DESCENTS OF THE RHÔNE AND
FROM LYONS TO AVIGNON
FROM Lyons to
Avignon by river is one of the finest sails in Europe, to my
thinking the scenery surpassing that of the Danube or the Rhine.
Picturesque and interesting as are the railway journeys by both
right and left banks, the steamer offers a thousandfold of charm.
By half-past five o'clock on a brilliant August day, myself
and friend were aboard the little Gladiateur, finding thereon
a scene of indescribable liveliness and bustle. All kinds of
merchandise were being stowed away—bedding, fruit, bicycles,
bird-cages, passengers' luggage, cases, and packages of every
A stream of peasants poured in, bound for various stations on the
way, all heavily laden, some accompanied by their pet dogs. First-class passengers were not numerous. We had an elderly
bridegroom, who might have been a small innkeeper, with his youthful
bride, evidently making a cheap wedding trip; a family party or two;
an excitable man with a sick wife; a couple of pretty girls with two
or three youths—brothers or cousins; a sprinkling of priests and
nuns—that was all. The peasants with their baskets and bundles, at
the other end of the vessel, made picturesque groups, and the whole
scene was as French as French could be.
I was just thinking how pleasant it was thus to escape the routine
of travel, to find one's self in a purely foreign atmosphere,
picking up by the way French habits and ways of thought, when one of
the officials of the company bustled up to me.
"Pray pardon me, madame," he said, bringing out a note-book. "I see
that you are English. Will you be so very kind as to give me the
name and address of the great tourist agency in London? We are
organizing an entirely new service between Lyons and Avignon; we are
going to make our steamers attractive to tourists. You will oblige
us extremely by giving a little information."
Crestfallen and with a sinking of the heart, I took his pencil—I
could, of course, not do otherwise—and wrote in big letters:
MM. THOMAS COOK ET CIE,
But those few words I had written sufficed to dispel the delightful
vision of the moment before. Another year or two, then, and the
Rhône will be handed over to Messrs. Cook, Gaze and Caygill—benefactors
of their kind, no doubt, but ruthless destroyers of the romance of
travel! Instead of French folk, with whom we can chat about their
crops, rural affairs, and passing scenes, gaining all kinds of
information, feeling that we are really in France, and forgetting
for a while old associations, henceforth we shall find on board
these steamers our near neighbours, whom, no matter how much
respected, we are glad to quit for a time. From end to end of the
vessel we shall hear the voices of English and Transatlantic
tourists, one and all most probably "disappointed in the Rhône;"
but, indeed, for the river, we should as well be at home! However, I
said, all this disenchantment happily belongs to the future; let us
enjoy the present experience—one long bright summer day, so full of
impressions as to seem many days rolled into one. Years have glided
on, meantime the cycle and the motor, in a great measure, have
replaced slower methods of locomotion, but such prognostics have not
been fulfilled. The Rhône has escaped vogue.
The whistle sounds, punctually to the stroke of six; we are off.
It is a noble sight as we steam out of the quay de la Charité: the
vast city rearing its stately front between green hills and meeting
rivers; above, white châteaux and villas dotting the greenery—below, the quays, bordered with dotting warehouses that might be
palaces, so lofty and handsome are they, and avenues of plane-trees.
The day promises to be splendid, but mists as yet hang over the
scene. Leaving behind us majestic city suburbs and the confluence of
the Rhône and the Saône—one silvery sheet flowing into the other—we
glide between low-lying banks bordered with poplars, and soon reach
the little village of Irigny, its sheltering hills dotted with
country houses. As we go swiftly on we realize the appropriateness
of the epithet applied to the Rhône. Truly, in Michelet's phrase, "C'est
un taureau furieux descendu des Alpes, et qui court à la mer." If
we are impatient to reach our destination in the heart of the
Cévennes, the Rhône seems still more in haste to reach the sea. This
extraordinarily swift current of the bright blue waters and the
unspeakable freshness and purity of the air make our journey very
exhilarating. Past Irigny we are so near the low, poplar-bordered
shore to our left, that we could almost reach it with a pebble,
whilst to the right lies Millery. From this point the river winds
abruptly, and we see far-off heights and gentle declivities nearer
shore, with vineyards planted on the slopes. The country on both
sides is beautifully wooded, and very verdant.
The first halt is made at Givors, a little manufacturing town set
round with vine-clad banks; here the little river Giers flows into
the Rhône, one of the numerous tributaries gathered on the way. Just
below the town is a graceful suspension bridge. But for the mists we
should have a lovely view a little further on, where the hills run
nearer together, the wooded escarpments running steep down to the
water's edge. On both banks the scenery becomes charming. Close to
our left hand rise banks fringed with silvery-green willows, and
above a bold line of summits, part wood, part vineyards, with white
houses peeping here and there; on our right, a little island-like
group of poplars, the whole picture very sweet and pastoral.
As we near Vienne the aspect changes. There is an Italian look about
the vines trellised on trees and festooned around the river-side châlets.
The approach to the ancient city itself is very striking. A light
suspension bridge spans the river banks just where Vienne faces the
village of St. Colombe, ancient as itself. On the right we see the
massive old tower built by Philippe de Valois; to the left, behind
the houses crowded together pell-mell, rises the majestic pile of
the cathedral. Here another tributary, the Gère, flows into the
Rhône. Vienne was reputed a fosterer of poetry in classic times. At
"beautiful Vienne," Martial boasted that his works were read with
avidity. The scenery now shows more variety and picturesqueness. In
one spot the river winds so abruptly that we seem all on a sudden to
be landlocked, the hills almost meeting where the impetuous current
has forced a way. The cleft hills as they slope down to the shore
show deliciously fresh and verdurous dells and combes. Everywhere we
see the vine, and with every bend we seem nearer the South. Between
Vienne and Roussillon the aspect is no longer French, but
Italian—the distant undulations being of dark purple, flecked with
golden shadow, the nearer, terraced with the yellowing vine.
Our next halting-place is Condrien, on the right bank, celebrated
for its white wines, a pretty little town, with vineyards and
gardens close to the riverside, the bright foliage of garden acacia
and vine contrasting with the soft ochres and greys of the
building-stone. Above the straggling town on the sunny hill are
deep-roofed châlets, and close to us—we could almost gather
them—patches of glorious sunflowers in the river-side gardens. The
mists had now cleared off, and we were promised a superb day.
The traveller's mind is all at once struck by the extreme solitude
of this noble, vast-bosomed, swift-flowing river. We had been on the
way for hours without seeing a steamer or vessel of any kind, our
little craft having the wide water-way all to itself. Whilst the
Saône is the most navigable river in the world, quite opposite is
the character of its brother Rhône. Not inaptly has the one—all
gentleness, yieldingness, and suavity—won a feminine, the other—all
force, impetuosity and stern will—obtained for itself a masculine,
appellative! And well has the Lyonnais sculptor given these
characteristics in his charming statues adorning the Hôtel-de-Ville
of his native city.
The Rhône has been called "un chemin qui marche trop vîte"; the
rapidity of its currents and the difficulties of navigation
up-stream are obstructions to traffic. But before the great line of
railway was laid down between Paris and Marseilles, it was
nevertheless very important. If we converse with French folk whose
memory goes back to a past generation, we shall find that the
journey south was invariably made this way. Formerly sixty-two
steamers daily plied with passengers and goods between these
riverside towns, now connected by railway. At the present time seven
or eight suffice for the work.
