraclea Caccabaria was its euphonious name; it is rivalled, I think, by the existing Pampelone. La Croix is a small resort among pine woods, and the centre of vineyards with a local reputation. Gassin is called a Moorish village, though what constitutes a Moorish village, as opposed to a Provencal one, I am not quite certain. To call it a Mauresque village would be a diplomatic compromise which would satisfy all parties. Here for a moment one has left the sea behind; and the cork groves have been succeeded by vineyards and clumps of umbrella pines. But in atmosphere and feeling it is the same country still. There is a peculiar sunny gaiety, an air of being dedicated to pagan happiness and laughter, about the Cote des Maures, which you will find very well expressed, in a vastly and legitimately exaggerated form, in the charming and sentimental French film Rose, which I happened to see at Aix on my return from the Cote d'Azur. The plot of the film revolves about the establishment of a bus service between St Tropez and Toulon; and it is a fact that there is no such service. The bus from Toulon runs only to Cavaliere: beyond that point you must travel by the Ligne du Sud.
The tiny station appears to be deserted except by a piglet in a crate and a small boy who finds a horrid fascination in speculating, from a safe distance, on the probable escape of so untamable a creature. In one direction the single track disappears abruptly round a sharp bend; in the other, it curves away into a deep cutting and is lost among the silent woods. Except that the sun glints on lines rubbed bright by use, one would imagine that no train could remember or be bothered to come by such quiet ways as this. But the advice of a printed notice, and the confident bearing of the piglet, are assurances of current traffic. At length the shutter of the guichet is pushed up with a stiff creak, the Chef de Care appears and sells you a ticket with as little fuss as if it were the sort of thing she did every day. As the time fixed for the arrival of the train draws near, she emerges at full length, and you cross the line, which for the length of the station itself is doubled. You wait: perhaps two minutes, perhaps ten: the sense of time is extinguished, motion and speech are hushed, by some indeterminable restraint imposed by the sunshine and the stillness of the trees. There is no mistral, not a leaf stirs, and the earth breathes with a faint small breath. The station sleeps in the profound silence of the sylvan afternoon. But at last this quiet is invaded by a distant sound, the far note of Actaeon's horn. And presently around the bend appears a long, blue car, a low-slung motor coach on rails. This is the Diesel-engined micheIine, the music of whose low-tongued, triple-throated warning trembles on the ravish't air.
The way lies through woods, occasionally through cuttings, but more often in view of the glittering blue sea. At each tiny station the Chef de Gare appears in all the pomp of her official designation to supervise arrival and departure. At la Foux we change. The main line goes on to Frejus. To the left an offshoot runs to Cogolin, where they make brier pipes, which have nothing to do with briars, but are made from the roots of the bruyere that grows on the local slopes. Beyond is Grimaud, piled on a hill commanded by the ruined feudal chateau of the Grimaldis. The line to St Tropez goes to the right, along the gulf.
La Foux is a positive junction, one is not used to such complication. A benevolent fellow-traveller suggests that if I am bound for St Tropez I should follow her, she knows the ropes. I assist her to place some complicated paraphernalia on the micheline she indicates. She is a photographer. There has been a wedding at a little place along the coast, she has been there to take photographs, and is now returning to St Tropez, where she lives. It is all very agreeable and friendly; when we alight at our destination she recommends an hotel where she assures me I shall not be robbed. I en-gage a room there, I see to the bestowal of my luggage. I take a walk. Behind the variously colored facade that looks on to the harbour, and suggests a little fishing port, I discover quite a considerable town.
I explore its streets, I look at the church, which is Romanesque and very old, but has many Renaissance additions and embellishments. I penetrate a maze of cobbled ways, I emerge once more on the quay, and climb on to the mole to see the view. Across the gulf are the big white hotels of Ste Maxime; behind is the low line of the hills, and further back,extending into the sea beyond St Raphael, dimmed by distance, is the Esterel. And beyond, remote, mysterious, magnificent, behind and above the bluish hills, incredibly distant and incredibly near, appears the immense range of the snow-covered Alps.