Blue Train Cities And Antipolis
( Originally Published 1938 )
The famous Corniche d'Or winds high up along the seaward face of the mountain mass which is called the Esterel. In height these mountains are not much more than hills, for their maximum elevation is only about eighteen hundred feet; but they are extraordinarily craggy and irregular in shape; and as the rock of which they are composed is of a bright red hue, their scenery stands high in the estimation of all those who regard intensity of colouring and beauty as virtually synonymous. The combination of red cliffs, green trees, and blue sea, can be relied on to induce an aesthetic ecstasy in any normal member of the travelling public, or itinerant academician, in the world. Nature, whose taste is not by any means impeccable, has been guilty of some outrageous crudities along this coast, where, on the other hand, there is also a great deal of scenery that is very interesting and agreeable. Moreover, the adventitious charms of warmth and sunshine, and a host of human and literary associations, restrain with more than common vehemence the exercise of that purely aesthetic judgment to which we all pretend, and should be very sorry to achieve. It is difficult to preserve the serene detachment that would enable one to declare the juxtaposition of this and that tone intolerable, when one is clinging by one's eyebrows to the vertical face of a vermilion cliff, five hundred feet above an incredibly blue sea, and thinking about Queen Victoria, or a novel one read when one was seventeen. On the left, the hillside rises for another thousand feet, and is here clothed with evergreens, while there it presents the appearance of a monkey's pelt, in one of those regions where a brown and wrinkled skin excretes a few sparse hairs. It is the ravagement of forest fires, laying waste the haunts of wild boar and fox, that has produced this simian effect; and the hairs are the charred trunks of trees.
From the Corniche, Antheor is one's footstool; the Mediterranean is one's wash-pot; over Miramar one casts one's shoe. A succession of small resorts has grown up along the base of these porphyry cliffs. Agay, le Trayas, and Theoule are the largest. They are all sheltered, superior in climate, I imagine, to St Raphael, and possibly to Cannes. This road is notable for view-points, of which the most considerable are the Tour de Drammont, between Boulouris and Agay; Cap Roux, beyond Antheor; and the Col de l'Esquillon, between Miramar and Theoule. There is something peculiarly exciting in the prospect that opens out from here. Some seven or eight miles distant, across the Golfe de la Napoule, but apparently no more than a mile or two away, is Cannes, the big white buildings along its sea-front glistening in the sun. Behind the town, to the east and north, rise bare, elephant-grey, rounded hills. On a tilted plateau to the left, in a shallow fold, is the town of Grasse, which is a good dozen miles off, and looks like a handful of dice shaken out on to a crumpled piece of grey cloth. By a trick of angles, one seems to look down on the mountain town, though it lies a thousand feet above the sea, and we are a few hundred at the most. Beyond are more grey hills, rising more abruptly; and behind them the view is closed by the great white slopes and peaks of the remote and shining Alps. Above is a serene blue sky.
The English capital of the Cote d'Azur extends a thin suburban fringe along the shore of the gulf to la Napoule. On the left, as you approach the town from the southwest, are the aerodrome, from which you can fly to Paris in a few hours, the race-course, the polo club at Mandelieu, and the Cannes Golf Club. Beyond these the railway comes near the sea, and this quarter has something of an industrial and scrap-heap look. The town does not disclose its essential character until you have reached the harbour; and the most distinctive part of it is that which lies east of the Casino. Here it is rich, sumptuous, almost magnificent, and very nearly elegant. An hotel like a wedding-cake competes with one which resembles a block of flats at Cricklewood for the custom of those who have made a packet or struck lucky. Cannes is the seaside dream of Surbiton and the Stock Exchange come true. It is the Riviera of the domestic servant's serial and No, No, Nanette. Along the Boulevard de la Croisette and up the Boulevard Carnot roll scores of expensive vehicles, taking people to play lawn tennis—that suburban adaptation of a royal game—at the Carlton or the Cannes Lawn Tennis Courts, or to play golf and have lunch at the Country Club. Among the private cars there is a Rolls-Royce and a Bentley for every Hispano-Suiza, Delage, Bugatti, Packard, and Mercedes-Benz. In Cannes even the taxis are Hispano-Suizas. On the Croisette and in the Rue d'Antibes the world's most famous and expensive shops have branches. The Croisette is laid out with flower-beds and lined with palms. It is peopled by a crowd of strollers, all of whom, without regard to sex, wear brown-and-white shoes and coloured glasses. Cockney accents strive for predominance with those of Manchester and Leeds; but there is also a good deal of German spoken.