This solitude adds to the majesty and impressiveness of the Rhône.
Our little craft seems insignificant as a feather—a mere bird
skimming the vast blue surface. After the clearing of the mists, we
have a spell of unbroken blue sky and bright sunshine, followed by a
deliciously cool, grey English heaven, with sunny glimpses and
Passing Serrières, with pastures and meadows close to the water's
edge, and groups of cattle grazing under the trees, we reach Annonay,
crested by a quaint ruin, the birthplace of the great balloonists,
the brothers Montgolfier. The first balloon ascent was made from
this little town in 1783. Boissy d'Anglas, the heroic president of
the Assembly in its stormiest days, was also born here.
Next comes St. Vallier, an ancient little town close to the bank,
with its castle of the beauty who never grew old, Diane de
Poitiers—she whose mysterious cosmetic was a daily plunge in cold
water; so say the initiated in historic secrets. Opposite to St. Vallier rises a chain of sunny, vine-covered hills, with sharp
clefts showing deep shadow.
At Arras, on the right bank, is seen another picturesque ruin. No
river in Europe boasts of more ruins than the Rhône. Then we reach
the legendary rock called the Table du Roi. Just as Æneas and his
companions made plates of their flat loaves, and so fulfilled the
Sybil's prediction, St. Louis saw in this tabular block a
dinner-table, providentially designed for the use of himself and his
ministers. The great advantage of such a table lay in its immunity
from listeners, thus the story runs. This al fresco banquet
above the banks of the Rhône took place on the eve of the Seventh
At this point the river is magnificent. Beyond the nearer hills rise
the crumbling walls of a feudal stronghold, another ruin of
imposing aspect. One hoary tower only is seen, half hidden by the
folds of a valley. On every slope the vines make golden patches,
little terraces being planted close to the rocky summits. This
persistence in a phylloxera-ravaged district is quite touching.
Passing Tournon and Tain, we soon come in sight of the famous little
village of the Hermitage, a sunburnt, granitic slope, its three
hundred acres once being a mine of gold. Formerly a hectare of this
precious vineyard was worth 30,000 francs. The phylloxera invaded
We now see in the far distance the blue range of the Dauphinnois
Alps, and can it be—is yonder silvery glimmer on the farthest
horizon the mighty Mont Blanc? Nothing can be lovelier than these
wide mountain vistas, far above broad blue river, plain, and hill.
Passing the stately Gothic château of Châteaubourg, where sojourned
St. Louis, we get a glimpse of the sharply outlined limestone
heights bordering on the vineyards of St. Percy, no less celebrated
than those of the Hermitage. On the topmost crag stand out in bold
relief the superb ruins of Crussol. At every turn we see walls of
feudal strongholds frowning above the bright, broad river. By the
time we reach Valence, soon after mid-day, we have only passed one
Valence is beautifully situated. Facing the river and tawny, abrupt
rocks, rises the splendid panorama of the French Alps. Here we leave
more than half our passengers and merchandise. The cook, having now
nothing to do, comes on deck to chat with a friendly traveller. I
may as well mention that we fared as well on this little steamer as
at a second-class table-d'hôte. There was a small dining-room
below, as well as a very fairly comfortable saloon. The attendants
were exceedingly civil, and charges regulated by a tariff.
As an instance of the prevailing desire to please, I cite the
following piece of amiability on the part of the chef. I had
given tea and a tea-pot, with instructions, to the waiter. The
chef, however, anxious that there should be no blunder, came up
to me and begged for information at first hand.
"Pray excuse me," he said; "but I did not understand whether the
milk and sugar were to form part of the decoction."
I gave him a little dissertation on tea-making, with the result that
future travellers by the Gladiateur, will obtain a fragrant
cup admirably prepared. Even a French chef cannot be expected
to know everything in the vast field of cookery.
Below Valence the scenery changes. The hills on either side of the
river recede, and we look above low reaches and lines of poplar upon
the far-off mountain range of Dauphine and Savoy. Here and there are
little farmsteads close to the shore, with stacks of wheat newly
piled and cattle grazing—everywhere a look of homely plenty and
repose. The river winds in perpetual curves, giving us new horizons
at every turn.
Lavoulte, on the right bank, is a picturesque congeries of red-tiled
houses massed round a square château. The town indeed looks a mere
appendage of this château, so conspicuous is the ancient stronghold
of the Vivarais. Livron, perched on a hill, looks very pretty. Soon
we come to perhaps the grandest ruin cresting the bank of the Rhône,
the donjon and château fort of Rochemaure, standing out formidably
from the dark, jagged peaks, running sheer down to the river's edge.
After Le Teil is passed the clouds gradually clear. We have the deep
warm blue of a southern sky and burning sunshine.
Viviers—former capital of the Vivarais, to which it gave the name—is
most romantically placed on the side of a craggy hill, its ancient
castle and old Romanesque cathedral conspicuous above the
house-roofs. Just above the verdant river-bank run its mediæval
ramparts tapestried with ivy, the yellowish stone almost the colour
of the rocks.
The scenery here is wild and striking. Far away flashes the grand
snow-tipped Mont Ventoux, limestone cliffs show dazzlingly white
against the warm heavens, deep purple shadows resting on the
vine-clad slopes, whilst close to the water's edge are stretches of
velvety turf and little shady vales. At one point the opposite
coasts are as unlike in aspect as summer and winter; the right bank
all grace and fertility, the left all barrenness and desolation. And
still we have the noble river to ourselves as it winds between rock
and hill. Pont St. Esprit is another old-world town with a wonderful
bridge, making a charming picture. It stands close to the water's
edge, the houses grouped lovingly round its ancient church with tall
spire. Here we do at last meet a steamer bound for Valence.
APPROACH TO AVIGNON
After leaving Pont St. Esprit the scenery grows less severe, till by
degrees all sternness is banished, and we see only a gentle pastoral
landscape on either side.
Bagnols, with its handsome old stone bridge, church with perforated
tower, facing the river, makes a quaint and picturesque scene. This
curious town, one of the most characteristic passed throughout the
entire journey, lies so close to the water's edge that we could
almost step from the steamer into its streets. Meantime, the long,
bright afternoon, so rich in manifold impressions, draws on;
cypresses and mulberry-trees announce the approach to Avignon. A
golden softness in the evening sky, a heavy warmth and languor in
the air, proclaim the South. Every inch of the way is varied and rememberable. Feudal walls still crest the distant heights, as we
glide slowly between reedy banks and low sandy shores towards the
At last it comes in sight, rather more than twelve hours since
quitting the quay of Lyons, and well rewarded were we for having
preferred the slower water-way to the four hours' flight in the
The approach to Avignon by the Rhône may be set side by side in the
traveller's mind with the first glimpse of Venice from the Adriatic,
or of Athens from the Ægean.
The river, after winding amid cypress-groves, makes a sudden curve,
and all of a sudden we see the grand old city, its watch-towers,
palaces, and battlements pencilled in delicate grey against a warm
amber sky, only the cypresses by the water's edge making dark points
in the picture. Far away,
over against the city, towers the stately snow-crowned Mont Ventoux
and the violet hills shutting in Petrarch's Vaucluse. How warm and
southern—nay, Oriental—is the scene before us, although painted in delicatest pearly tints! It is difficult to believe that we are
still in France; we seem suddenly to have waked up in Jerusalem!
