The Coasts Of Languedoc
( Originally Published 1938 )
From Perpignan to the delta of the Rhone there is little on the coast, and not a great deal near it, to interest the traveller. The border capital itself has its seaside suburb at Canet-Plage, la Franqui and la Nouvelle are visited for bathing in the summer; but you must have a romantic taste for a certain desolate sort of scenery, or the subtle appreciation of a lover, which is grounded in peculiar knowledge, if you are to find much pleasure for the eye along the coast of Languedoc.
My last view of Roussillon was a characteristic one, such a representative glimpse as becomes fixed in one's mind for all time as the crystallization of a country's essence. I looked across fields of tilled red earth, vineyards, and gardens of beans and lettuces, orchards of peach, pear, apricot, and cherry in blossom, to Elne, which, seen thus from a new angle, was no longer the struggling village I remembered, but rose compactly from the plain, as a tall ship does from the sea, its lower parts obscured by the spray, as those of Elne were by the froth of the fruit trees' petals. The vines were well advanced in leaf, the broad beans in flower; I had eaten new peas of local growth before the end of February.
I travelled to Narbonne by a slow train. Local passengers got in and out at stations by the way, saluting their fellow-travellers on entering and leaving the carriage, in accordance with the pleasant custom of the country. This is a courtesy which is falling into disuse everywhere except in the most rural parts of France; but in Roussillon, even today, its neglect is rarer than its observance. A peasant woman will get into a train or an omnibus, carrying a basket of vegetables to market. "Bonjour, messieurs et mesdames," she will say with the air of a courtier; and on leaving, "Au'voir, messieurs et mesdames." One is always being told in these ungracious days, by those who seek a general sanction for their own ill-breeding, that such courtesies are mechanical and insincere, and carry no guarantee of essential kindliness or honesty. But the fact is, of course, that the most mechanical observance of a pleasant custom which, at the worst, can do no harm to anybody, does in the majority of cases tend, by making the incidental business of living more agreeable, to promote that atmosphere of tolerance and kindliness which it assumes. To identify politeness with insincerity, because its forms must be artificially acquired, is as unreasonable as it would be to assert that a child should not be taught to use a knife and fork, or dress itself, on the ground that savagery and nakedness are more sincere. As regards the question of honesty, it is quite true that there are a number of, polite dishonest people in the world; but there are still more dishonest people who are not polite. And even if one were in Albania or Sicily in-stead of Roussillon, there are worse things than being robbed by a courteous brigand; it is tempting to imagine sometimes that one of them is having to endure the integrity of a sincere and honest boor.
At Narbonne one is only some forty miles north of Perpignan, and considerably further south than Nice or Cannes; yet already the landscape has a much more temperate and less sun-baked appearance than that of Roussillon, and the air grows cooler. Perhaps it is only that the low hills about here make corridors and channels for the wind instead of acting as a shelter; but one could swear that the heat of the sun itself was less intense. Between Narbonne and Agde road and railway traverse a flat, dull plain, in which I could take little pleasure, coming to it from the smiling landscape of Roussillon, though I dare say if I had been fresh from the north I should have found it well enough. Halfway across the plain is Beziers, an ancient Roman colony, and a city which, like most of its neighbours, suffered severely in the wars of the Middle Ages. "In 1209," remarks the guide-book with a horrible simplicity, "about twenty or thirty thousand of its citizens were massacred or burned." Today the place is a fair-sized trading town, with a Gothic cathedral in the comparatively simple southern style, a cloister, and a statue to Paul Riquet—that extraordinary man, who, in the seventeenth century, constructed at his own expense the long Canal du Midi, which runs from Toulouse to beyond Agde, passes through tunnels and over aqueducts, connects the Mediterranean with the Atlantic by way of the Garonne, and brought back a forgotten prosperity to Languedoc. The work is said to have cost him the equivalent of more than a million and a quarter pounds in our money, which seems a tolerably large sum for a single individual to expend.
From Beziers I went to Agde, which is another trading town, the ancient Agathe, and whose principal claims to mention nowadays are that it possesses a twelfth-century cathedral, and that the town is said to have been built out of the lava of a volcano, now extinct, which is situated close at hand. But cathedrals are plenty as blackberries in this part of the world, and that of Agde is not one of the finest; as for the volcano, it is an inconsiderable little hillock, which you would not look at twice.