Out to sea are the Iles de Lerins. On the He Ste Marguerite, the Man in the Iron Mask, that mysterious figure who will never be certainly identified, was imprisoned for eleven years. The other, St Honorat, the nursery of Christianity in Gaul. Here the seeds of culture were preserved through the dark years of the early Middle Ages. On the beach of Cannes, by the church of Notre Dame de Bon Voyage, Napoleon, escaped from Elba, passed the anxious night of 2nd of March 1815 before taking the mountain road to the north through Grasse and Castellane: the Route Napoleon which led to Waterloo. Queen Victoria stayed here in 1895. Along the immaculate Croisette comes an old peanut-seller, a ruffianly old fellow with long grey hair and a flowing beard, and dressed in rags. From the other direction comes a girl without a hat, an exquisite fresh young creature, beautifully dressed, and having the simultaneously naive and sophisticated look of a young lady from the troupe of lovelies at the Dorchester. A sweet frippet, a delicious morsel! The two meet. They stop. They inquire after each other's health, the old man regales the lovely creature's dachshund with an eleemosynary peanut. They chat for some time. The old fellow kisses the lady's hand and bows low with the air of a duke, and so they part.
These scraps of mystery and fact become confounded in one's mind, one grows a little muddled. Was it Queen Victoria who paced the lonely shore by the light of a camp-fire, where the Rue de Bivouac now runs, a hundred and more years ago? And at which hotel was it that Napoleon put up on his way from Elba? One is bedazzled and confused. In these circumstances it is not difficult to forget, for an hour or two, the crude vulgarity of this stockbroker's world of synthetic fashion, and to be enchanted by the glitter of the sunlight on its white facade. The harbour and its sumptuous yachts are beautiful in their own right; the ragged silhouette of the Esterel at sunset is magnificent; in the Allees de la Liberte the noontide spreads a patterned shade. For the rest, it is pleasant, or at least it is romantic, to eat wild boar for lunch; to sit in one of the little places on the Croisette and watch the absconding Minister for Public Enlightenment of San Cristoballo eat the best ice in the world with schoolboy gusto; to look at the shops, or stroll for an hour by the border of the shining sea. There is a curious quality in the light, an effect of diffused brilliance, caused by the reflection of the sun's rays both from the sea and from the bare surface of the stony hills, which is a distinctive characteristic of the Alpine littoral; and which, together with the vagaries of the mistral, causes everybody between here and the Italian frontier to be a little crazy for at least eight hours in the day. When everything is illumined by this glamorous and magic glow, one is charmed beyond all carping, judgment is suspended.
But presently the sun goes in, it turns cool, even chilly; and one notices that the new block of luxury flats which is so much advertised is a wretched piece of architecture; that three-quarters of the flats are empty; that the original design has been left half finished; and one receives a hint of the cynical and sordid financial manoeuvres that lie at the back of every modern enterprise. One wishes that the young lady from Park Side, Wimbledon Common, or possibly from Purley Way, who is sitting with her mother and a young man in flannels and a blazer at the next table in the patisserie where one is having tea, would abstain from talking quite so loudly, and in tones of such exaggerated refinement, in a public place. One observes that the new summer Casino at Palm Beach, which one is assured, on the authority of its proprietors, is fashion's smartest summer playground, has something of a gimcrack look; that the stretch of shore surrounding it is not particularly attractive, and appears to possess no advantage over the remainder of the foreshore beyond the fact that the law does not prohibit its commercial exploitation; and that the whole thing has such a manifestly tawdry, catchpenny appearance, that, seeing it now, before it has retired behind its seasonal facade of flowers and pretension, you might think that only the very highest prices could possibly induce any one to go there.
But these are only minor blemishes. Detraction cannot take from Cannes the merit of being the supreme and ultimate example of a type. In a sense which excludes Nice and Monte Carlo (for the former is primarily a city, and with the latter the sea is only a back-drop) it is the finest seaside resort in the world. Brighton may have better architecture, Frinton be more select, and Blackpool offer a greater variety of entertainment; but Cannes remains the paragon, the sans pareil, the celestial Ideal of a seaside town, to which all others tend. From Southend to Herne Bay, from Herne Bay to Broadstairs, from Broadstairs to Eastbourne, and from Eastbourne to Cannes, will always be a logical pro-motion; and one may be sure that any one who has ever wished to visit any of the former places will also wish to visit Cannes, if his ambition takes him far enough. It is the last word in seaside towns; and since perfection of any kind must always excite our interest, if not our admiration, nearly everybody else will wish to visit it also.