AVIGNON, CHÂTEAU DES PAPES
TO MENDE BY WAY OF LE VIGAN
ON a former
occasion I had set out for the Gorge of the Tarn from Le Puy, thence
by train journeying to Langeac, from that little junction to another
named Langogne, and from that point finishing the long day in the
crazy old diligence plying between Langogne and Mende. An amazing
six hours' drive it was, and well worth the fatigue, every bit of
the way abounding in scenery, splendid or pastoral. France can
hardly show fairer or more striking scenes than these highlands of
The first part of our way lay amid wild mountain passes, deep
ravines, dusky with pine and fir, lofty granite peaks shining like
blocks of diamond against an amethyst heaven. Alternating with such
scenes of savage magnificence are idyllic pictures, verdant dells
and glades, rivers bordered by alder-trees wending even course
through emerald pastures, or making cascade after cascade over a
rocky bed. On little lawny spaces about the sharp spurs of the Alps,
we see cattle browsing, high above, as if in cloudland. Excepting an
occasional cantonnier at work by the roadside, or a peasant woman
minding her cows, the region is utterly
deserted. Tiny hamlets lay half hidden in the folds of the hills or
skirting the edges of the lower mountain slopes; none border the
During the long winter these fine roads, winding between steep
precipices and abrupt rocks, are abandoned on account of the snow. The diligence ceases to run, and letters and newspapers are
distributed occasionally by experienced horsemen familiar with the
country and able to trust to short cuts.
What the icy blasts of January are like on such stupendous heights
we can well conceive. At one point of our journey we reach an
altitude above the sea equal to that of the Puy de Dôme. This is the
lofty plateau of granitic formation called Le Palais du Roi, a
portion of the Margéride chain, and as an old writer says, "la
partie la plus neigeuse de la route"—the snowiest bit of the road. On a superb September day, although winter, as I found, was at hand,
the temperature was of an English July. As we travelled on, amid
scenes of truly Alpine grandeur and loveliness, the thought arose to
my mind, how little even the much-travelled English conceive the
wealth of scenery in France! Our cumbersome old diligence carried
only French passengers. Nowhere else in Europe does the English
tourist still find himself more isolated from the commonplace of
Many of the landscapes now passed recalled scenes in Algeria,
especially as we get within sight of the purple, porphyritic chain
of the Lozère. We gaze on undulations of delicate violet and grey,
as in Kabylia, whilst deep down below lie oases of valley and
pasture, the dazzling golden green contrasting with the aerial hues
of distant mountain and cloud.
Nothing under heaven could be more beautiful than the shifting
lights and shadows on the remoter hills, or the crimson and rosy
flush of sunset on the nearer rocks; at our feet we see well-watered
dales and luxuriant meadows, whilst on the higher ground, here as in
the valley of the Allier, we have proofs of the astounding, the
unimaginable patience and laboriousness of peasant owners.
In many places rings of land have been cleared round huge blocks of
granite, the smaller stones, wrenched up, forming a fence or border,
whilst between the immovable, columnar masses of rock, potatoes,
rye, or other hardy crops, have been planted. Not an inch of
available soil is wasted. These scenes of mingled sternness and
grace are not marred by any eyesore: no hideous chimney of factory
with its column of black smoke, as in the delicious valleys of the
Jura; no roar of mill-wheel or of steam-engine breaks the silence of
forest depths. The very genius of solitude, the very spirit of
beauty, brood over the woods and mountains of the Lozère. The
atmospheric effects are very varied and lovely, owing to the purity
of the air. As evening approaches, the vast porphyry range before us
is a cloud of purple and ruddy gold against the sky. And what a sky! That warm, ambered glow recalls Sorrento. By the time we wind down
into the valley of the Lot, night has overtaken us. We dash into the
little city too hungry and too tired, it must be confessed, to think
of anything else but of beds and dinner; both of which, and of
excellent quality, awaited us at the old-fashioned Hôtel Chabert.
But we were already midway in September. Winter, we learned, was at
hand, and truly enough, on the 19th of September it overtook us. Perforce we had to content ourselves with a glimpse of that
wonderful table-land les Causses, truly called "The Roof of France,"
and forego the shooting of the rapids till another season.
By carriage—an expensive and tedious but gainful method of travel—we
reached Rodez, spending the night at St. Chély d'Apcher.
At St. Amans, where we halted for breakfast, still the sun shone
warm and bright, and the blue sky was of extraordinary depth and
softness. I was reminded of Italy. As we sauntered about the long
straggling village, a scene of indescribable contentment and repose
met our eyes. We are in one of the poorest departments of France,
but no signs of want or vagrancy are seen. The villagers, all neatly
and suitably dressed, were getting in their hay or minding their
flocks and herds, with that look of cheerful independence imparted
by the responsibilities of property. Many greeted us in the
friendliest manner, but as we could not understand their patois, a
chat was impossible. They laughed, nodded, and passed on.
No sooner were we fairly on our way to St. Chély than the weather
changed. The heavens clouded over, and the air blew keenly. We got
out our wraps one by one, wanting more. If the scenery is less
wildly beautiful here than between Mende and St. Amans, it is none
the less charming, were we only warm enough to enjoy it. The pastoralness of many a landscape is Alpine, with brilliant stretches
of turf, scattered châlets, groups of haymakers, herds and flocks
browsing about the rocks. Enormous blocks of granite are seen
everywhere superimposed after the manner of dolmens, and everywhere
the peasant's spade and hoe are gradually redeeming the waste. It
was nightfall when we reached St. Chély d'Apcher, reputed the
coldest spot in France, and certainly well worthy of its reputation.
It stands on an elevation 3,000 feet above the sea-level. If the Lozère is aptly termed the Roof of France, then St. Chély may be
regarded as its chimney top. Summer here lasts only two months. No
wonder that the searching wind seemed as if it would blow not merely
the clothes off our shoulders, but the flesh off our bones. Yet the
people of the inn smiled and said:
"Wait here another month and you will find what we call cold!"
Doubtless to some travellers Siberian experiences on these plateaux
would be more endurable than dog days in Provence. Warned by
previous disappointment, next year I boldly confronted the latter
From Avignon by way of Nimes, now twelve months later, with a friend
I journeyed to Le Vigan, thus making a roundabout way to the Causses
and the Tarn. Nimes in August we found hot as Cairo in May, and
thankful were we to exchange the torrid atmosphere and heavy,
sulphurous heavens for the cool air and pastoral scenery of Le Vigan.
Past olive grounds and mulberry plantations, ancient towns cresting
the hill-tops, cheerful farmeries dotted here and there—such are the
pictures descried from the railway. It was hard to pass Tarascon
without a halt, but we were too anxious to shoot the rapids for
lingerings. Ancient and curious little towns we got glimpses of on
the way, all being stoically resisted.