Between here and Frontignan lies another of the salt lagoons found all along this coast, but a more important one than most, for it is the outlet of the Canal du Midi. For the eleven miles of its length a narrow strip of land, not more than half a mile wide, divides it from the sea, and has been artificially cut through at Sete, which thus becomes a seaport and a lake-port too. A preconception of Sete as small and quaint, a slightly larger Collioure, in short as one of the prettiest little ports on the Mediterranean (for so it was described to me) evaporated before the reality of a large commercial town, complete with factories of every kind. About here railway and road run by the sea, to turn away again beyond Frontignan. From this district comes the best of the wine called Muscat, that sweet agreeable dessert wine which tastes of raisins, as, when I was a child, I imagined all wine ought to do. How far from here are the steeply terraced vineyards of the Pyrenees, the forests of cork trees, even the flat garden-fields of the plain of Elne! There are vines, of course, but less advanced in leaf; occasionally one sees in the middle distance a range of low, bare, rocky hills; the rest is sand and water, windy flats which have been planted with long hedges of bamboo and reed to guard the vineyards from the mistral. There are places where one glimpses the sea between huge sand-dunes, and is momentarily reminded of the Channel coast. Yet even here the vines are rooted in the shifting sand, and go down almost to the scummy border of the sea.
Already the temperature is noticeably lower than it was at Perpignan, even at Narbonne. We are rounding the southern extremity of the Cevennes, and entering the lower valley of the Rhone, the mistral country, where the year proceeds by sufferance of that glacial intruder from the north, and spring advances, goes back, and comes on as in England, with something of that coy reluctance which is celebrated by our native poets. The gently tilted fields which succeed the saltings as we turn inland bear a superficial resemblance to a much more northern landscape. The aloes and prickly pear of Roussillon have disappeared, instead of palm trees we see the normal hedgerow growths of central France, and a few cypresses; but there are plenty of olives to remind us that we are still in the south, if the architecture of the houses, the sight of a couple of oxen yoked to the plough, and a dozen other things did not do that with sufficient force. But the colour of the landscape is cooler than that of Roussillon, an affair of grey-greens and dull earth reds, the sunshine appears paler, the trees have a wind-blown look.
It is an error to suppose that an absorbing interest in the weather is confined to the Anglo-Saxon peoples: throughout the Rhone valley and Provence the behaviour of the mistral is almost as universal a topic of conversation, though not such an exclusive one, as the probability of rain is in England. For this icy blast, which at the same time chastens and refreshes, is as essential a characteristic of life in the Midi as the sunshine. It is almost, though from a contrary point of view, what the Gulf Stream is to the British Isles. It preserves the vigorous from enervation, eliminates the weakly, moulds life in a hundred ways, and serves as the excuse for any little eccentricity or snappishness of which one may be guilty. It is said that under old Provencal law, the plea that the mistral was blowing at the time in question was a good defence to a charge of murder. But for the mistral, an enormous area of Provence would be a humid swamp. The people of the neighbourhood are as proud of this phenomenon as if they had invented it; and only the thoughtless tourist, heedless of every consideration save his own immediate comfort, will condemn it without reservation.
"C'est le caractere du Midi," a Nimoise waitress pointed out to me, in a tone of dignified reproof, when I had ventured to disparage the prospect of a week of freezing wind, which she had cheerfully held out before me. The fact is, I believe, that pride in this case, as in many, is accompanied by a certain touchiness. Despite the example of the inhabitants, a foreigner in England is not expected to talk about the weather, except to praise it. To a stranger the people of the Midi will politely apologize for the discomforts caused by the mistral as a housewife will for an untidy room; but that is not to say you should remark on it your-self. A direct reference to the mistral is best avoided, I should think, particularly in Arles, Nimes, or Avignon, which have almost no protection from the north. "Il fait un peu de vent," as a conversational opening, is legitimate and reasonable, and inoffensive. "Oui, c'est vrai. Un peu de mistral," will be the reply, with a hint of defiance, it may be, in the speaker's voice. But if you started by asserting that the mistral was blowing, I am not sure but the answer might be that there was no wind at all. "Un peu de vent," that is permissible and safe. But beyond that you should not go, though the blood in your veins be frozen solid, and your teeth be chattering like castanets.
Before I left Roussillon, the points at which I should tarry on my way to Nimes had been the subject of negotiation, of a sort of haggle, between me and a travelling acquaintance, a member of the most charming, and cultured aristocracy in the world, who appeared to have visited every town in France, and who, incidentally, was the most flatteringly Anglophile person I have ever met. He was genuinely surprised to hear that quite a number of murders were committed every year in England, for he had supposed that we were too sensible and reasonable a race to indulge in such excesses.
I began with Beziers. "A town of wine-merchants!" said my friend, in French, which made his scorn seem greater. I forget his comments on sae and Agde: as regards the former, I was probably unjust enough to disregard them, thinking he could have no eye for the subtly picturesque. Since seeing a little of Sete I have modified this opinion. I suspect that one must approach Sete from the sea, in a small yacht for preference, to appreciate its charm. Or perhaps the explanation is merely that my original informant, who told me it was a pretty little place, was thinking of Saint-Tropez or Villefranche.