Cannes has lost almost entirely the character reported of it before the War. In those days, it appears, it was a town of detached hotels and villas, with extensive gardens; and from any of them one could be among pine woods, out of sight of human habitation, in ten minutes. Today, though the quarter which has specifically the atmosphere of a resort retains a certain intimacy, the town has grown so much that the road to Grasse, for more than half its length, is virtually a suburban thoroughfare. When at last the houses have been left behind, the road winds upwards among fields of tube-rose and jasmime, and all kinds of flowers, which, in their due season, fill the air with such a languorous and drenching perfume, it is said that only he who's native to these parts can work among these blooms and not fall fainting, drowned in sweetness like the tippling bee.
It is known to every one that Grasse is the centre of the Provencal perfume industry; that it is a town of narrow, sloping streets and weathered buildings; and that Fragonard was very appropriately born here. At Grasse they also make those confectionery kickshaws, the eye's delight and the palate's bane, that they call fruits glaces or cristalIises; for you must know that the two are not the same, though all one for my liking. Fruits entire, twice-borne of no tree, and those on which the poet stumbled, besides many smaller, and all kinds of leaves and flowers, are subjected to these paintings of the lily and these pinchbeck gildings of refined gold. The summer sweetness you and I would ravish in a quarter of an hour (but it would linger on the tongue for twice as long, and in the memory perhaps for ever) may take three months in the spoiling, drenched in a mass of sugar such as would affright a Turk.
The cool and scented shade of a stone-flagged hall refreshed my face as I advanced towards the scene and centre of these mysteries. The house has been established for more than a hundred years; the courts of Imperial Russia and Brazil, of Sweden, Bulgaria, and Portugal, and half a dozen more, have surrendered to a weakness for its splendid and tooth-destroying products. A girl came through a doorway at the end of the hall. One wished to see the factory? It was a convenient time? But certainly. She took me into a room and called out a name. An elderly woman, a charming individual, who, like the rhinoceros, had but one considerable tooth, and who had also something of that creature's comfortable figure, detached herself from a group of workers and came forward, acknowledging with a smile and a greeting her appointment as my guide.
The place was extraordinarily quiet. My conductress explained that the business was largely seasonal; but in any case this is not a factory in which fly wheels hum. She led me downstairs into a sort of alchemist's kitchen, full of pipes and tubes and brightly polished copper pans. I learned how the crystallized violets that appear on cakes are made, and how an orange is crammed with sugar like a Strasbourg goose with corn, being left to soak for months in a heavy syrup, that is gradually made stronger, and only occasionally boiled for five minutes at a time, lest the overburdened flesh should rebel, and the creature declare a diabetic protest. I saw a witch's brew of confiture being simmered in a cauldron. I was shown the finished products of the factory, variously packed. And I meditated philosophically on the inscrutable wisdom with which nature has decreed that tastes shall differ; for, though these be pleasant trifles, and I will not object to taste one occasionally, yet if everybody were of my inclination, there would be but a small sale for these gorgeous sweetmeats, that bring all the crowned heads of the world down in sorrow to the dental surgeon.
Cannes has spread also on the east, so that already it is almost one with Golfe Juan, Juan-les-Pins, and Antibes. Immediately to the east of the Cap de la Croisette, between the railway and the sea, are the most coveted villas in Europe, for which kings leave their thrones. They are approached by private tunnels underneath the railway embankment; and they are highly valued for the sense of isolation this confers. One is tempted in one's innocence to imagine that this advantage could be obtained at a cheaper rate, and in a much completer form, by going a little further from the town. But the proximity of a jazz-band and a Casino are no doubt essential ingredients of the rustic life as understood in the most exalted circles; and long acquaintance with the second-rate has probably inured the occupants of these fabulous dwellings to such disadvantages as might be expected to result from the passage of trains through one's back garden, as it were.