I had heard nothing in favour of Le Vigan. The hotel was described
to us as a fair auberge. The very place was marked down in my
itinerary simply because it seemed impossible to reach the region we
were bound for from any other starting-point. At least, the two
other alternatives had drawbacks: we must either make a circuitous
railway journey round to Mende, or a still longer detour by way of
Having therefore expected literally nothing either in the way of
accommodation or surroundings, what was our satisfaction next day to
wake up and find ourselves in quite delightful quarters, amid
charming scenery! Our hotel, Des Voyageurs, is as unlike the
luxurious barracks of Swiss resorts as can be. An ancient,
picturesque, straggling house, brick-floored throughout, with
spacious rooms, large alcoves, outer galleries and balconies facing
the green hills, it is just the place to settle in for a summer
holiday. On the low walls of the open corridor outside our rooms are
pots of brilliant geraniums and roses; beyond the immediate premises
of the hotel is a well-kept fruit and flower garden; everywhere we
see bright blossoms and verdure, whilst the low spurs of the
Cevennes, here soft green undulations, frame in the picture.
The weather was now that of an English summer, with alternating
clouds, sunshine and fresh breezes. The inhabitants we found no less
winning than their entourage; everywhere we were
received as friends.
The Gard is foremost of all other departments in the matter of
silkworm rearing, the Ardèche alone surpassing it in the number of
silk-factories. In all the villages around Le Vigan are small
silkworm farms, the peasants rearing them on their own account, and
selling them to the manufacturers.
The workroom of a silk factory affords a curious spectacle.
At long, narrow tables, stretched from end to end of the workshop,
sit rows of girls manipulating the cocoons in bowls of hot water—in
Gibbon's phrase, "the golden tombs whence a worm emerges in the form
of a butterfly"—carefully disengaging the almost imperceptible film
of silk therein concealed, transferring it to the spinning-wheel,
where it is spun into what looks like a thread of solid gold. Throughout the vast atelier hundreds of shuttles are swiftly plied,
and on first entering the eye is dazzled with the brilliance of
these broad bands of silk, bright, lustrous, metallic, as if of
solid gold. This flash of gold is the only brightness in the place,
otherwise dull and monotonous.
Gibbon gives a splendid page on the "education of silkworms," once
considered as the labour of queens, and shows impatience with the
learnèd Salmasius, who also wrote on the subject, because, unlike
himself, he did not know everything. He tells us how two Persian
monks, long resident in China, amid their pious occupations viewed
with a curious eye the manufacture of silk; how they made the long
journey to Constantinople, imparting their knowledge of the silkworm
and its strictly guarded culture to the great Justinian; finally,
how a second time they entered China, "deceived a jealous people by
concealing the eggs of the silkworm in a hollow cane, and returned
in triumph with the spoils of the East." "I am not insensible of the
benefits of an elegant luxury," adds the historian, "yet I reflect
with some pain that if the importers of silk had introduced the art
of printing, already practised by the Chinese, the comedies of
Menander and the entire decade of Livy would have been perpetuated
in the sixth century."
So charming proved Le Vigan that we lingered on; the pleasant little
place and its people proved to us as Capua to Hannibal's soldiers,
as Circe's cup to Odysseus.
We ought not to have stayed there an unnecessary hour. We should
have continued our journey at once. On and on we lingered,
nevertheless, and when at last we braced ourselves up for an effort,
the terrible truth was broken to us. Instead of being nearer to the
goal of our wishes, we had come out of the way, and were indeed
getting farther and farther from that mysterious, so eagerly
longed-for region, the terribly unattainable Causses. Our project at
last began to wear the look of a nightmare, a harassing, feverish
dream. We seemed to be fascinated hither and thither by an ignis
fatuus, enticed into quagmires and quicksands by an altogether
illusive, mocking, malicious will-o'-the-wisp.
True, a mere matter of eighty miles lay between us and our
destination, but surely the most impracticable eighty miles out of
Arabia Petræa! We were bound for a certain little town called St.
Énimie, but between us and St. Énimie stretched a barrier,
apparently insurmountable as Dante's fog isolating Purgatory from
Paradise, or as the black river separating Pluto's domain from the
region of light. We seemed as far off the Causses as Christian from
the heavenly Jerusalem when imprisoned in Castle Doubting, or as the
Israelites from Canaan when in the wilderness of Zin.
To reach St. Énimie, then, meant two long days' drive, i. e. from
six a.m. to perhaps eight p.m., in the lightest, which stands for
the most uncomfortable, vehicle, across a country the greater part
of which is as savage as Dartmoor. Our first halting-place would be Meyrueis, and between Le Vigan and Meyrueis, relays could be had,
but at that point civilization ended. The second day's journey must
lie through a treeless, waterless, uninhabited desert; in other
words, as a glance at the map showed, we must traverse the Causse
At this stage of affairs intervened the voiturier who had just
proposed to drive us to the top of the Lozérien Helvellyn, provided
we could sit on a knifeboard. He was one of the handsomest men we
saw in these parts, which is saying a good deal. Tall, well made,
dignified, with superb features and rich colouring, it seemed a
thousand pities he should be only a carriage proprietor in this
"If these ladies," he said in country fashion, thus addressing
ourselves, "will let me drive them to Millau, they can have my most
comfortable carriage, as the roads are excellent. They can sleep at
a good auberge on the way. From Millau it is only five hours by
railway to Mende, and from Mende only a four hours' drive to St.
Having sent on our four big trunks by diligence to Millau, in
perfect weather we set out for our first stage.
On the whole, the route now decided upon had much to recommend it,
especially to travellers unfit for excessive fatigue. The drive from
Le Vigan to Millau is thus divided into two easy stages, and the
scenery for the greater part of the way is diversified and
Gradually winding upwards from the green hills surrounding our
favourite little town, its bright river, the Arre, playing
hide-and-seek as we go, we take a lonely road cut around barren,
rocky slopes covered with stunted foliage, here and there tiny
enclosures of corn crop or garden perched aloft.
The charm of this drive consists in the sharp contrasts presented at
unexpected turns. Now we are in a sweet, sunbright, sheltered
valley, where all is verdure and luxuriance. At every door are pink
and white oleanders in full bloom, in every garden peach-trees
showing their rich, ruby-coloured fruit, the handsome-leaved
mulberry, the silvery olive, with lovely little chestnut woods on
the heights around. Soon we seem in a wholly different latitude. The
vegetation and aspect of the country are transformed. Instead of the
vine, the peach, and the olive, we are in a region of scant
fruitage, and only the hardiest crops, apple orchards being sparsely
mingled with fields of oats and rye. And yet again we seem to be
traversing a Scotch or Yorkshire moor—so vast and lonely the
heather-clad wastes, so grey and wild the heavens.
Every zone has its wild flowers. As we go on, our eyes rest upon
white salvias, the pretty Deptford Pink, wild lavender, several
species of broom and ferns in abundance. The wild fig-tree grows
here, and the huge boulders are tapestried with box and bilberry.
One rare lovely flower I must especially mention—the exquisite,
large-leaved blue flax (Linum perenne), that shone like a
star amid the rest.
It is Sunday, and as we pass the village of Arre in its charming
valley, we meet streams of country folks dressed in their best,
enjoying a walk. No one was afield. Here, as in most other parts of
rural France, Sunday is regarded strictly as a day of rest.
After a long climb upwards, our road cut through the rock being a
grand piece of engineering, we come upon the works of a handsome
railway viaduct now in construction. This line now connects Le Vigan
with Millau and Albi, an immense boon to the inhabitants, one of the
numerous iron roads laid by the Republic in what had hitherto been
forgotten parts of France. Close to these works a magnificent
cascade is seen, sheet of glistening white spray pouring down the
dark, precipitous escarpment.