I put forward a claim for Montpellier. My companion shrugged his shoulders. It was in vain that I mentioned the picture gallery and the reputed view from the Peyrou. Provincial picture galleries, he suggested, were provincial picture galleries the world over; and one coming from the Pyrenees, and going to the Alps, would be little impressed by such a view as he might get from an elevation of a hundred feet or so in the middle of an uninspiring plain. But in the end it was not so much this advice, I think, as a natural repugnance for large, busy towns, joined to sheer slothful disinclination to be bothered with the discomforts of a broken journey, that caused me to pass by Montpellier without descending from the train. I am now a little sorry that I took this course: not merely for the sake of such an atmosphere as might cling to a town possessing one of the oldest universities in Europe; but because I remembered, only when it was too late, that in my childhood the name of Montpellier had appealed in a peculiar way to my imagination. Somehow I had associated it vaguely with balloons, in the days when balloons were not yet ridiculous or antiquated. My reason for doing so was inadequate, I must admit; so far as I can make out, it was no more than the fact that a man named Montgolfier was one of the earliest balloonists. By such accidents and shifts of circumstance is that complex of association built up which gives a name or an idea its flavour in the mind! I feel now that in compliment to my dead self, and to that demented filing-clerk inside my head, I ought to have got down and seen something of the place.
As it was, I saw no more of it than the station, a few streets and houses, a gloomy piece of wall which must have been the Citadelle. Beyond the town, I remember some huge olive orchards, expanses of stony ground on which grew a sparse, dull green herbage, and more vines. We passed Lunel. Of this place I know nothing but that it has a pretty name, and that in its central place there is, or was, a reproduction of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbour—no one can imagine why. We turned northeast from here, through much the same sort of rather sober country, with olives, vines, and a few deciduous trees. We ran into the suburbs of what appeared to be a largish town, and came to a station. This was Nimes. I descended from the platform to the level of the street, and emerged into a magnificent triumphal avenue, twice the width of Portland Place, embellished with fine planes, and provided with several carriageways and footways. Temperament and circumstance combine in southern France to secure the pedestrian at least equal treatment with the motorist. It was a warm day, though not a hot one judged by the standards of Roussillon. There was no mistral blowing. The afternoon sun burned with a certain dignified restraint, which suited admirably with the substantial grandeur of this thorough-fare, and touched the grey facade on either hand with a little gold, producing an effect at the same time affable and formal. Art and nature, warmth and ceremony, could not have been more judiciously combined to make one's first impressions of a place delightful. Yet this was not one of the principal promenades of Nimes, but a street of utility, connecting the station with the centre of the town.
It is a curious fact that even people of taste and culture, who are supposed to care for such things, seldom notice any architecture belonging to a later period than the seventeenth century, except that which is carefully pointed out to them, or is so aggressively modern that it cannot be ignored. Thus many people who show the greatest enthusiasm for a Gothic cathedral, and will even extend a grudging attention to a Renaissance palace, will pass by with complete indifference the fine French architecture of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In England they will pay some regard to such architecture as can be labelled Queen Anne, Georgian, and so forth; for in this country art must carry the tag of a famous name or a romantic association before it stands a chance of being looked at. But French urban architecture of the equivalent period seems to them coldly formal, if they notice it at all.
What is the cause of this neglect? To a very small extent it may be due to the damaging effect of weathering on certain styles of architecture as compared with others. Eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century houses require to be well maintained to look their best; and the same process which makes a medieval building appear picturesque, will make a more modern one look shabby. But fashion, which is an expression of the whole intellectual, emotional, and political orientation of a generation, plays the largest part in determining the attitude of most people to these matters; and you can hardly expect an age which prefers extremism to moderation, exalts intuition above intelligence, and has no use for compromise, to blaspheme against its own implacable and bloody-minded gods by extending its approval to the art of a more reasonable and enlightened era! How can the modern revolutionary dupe, that is to say the average educated person of today, afford to recognize the existence of an age which would so plainly have considered his enthusiasms to be the dangerous delusions of a misguided idiot? He cannot; so he ignores it, as he ignores most history previous to the Industrial Revolution. To appreciate a town like Nimes, you have to free yourself from contemporary prejudice, and turn philosopher; for its charms are those of elegance, formality, urbanity—all highly unpopular qualities today. So I suppose it would be unreasonable of me to be surprised that no one with whom I discussed Nimes before I went there told me it had any merits of its own, or mentioned it except as a setting for the Roman monuments it happens to contain, although the town itself is one of the finest I have seen in France.