There was a time when this strip of coast, between Cannes and Antibes, was of an enchanting beauty, like that of the Cote des Maures today. In the gardens of the largest villas, where the illusion of rural and maritime solitude is capable of artificial preservation, the ghost of its old character still lingers. But for the most part, this district has been ruined by popularity. In a country of beautiful towns, Golfe-Juan and Juan-les-Pins are distinguished by the poverty of their architecture. Their general character (and they have grown to be virtually one place) is that of any obscure seaside re-sort in England, which has been long disregarded, but which the growth of population has caused to be suddenly and rapidly developed by the jerry-builder for a clientele who cannot afford to be very exacting in their demands. Towards its eastern and most expensive end, the latter place departs a little from this character. Here it achieves a certain gaudy flashiness, like a suburban dance-hall or amusement-palace touch. It becomes the sort of place to which, one imagines, a Soho corner-boy, or clerk out on the spree, might take his girl in the hope of impressing her. That Juan-les-Pins has been for the last few years the most fashionable summer resort in Europe says much for the gullibility of its patrons. Everything about the place proclaims with cynical plainness that it has been hastily run up by speculators for the purpose of extracting the largest possible harvest, for the smallest possible outlay, from those who have more money than good sense or discrimination. Almost every feature that originally made the place attractive has been swept away. Only at its extreme eastern end, towards the neck of Cap d'Antibes, does it rise above the level of a bank-holiday re-sort, and achieve the spurious refinement of a roadhouse. Here there is actually a grove of pine trees left; and here is the little strip of beach that, by decree of a financier searching for a new investment, is fashion's Mecca. As a beach it is well enough; though, owing to the vast quantities of sea weed that are cast up on it, and the fact that there is no tide to wash such jetsam off again, it requires constant attention in order that it shall look presentable. I have heard it said that the very sand itself is artificially renewed each summer; but this is probably an exaggeration.
Those who have succeeded in placing Juan-les-Pins on the snobs pinnacle it occupies to-day owe something to the natural beauties that, in the days when the Riviera in summer was fashion's Antipodes, brought a few eccentric people of good taste to bathe from its quiet, wooded shore. They owe more to the proximity of Cap d'Antibes. This little promontory has long been a favourite site for the sea-side homes of millionaires. It is the reality of which the neighbouring resort is a ridiculous and stagey travesty. It is covered with sumptuous villas, surrounded by gardens in which all kinds of exotic vegetation flourish. The great variety of trees, in addition to the universal pine, that grow on the peninsula, create a marvellous impression of luxuriance. Besides the villas, there are nursery gardens, and the French Ministry of Agriculture has a research station here. There are also two or three big hotels; but as they date from an era when even the clientele of luxury hotels required some-thing more for its money than a thin veneer of gaudy smartness, they are quite good and substantial buildings.
The views from the peninsula across the jewelled sea, whose colour varies from deep ultramarine to turquoise and emerald according to the depth of water, towards the Esterel on the one hand and the snowy Alps on the other, are amazing. But the finest view of the Alps is to be had, I think, from Antibes itself. This is a beautiful and ancient city, the Greek Antipolis. In the past its antiquities have been badly treated: the fabric of its Roman theatre, aqueduct, and amphitheatre has been long since used for building, and such fragments as remained until the modern renaissance of interest in such things were little regarded by the inhabitants. A large part of the ancient ramparts was destroyed in the nineteenth century. But private initiative has recently led to the foundation of a local museum, in the arrangement of which a better taste has been displayed than I have ever known to be devoted to such a purpose.
Until 1860 Antibes was the frontier-town of France; but what lay beyond it was not Italy. The people of the Alpes-Maritimes are careful to point out that their fathers spoke a good Provencal dialect, and that there was as yet no Italy when they became Frenchmen. But since then, of course, the development of the Riviera has brought a steady stream of settlers across the border in search of employment, and there is a strong Italian influence in Provence, extending as far west as Marseille and Aix.
Antibes has not entirely escaped the contagion of sophisticated rusticity which attacks such places in these parts as are reputed to be picturesque. Restaurants and hotels that are not called restaurants and hotels, but tavernes and auberges, decorated in what is alleged to be the old Provencal style, but suggests a New York version of an English chop-house, are apt to be encountered on these coasts; and if you linger in their neighbourhood, your custom is likely to be solicited in what appears at first to be an unknown tongue, which you subsequently discover to be English. Personally I am not in love with Hollywood, and my experience of such hostelries is small; but I am bound to say, that so far as it goes, whatever is bogus in their exterior does not extend to the cooking, which I have found to be very good. And in spite of everything, Antibes has kept its narrow streets, its houses built of stone that was quarried perhaps two thousand years ago, and an elusive air of pagan graciousness that makes one understand why it is said that Antibes is the most Greek town in France. You may stand on the ramparts by the harbour in the dazzling sunshine, and look across the shining waters of the bay to Nice, with its back-ground of the Maritime and Ligurian Alps, as white and ghostly as the albatross; and if you are not then in love with the sensuous beauty of the world, you are better dead. A sea-plane turns high up against the mountain snows, and glides with a slow fall towards Africa, alighting on the blue, blue sea, and turns again, and cleaves the water with its wake, and comes to rest. It is a lovely hornet: your intelligence recoils from its significance, but your eye delights in it.