Hereabouts the barren, stony, wilderness-like country betokens the
region of the Causses. We are all this time winding round the
rampart-like walls of the great Causse de Larzac, which stretches
from Le Vigan to Millau, rising to a height of 2,624 feet above the
sea-level, and covering an area of nearly a hundred square miles. This region affords some interesting facts for evolutionists. The
aridity, the absolutely waterless condition of the Larzac, has
evolved a race of non-drinking animals. The sheep browsing on the
fragrant herbs of these plateaux have altogether unlearned the habit
of drinking, whilst the cows drink very little. The much-esteemed
Roquefort cheese is made from ewe's milk, the non-drinking ewes of
the Larzac. Is the peculiar flavour of the cheese due to the
The desert-like tracts below this "Table de pierre," as M. Réclus
calls it, are alternated with very fairly cultivated farms. We see
rye, oats, clover, and hay in abundance, with corn ready for
Passing St. Jean de Bruel, where all the inhabitants have turned out
to attend a neighbour's funeral, we wind down amid chestnut woods
and pastures into a lovely little valley, with the river Dourbie,
bluest of the blue, gliding through the midst. Beyound stream and
meadows rise hills crested with Scotch fir, their slopes luxuriant
with buckwheat, maize, and other crops—here and there the rich brown
loam already ploughed up for autumn sowing. Well-dressed people,
well-kept roads, neat houses, suggested peace and frugal plenty.
What a contrast did the little village of Nant present to Le Vigan!
It was like the apparition of an exquisitely-dressed, pretty girl,
after that of a slatternly beauty. Nant, "proprette," airy, well
cared for, wholesome; Le Vigan, dirty, draggle-tailed, neglected,
yet in itself possessed of quite as many natural attractions. We had
been led to expect a mere country auberge, decent shelter, no
more—perhaps even two-curtained, alcoved beds in a common
sleeping-room! What was our astonishment to find quite ideal rustic
accommodation—quarters, indeed, inviting on their own account a
A winding stone staircase led from the street to the travellers'
quarters. Kitchen, salle-à-manger and bedrooms were all spick
and span, cool and quiet; our rooms newly furnished with beds as
luxurious as those of the Grand Hotel in Paris. Marble-topped
washstands and newly-tiled floors opened on to an outer corridor,
the low walls of which were set with roses and geraniums as in
Italy. Below was a poultry yard. No other noise could disturb us but
the cackling of hens and the quacking of ducks. On the same floor
was a dining-room and the kitchen, but so far removed from us that
we were as private as in a suite of rooms at the celebrated Hôtel
Nant is quite a delightful townling; we only wished we could have
stayed there for weeks. It is a very ancient place, but so far
modernized as to be clean and pleasant. The quaint, stone-covered
arcades and bits of mediæval architecture invite the artist; none,
The sky-blue Dourbie runs amid green banks below the grey peak,
rising sheer above the town: around the congeries of old-world
houses are farms, gardens and meadows, little fields being at right
angles with the streets. In the large, open market-place, where
fairs are held, just outside the town, we found a curious sight. The
corn was gathered in, and hither all the farmers round about had
brought their wheat to be threshed out by waterpower.
It is a charming drive from Nant to Millau. Our road winds round the
delicious little valley of the Dourbie, the river ever cerulean
blue, bordered with hay-fields, in which lies the fragrant crop of
autumn hay ready for carting. By the wayside are tall acacias, their
green branches tasselled with dark purple pods, or apple-trees, the
ripening fruit within reach of our hands. Little Italian-like towns,
surrounded by ochre-coloured walls, are terraced here and there on
the rich burnt-umber walls, the lime-ridges above and around taking
the form of a long lone of rampart or lofty fortress, built and
fashioned by human hands. In contrast to this savagery, we have ever
and anon before our eyes the sweet little river, no sooner lost
sight of amid willowy banks than found again.
The approach to Millau is very pretty. Almond and peach orchards,
vineyards and gardens, form a bright suburban belt. Two rivers, the
Tarn and the Dourbie, water its pleasant valley, whilst over the
town tower lofty rocks in the form of an amphitheatre. Nant may be
described as a little idyll. After it Millau comes disenchantingly
Never was I in such a noisy, roystering, singing, lounging place. There was no special cause for hilarity; nothing was going on; the
business of daily life seemed to be that of making a noise.
In spite of its entourage, too, the town is not engaging. Its hot,
ill-kept, malodorous streets do not call forth an exploring frame of
mind. The public garden is, however, a delightful promenade, and the
well-known photographer of these regions has his atelier in one of
the most curious old houses to be seen anywhere.
Climbing a narrow, winding stone stair, we come upon an open court,
with balconies running round each storey, carved stone pillars
supporting these; oleanders and pomegranates in pots make the ledges
bright, whilst above the gleaming white walls shines a sky of
Oriental brilliance. The whole interior is animated. Here women sit
at their glove-making, the principal industry of the place, children
play, pet dogs and cats sun themselves; all is sunny, careless,
southern life—a page out of Graziella.
We took train to Mende. It is one of those delightfully slow trains
which enable you to see the scenery in detail, after the leisurely
fashion of Arthur Young, trotting through France on his Suffolk
Part of the way lies through a romantic bit of country
château-crowned hills follow each other in succession, every dark
crag having its feudal shell, whilst patchwork crops cover the lower
Everywhere vineyards predominate, so persistent the faith of the
French cultivator in the vine, so touching the efforts made to
entice it to grow on French soil. Few and far between are little
wall-encompassed villages perched on the hill-tops.
At Sévérac-le-Château romance culminates in the stern,
yellowish-grey ruin cresting the green heights. A most picturesque
little place is this, seen from the railway. We now leave behind us cornlands and the vine, and reach the region of pin and fir-woods.
On the railway embankment we see the yellow-horned poppy and the
golden thistle growing in abundance; many another flower, too, as
brilliant brightens the way—a large, handsome broom, several kinds
of mullein, with fern and heather.
Bright and strongly contrasted are the hues of the landscape—purply-black
the far-off mountains, emerald-green the fields of rye and clover at
their feet. A large portion of the land hereabouts is mere
wilderness; yet the indomitable peasant wrenches up the boulders,
cleans the ground of stones, and inch by inch transforms the waste
into productive soil. At every turn we are reminded of the dictum of
"that wise and honest traveller," Arthur Young, "The magic of
property turns sands to gold."
We are now in the region of the Causses; around us rise the spurs of
Sauveterre and Sévérac. The scenery between Marvejols and Mende is
grand; sombre, deep-green valleys, shut in by wide stretches of
stupendous rocky wall, dark pine-woods, and brown wastes.
The evening closes in, and the rest is lost to us. As on my first
visit to Mende, a year ago, I again lose the romantic approach to
this wonderfully placed little city.
CAUSSE DE SÉVÉRAC
The Hôtel Manse, whither we now betake ourselves, is a great
improvement on that of former acquaintance in matters of situation,
sanitation, and comfort; the people are very civil and obliging in
And here we were not in the very heart of the stuffy, dirty,
ill-kept town, but on the outskirts, overlooking suburban gardens
and pleasant hills, with plenty of air to breathe.
FROM MENDE TO ST. ÉNIMIE
SO, just upon
twelve months after my first attempt, I once more found myself
climbing to the summit of the lofty plateau between Mende and St.
It was a fortnight earlier in the year, and the weather was ideal;
light clouds that had threatened rain cleared off, mild sunshine
brightened the scene, and the air, although brisk and invigorating,
was by no means cold. Still more enticing now looked the billowy
swell of gold and purple mountains, and the dark cliffs frowning
over green valleys. To-day, too, the exhilarating conviction of
fulfilment was added to that of looking forward. A second time I had
reached the threshold of the long dreamed of region of marvels,
really to cross it and enter.
I was on my way to the Causses at last! More striking and beautiful
than when first seen now seemed the upward drive from Mende, the
beautiful grey cathedral, with its unequal spires—the one a lovely
specimen of Gothic in its late efflorescence, the other wholly
unbeautiful—cushioned against the soft green hills, the cheerful
little town in its fertile surroundings, its wild, far-stretching
waste and barren peak. More musical still sounding in my ears the
purling of the Lot, as unseen it ran between sunny pastures over its
stony bed far below.
Little I thought, indeed, although of firm intention, when making
the journey twelve months all but two weeks before, that on this 5th
of September, I should be gazing on the same scene—a scene reminding
me now, as then, of the vast reedy plateau gazed on at Saida,
dividing the Algerian traveller from the Sahara.
This time I did not stop to make tea gipsy-wise on the turf in front
of the farmhouse; nor, to my disappointment, did the children run
out to share the contents of my bonbon box. Not a soul was abroad;
an eldritch solitude reigned everywhere.
The Causse of Sauveterre is not reached till we have left the
farmhouse and ruined château far behind. From that point the roads
diverge, and we see our own wind like a ribbon till lost to view in
the grey, stony wilderness.
A considerable portion of the land hereabouts is cultivated. We see
little patches of rye, oats, Indian corn, clover, potatoes, and here
and there a peasant ploughing up the soil with oxen.
As we proceed, the enormous horizon ever widens; long shadows fleck
the purply-brown and orange-coloured undulations; scattered sparsely
are flocks of sheep, of a rich burnt-umber brown, but herbage is
scant and little cattle can be nourished here. The swelling hills
now show new and more grandiose outlines; at last we come in sight
of the dark mass of the Causse de Sauveterre, and soon we enter upon
the true Caussien landscape in all its weird and sombre grandeur. Just as when fairly out on the open sea we realize to the full its
beauty and sense of infinity, so it is here. The farther we go the
wider, more bewilderingly vast becomes the horizon: wave upon wave,
billow upon billow, now violet-hued, with a tinge of gold; now deep
brown, partly veiled with green, or roseate with sunlit clouds—the
grey monotony of stone and waste is thus varied by the way.
By the roadside slender trees of the hornbeam tribe are planted at
intervals, and where these are wanting, tall flagstaffs take their
place, to guide the wayfarer when six feet of snow cover the ground. Wild flowers in plenty brighten the edges of the road—stone crops,
cornflowers, purple lady's fingers, and many others; but wedged as
we are in our not too comfortable calèche, to get out and pluck them
The road from Mende to the summit of the plateau can only be
described as a vertical ascent; before beginning to descend, we have
a few kilometres of level, that is all. As we approach the village
of Sauveterre, we see one or two wild figures, shepherds, uncouth in
appearance as Greek herdsmen, and poorly dressed, but
robust-looking, well-made girls and women, short-skirted,
bare-headed, footing it bravely under the hot sun.
Portions of the land on either side consist of waste, quite recently
laid under cultivation; the huge blocks of stone had been wrenched
up, heaven knows how, and conspicuously piled up in the midst of the
newly created field—a veritable trophy! The rich red earth amply
repays these Herculean labours. With regard to the tenure of land, I
should suppose the state of things here must be very much what it
was in the age of primitive man. I fancy that any native of these
parts, any true Caussenard, has only to clear a bit of waste and
plant a crop to make it his own; a stranger would doubtless have his
right to do so contested, or, maybe, some patriarchal system still
in force, and the village community is not yet extinct in France.
"Voilà la capitale de Sauveterre!" soon cries our driver, pointing to
a cluster of bare brown, apparently windowless, houses, and a tiny
church, all grouped picturesquely together.
A poor-looking place it was enough when we obtained a nearer view,
reminding me of a Kabyle village more than anything else, not,
however, brightened with olive or fig-tree! Nothing in the shape of
a garden is to be seen, only dull walls of close-set dwellings, with
narrow paths between. Windows, however, our driver assured us, were
there; but the village is built with its back to the road.
The great privation of these poor people is that of a regular
water-supply—one large, by no means pellucid pond, with cisterns,
are all the sources they can rely upon from one end of the year to
the other; not a fountain issues from the limestone for miles round,
not a stream waters the entire Causse, a region extensive as
Dartmoor or Salisbury Plain. When we consider that this plateau has
a height above the sea-level equal to that of Skiddaw, we can easily
imagine what the long eight months' winter here is like. For the
greater part of the time the country is under several feet of snow,
and the Caussenard warms his poor tenement as best he can with peat.
It was curious to hear our conductor, himself evidently accustomed
to a hard, laborious life, speak of the inhabitants of Sauveterre. He described their condition much as a well-to-do English artisan
might speak of the half-starved foreign victims of the sweater—so
wide is the gulf dividing the Caussenard from the French peasant
"Just think of it," he said; "they don't even dress the rye for
their bread, but eat it made of husks and all. Rye-bread, bacon,
potatoes, that is their fare, and water: if it were only good water
one would have nothing to say—bad water they drink. But they are
"What do they do for a doctor?" I asked. He made a curious grimace.
"They physic themselves till they are at the point of death, and
then send for a doctor. But it is not often. They are healthy
With regard to the ministrations of religion, they are in the
position of dalesfolk in some parts of Dauphine. A curé from St.
Énimie, he told us, performed mass once a fortnight in summer, and
came over as occasion required for baptisms, marriages, and burials. In winter, alike ordinary mass and these celebrations were stopped
by the snow. The services of the priest had then to be dispensed
with for weeks, even months, at a time.
I next tried to gain some information as to schools, but here my
informant was not very clear. Yes, he said, there was schooling in
summer; whether lay or clerical, whether the children were taught
the Catechism in their mother-tongue—in other words, the patois of
the Causse—or in French, I could not learn.