The road between Antibes and Nice is of little interest; and any one who has motored along one of the main routes out of London will have a fair conception of its character. The best scenery of this district lies inland. Cagnes is a charming hill-town, where there is a chateau of the Grimaldi family, and where Auguste Renoir lived during his later years, when he was executing his luscious compositions with the brush strapped to his wrist. Vence is picturesque and ancient, almost to a fault; for it has become almost as inevitable an object of excursion as Grasse, and has suffered a good deal of exploitation in consequence.
As for Nice, it is a city, a microcosm, a little world. The presence of a vast town by the sea, which is not a commercial port like Marseille, suggests a comparison with Brighton. The similarity perhaps extends as far as this, that architecturally the one place bears the same relation to Paris as the other does to London. Nice, like every large French town, is a metropolis. It is only in Nice that one realizes how very English Cannes has grown to be. Compared with its neighbour, Cannes has the provincialism of which, to the sophisticated Frenchman, it must seem that every Anglo-Saxon activity partakes. Superficially, Nice is one quarter an Italian hill town, and three-quarters a Paris by the sea. Into its more recondite atmosphere, which is said to be neither French nor Italian, but Nicois, I have not penetrated. It may well be individual; for few towns can have a more chequered history than this Phocaean colony of two thou-sand five hundred years ago, which has been held, sacked, ruled, and raided, at one time or another, by every kind of conqueror from Barbarossa to the Duke of Berwick.
Since its annexation to France in 1860, the town has expanded on a scale which appears to have been suggested by the surrounding scenery. Gigantic vistas extend in illimitable perspective on either hand of the bewildered visitor, and above him tower buildings that suggest, by their majestic size and dazzling whiteness, the dizzy Alps themselves. The sun shines with a stupendous brilliance known only in the vicinity of these limestone cliffs. The sea glitters like a million diamonds. On the beach young men and women with terra-cotta bodies play with a medicine-ball. They are neither German, Scandinavian, nor English: they are French. And they are probably not visitors, but residents. Exotic women exercise their dogs along the Promenade des Anglais; and they too are French, of course. The dogs, whose nationality is also unmistakable, have already had their hindquarters shaved against the summer's heat, and look like baboons, but handsomer, for these are good, fine, pedigreed, expensive dogs, extremely chic.
Compared with all this, Cannes is as Cheltenham to Paris. Cannes is a holiday resort; but Nice, which is even more beautifully situated, is a town in which an epicure might choose to live. It offers all the amenities of a vast city, with the addition of a superb climate (except at Carnival time, when it invariably rains) and a veritable pier, which everybody knows is an invaluable laboratory for those who wish to study life. Behind the town you have every kind of scenery, from orange-groves, through limestone gorges, to the inaccessible and silent peaks which one is told, and wishes to believe it true, are still the haunts of lynx and chamois and the hungry wolf.
As for the coast from Nice to the Italian frontier, a thousand writers have lauded it past all believing, yet not one of them has exaggerated its fantastic beauties. As you leave Nice, the back of the seat is pressed against your back as if you had stepped on the accelerator of a racing-car, your feet are uplifted. From this moment you are enwrapped in fantasy. The road twists, turns, and doubles back upon itself in a manner that would stun the most nervous traveller past the possibility of terror; clinging at one moment to the sheer face of the mountain, burrowing through it for a short distance at the next, and a little later crossing a ravine by a viaduct that seems inconceivably fragile and slender. Suddenly there opens on the right what seems like a sheer drop of a thousand feet to a lake of copper-sulphate; that is the harbour of Villefranche; and the peninsula on which it seems that you would land if you should jump from the road is Cap Ferrat. A few minutes later the same view appears on the other side of you, or perhaps it is a different one, you are not certain, for by this time you are past being sure of anything. You are staggered, you are bowled over, you are bemused; moreover, you are going to Monte Carlo, and your appetite for the scenically marvellous, which grows in eating, waits on an ultimate and surpassing astonishment, though at the same time it appears impossible that your destination can come as anything but an anticlimax at the end of this entirely incredible and amazing journey. You read a notice that says Monaco Frontiere, 6.6o. Eze is a village thirteen hundred feet above the sea, perched on a rock; it is very beautiful and has a romantic history; but your imagination, eager for the disillusionment that your intelligence anticipates, hurries on to Monte Carlo. Beyond Eze the road curves inland. Another notice says Monaco Frontiere 2 kms., and this boundary becomes invested with a mysterious significance, it is extremely important that you should not miss it. The road has turned back towards Cap d'Ail, you have a sudden glimpse of a town below you. Then the road drops swiftly, and next moment you are among houses, you have crossed the frontier without knowing it, and you have arrived.