Do these wild-looking mountaineers exercise the electoral privilege? Do they go to the poll, and what are their political views? Are
their sons drafted off, as the rest of French youth, into military
service? Does a newspaper, even the ubiquitous Petit Journal,
penetrate into these solitudes? It was difficult to get a
satisfactory answer to all my questions, and quite useless to make a
tour of inquiry in the village. One must speak the patois of the Caussenard to obtain his confidence, and though the population is
inoffensive, even French tourists are advised on no account to
adventure themselves in these parts without being accompanied by a
One thing is quite certain. The four thousand and odd wild,
sheepskin-wearing inhabitants of the entire region of the Gausses
must ere long, may perhaps already, be nationalized—like the Breton
and the Morvandial, undergoing a gradual and complete
transformation. Travellers of another generation on this road will
certainly not be stared at by the fierce-looking, picturesque
figures we now pass in the precincts of Sauveterre. Brigands they
might be, judging from their shaggy beards, unkempt locks, and
Robinson Crusoe-like dress; also their fixed, almost dazed, look
inspires anything but confidence. Still, we must remember that Sauveterre is in the Lozère, and that the Lozère occasionally enjoys
the enviable pre-eminence of "white assizes"—a clean bill of moral
After quitting the village, which has a deserted look as of a
plague-stricken place, the road descends. We now follow the rim of a
far-stretching, tremendous ravine, its wooded sides running
perpendicularly down. For miles we drive alongside this depth, the
only protection being a stone wall not two feet high. The road,
however, is excellent, our little horses steady and sure-footed, and
our driver very careful. We are, indeed, too much interested in the
scenery to heed the frightful precipices within a few inches of our
carriage wheels. But the retrospection makes one giddy. The least
accident or mishap, contingencies not dwelt upon whilst jogging on
delightfully under a bright sky, might, or rather must, here end in
By and by, the prospect becomes inexpressibly grand, till the
impression of magnificence culminates as our road begins literally
to drop down upon St. Énimie, as yet invisible. Our journey must now
be compared to the descent from cloudland in a balloon. Meantime,
the stupendous panorama of dark, superbly outlined mountain-wall
closes in. We seem to have reached the limit of the world. Before
us—Titanic rampart—rises the grand Causse Méjean, now seen for the
first time; around, fold upon fold, are the curved heights of
Sauveterre, the nearer slopes bright green with sunny patches, the
remoter purply black.
It is a wondrous spectacle—wall upon wall of lofty limestone, making
what seems an impenetrable barrier, closing around us, threatening
to shut out the very heavens; at our feet an ever-narrowing mountain
pass or valley, the shelves of the rock running vertically down.
When at last from our dizzy height our driver bids us look down, we
discern the grey roofs of St. Énimie wedged between the congregated
escarpments far below, the little town lying immediately under our
feet, as the streets around our St. Paul's when viewed from the
dome. We say to ourselves we can never get there. The feat of
descending those perpendicular cliffs seems impossible. It does not
do to contemplate the road we have to take, winding like a ribbon
round the upright shafts of the Causse. Follow it we must. We are
high above the inhabited world, up in the clouds; there is nothing
to do but descend as best we can; so we trust to our good driver and
steady horses, obliged to follow the sharply winding road at walking
pace. And bit by bit—how we don't know—the horizontal zigzag is
accomplished. We are down at last!
How can I describe the unimaginable picturesqueness of this little
town wedged in between the crowding hills, dropped like a pebble to
the bottom of a mountain-girt gulf?
St. Énimie has grown terrace-wise, zigzagging the steep sides of the
Causse, its quaint spire rising in the midst of rows of whitewashed
houses, with steel-grey overhanging roofs, vine-trellised balconies,
and little hanging gardens perched aloft. On all sides just outside
the town are vineyards, now golden in hue, peach-trees and
almond-groves, whilst above and far around the grey walls of the
Causse shut out all but the meridian rays of the sun.
As I write this, at six o'clock in the evening, the last crimson
flush of the setting sun lingers on the sombre, grandiose Causse
Méjean. All the rest of the scene, the lower ranges around, are in a
cool grey shadow: silvery the spire and roofs just opposite my
window, silvery the atmosphere of the entire picture. Nothing can be
more poetic in colour, form, and combination.
Close under my room are vegetable gardens and orchards, whilst in
harmony with the little town, and adding a still greater look of
old-worldness, are the arched walls of the old fortress. As evening
closes in, the fascination of the scene deepens; spire and roofs,
shadowy hill and stern mountain fastness, are all outlined in pale,
silvery tones against a pure pink and opaline sky, the greenery of
near vine and peach-tree all standing out in bold relief, blotches
of greenish gold upon a dark ground. I must describe our inn, the
most rustic we had as yet met with, nevertheless to be warmly
recommended on account of the integrity and bonhomie of the people.
Somewhat magniloquently called the Hôtel St. Jean, our hostelry is
an auberge placing two tiny bedchambers and one large and presumably
general sleeping-room at the disposal of visitors. We had, as usual,
telegraphed for two of the best rooms to be had. So the two tiny
chambers were reserved for us, the only approach to them being
through the large room outside furnished with numerous beds. The
tourist, therefore, has a choice of evils—a small inner room to
himself, looking on to the town and gardens, or a bed in the large
outer one beyond, the latter arrangement offering more liberty,
freedom of ingress and egress, but less privacy. However, the rooms
did well enough. A decent bed, a table, a chair, quiet—what does the
weary traveller want beside? Doubtless all is changed by this time.
Here, as at Le Vigan, we were received with a courteous friendliness
that made up for all shortcomings. The master, a charming old man, a
member of the town council, at once accompanied me to the
post-office, where the young lady postmistress produced letters and
papers, probably the first English newspapers ever stamped with the
mark of St. Énimie. The townsfolk stared at me in the twilight, but
without offensive curiosity. I may here give a hint to future
explorers of my own sex, that it is just as well to buy one's
travelling-dress and head-gear in France. An outlandish appearance,
sure to excite observation, is thus avoided. In the meantime the
common inquiry was put to us, "What will you have for dinner?" It
really seemed as if we only needed to ask for any imaginable dish to
get it, so rich in resources was this little larder at the world's
end. The exquisite trout of the Tarn, here called the Tar; game in
abundance and of excellent quality; a variety of fruit and
vegetables—such was the dainty fare displayed in the tiny back
parlour leading out of the kitchen.
Since this romantic, adventuresome, and costly journey made twenty
years ago, the gorge or canon of the Tarn has became a favourite
French excursion. Tourist tickets, including boats, hotels, and
guides, are issued in Paris, and conducted parties now keep the
place lively during the long vacation. At the time of my visit, the
leading men of the neighbouring villages had organized a tourist
agency, mayors, town councillors and others forming a so-called "Batellerie
de St. Jean," ensuring strangers a fixed tariff, good boats, above
all experienced boatmen, for the somewhat hazardous expedition.
Had it been somewhat earlier in the year, we might perhaps have
decided to make a little stay here. But in the height of summer the
heat is torrid on the "Roof of France," in winter the cold is
arctic, and there is no autumn in the accepted sense of the word;
winter might be already at hand. We were advised by those in whose
interest it was that we should remain, to lose no time and hurry on. Having bespoken the four relays of boatmen for next day, we betook
ourselves to our little rooms, somewhat relieved by the fact that we
were the only travellers, and that the large, general bedroom
adjoining our own would be therefore untenanted. We had reckoned
without our host, the comfortable beds therein being evidently
occupied by various members of the family when the tourist season
was slack. We were composing ourselves to sleep, each in our own
chamber, when we heard the old master and mistress of the house,
with two little grandchildren, steal up-stairs, and, quiet as mice,
betake themselves to bed. Then all was hushed for the night.
Only one sound broke the stillness. Between one and two in the
morning our driver descended from his attic. A quarter of an hour
later there was a noise of wheels, pattering hoofs and harness
bells. He had started, as he told us was his intention, on his
homeward journey, traversing the dark, solitary Causse alone, with
only his lantern to show the way. Soon after five o'clock our old
host, evidently forgetting that he had such near neighbours, or
perhaps imagining that nothing could disturb weary travellers, began
to chat with his wife, and before six, one and all of the family
party had gone down-stairs. I threw open my casement to find the
witchery of last night vanished, cold grey mist enshrouding the
delicious little picture, with its grandiose, sombre background. That clinging mist seemed of evil bodement for our expedition. Ought
we to start on a long day's river journey in such weather? Yet could
I confess that there was something eerie in the isolation and
remoteness of St. Énimie. Compared to the savagery and desolation of
the Gausses, it was a little modern Babylon—a corner of Paris, a bit
of boulevard and bustle, but with such narrow accommodation, and
with such limited means of locomotion at disposal, the prospect of a
stay here in bad weather was, to say the least of it, disconcerting. We prepared in any case for a start, made our tea, and packed our
bags as briskly as if a bright sun were shining, which true enough
it was, although we could not see!
When, soon after seven o'clock, I descended to the kitchen, I found
our first party of boatmen busily engaged over their breakfast, and
all things in readiness for departure.
"The sun is already shining on the Causse," said our old host. "This
mist means fine weather. Trust me, ladies, you could not have a
We did our best to put faith in such felicitous augury. Punctually
at eight o'clock, accompanied by the entire household of the little Hôtel St. Jean, we descended to the landing-place, two minutes' walk
only from its doors.
SHOOTING THE RAPIDS
AMID many cordial
adieux we took our seats, the good town councillor having placed a
well-packed basket at the bottom of the boat. Excellent little
restaurants await the traveller at the various stations on the way,
but all anxious to arrive at their journey's end in good time will
carry provisions with them.
The heavy grey mist hung about the scene for the first hour or two,
otherwise it must have been enchanting. Even the cold, monotonous
atmosphere could not destroy the grace and smilingness of the
opening stage of our journey—sweet Allegro Gracioso to be followed
by stately Andante, unimaginably captivating Capricioso to come
next—climax of the piece—the symphony closing with gentle, tender
harmonies. Thus in musical phraseology may be described the
marvellous canon or gorge of the Tarn. Quiet as the scenery is at
the beginning of the way, without any of the sublimer features to
awe us farther on, it is yet abounding in various kinds of beauty. Above the pellucid, malachite-coloured river, at first a mere narrow
ribbon ever winding and winding, rise verdant banks, tiny vineyards
planted on almost vertical slopes, apple orchards, the bright red
fruit hanging over the water's edge, whilst willows and poplars
fringe the low-lying reaches, and here and there, a pastoral group,
some little Fadette keeps watch over her goats.
The mists rise at last by slow degrees. Soon high above we see the
sun gilding the limestone peaks on either side. Very gradually the
heavens clear, till at last a blue sky and warm sunshine bring out
all the enchantment of the scene.
The river winds perpetually between bright green banks and shining
white cliffs. Occasionally we almost touch the mossy rocks of the
shore; maidenhair fern, wild evening primrose, Michaelmas daisy,
blue pimpernel and fringed gentian are so near we can almost gather
them, and so crystal-clear the untroubled waters, that every
object—cliff, tree, and mossy stone—shows its double. We might at
times fancy ourselves but a few feet from the pebbly bottom, each
stone showing its bright clear outline. The iridescence of the
rippling water over the rainbow-coloured pebbles is very lovely.
All is intensely still, only the strident cry of the cicada, or the
tinkle of a cattle-bell, and now and then the hoarse note of some
wild bird break the stillness.
Before reaching the first stage of our journey the weather had
become glorious, and exactly suited to such an expedition. The
heavens were now of deep, warm, southern blue; brilliant sunshine
lighted up gold-green vineyard, rye-field bright as emerald, apple
orchard and silvery parapet on either side.
But these glistening crags, rearing their heads towards the blue
sky, these idyllic scenes below, are only a part of what we see. Midway between the verdant reaches of this enchanting river and its sheeny cliffs, by which we glide so smoothly, rise stage upon stage
of beauty: now we see a dazzlingly white cascade tumbling over stair
after stair of rocky ledge; now we pass islets of greenery perched
half-way between river and limestone crest, with many a combe or
close-shut cleft bright with foliage running down to the water's
Little paths, laboriously cut about the sides of the Causses on
either side, lead to the hanging vineyards, fields and orchards, so
marvellously created on these airy heights, inaccessible fastnesses
of Nature. And again and again the spectator is reminded of the
axiom: "The magic of property turns sands to gold." No other agency
could have effected such miracles. Below these almost vertical
slopes, raised a few feet only above the water's edge, cabbage and
potato beds have been cultivated with equal laboriousness, the soil,
what little of soil there is, being very fertile.
On both sides we see many-tinted foliage in abundance: the
shimmering white satin-leaved aspen, the dark rich alder, the glossy
walnut, yellowing chestnut, and many others.
Few and far between are herdsmen's cottages, now perched on the
rock, now built close to the water's edge. We can see their
vine-trellised balconies and little gardens, and sometimes pet cats
run down to the water's edge to look at us.
And all this time, from the beginning of our journey to the end, the
river winds amid the great walls of the Causses—to our left the
spurs of the Causse Méjean; to our right those of Sauveterre. We are
gradually realizing the strangeness and sublimity of these bare
limestone promontories—here columns white as alabaster—a group
having all the grandeur of mountains, yet no mountains at all, their
summits vast plateaux of steppe and wilderness, their shelving sides
dipping from cloudland and desolation into fairy-like loveliness and
St. Chély, our first stage, comes to an end in about an hour and a
half from the time of leaving St. Énimie. We now change
boatmen—punters, I should rather call them. The navigation of the
Tarn consists in skilful punting, every inch of the passage being
rendered difficult by rocks and shoals, to say nothing of the
Here our leading punter was a cheery, friendly miller—like the host
of the hotel at St. Énimie, a municipal councillor. No better
specimen of the French peasant gradually developing into the
gentleman could be found. The freedom from coarseness or vulgarity
in these amateur boatmen of the Tarn is indeed quite remarkable.
Isolated from great social centres and influences of the outer world
as they have hitherto been, there is yet no trace either of
subservience, craftiness, or familiarity. Their frank, manly bearing
is of a piece with the integrity and openness of their dealings with
CHÂTEAU DE LA CAZE
A charming château, most beautifully placed, adorns the banks of the
river between St. Chély and La Malène. Nowhere could be imagined a
lovelier holiday resort; no savagery in the scenes around, although
all is silent and solitary; park-like bosquets and shadows around;
below, long narrow glades leading to the water's edge.
At La Malène, reached about noon, we stop for half-an-hour, and
breakfast under the shade. Never before did cold pigeon, and
hard-boiled eggs, and household bread taste so delicious! Our bread
running short, our boatmen gave us large slices from their own loaf.
THE STONY WILDERNESS
On quitting this village, with its fairy-like dells, hanging woods,
and lawny spaces, the third and most magnificent stage of our
journey is entered upon, the first glimpse preparing us for marvels
to come. Smiling above the narrow dark openings in the rock are
vineyards of local renown. Here and there a silvery cascade flashes
in the distance; then a narrow bend of the river brings us in sight
of the frowning crag of Planiol crowned with massive ruins, the
stronghold of the sire of Montesquieu, who under Louis XIII.
arrested the progress of the rebellious Duke de Rohan.
For let it not be supposed that these solitudes have no history. We
must go much farther back than the seigneurial crusades of the great
Richelieu, or the wholesale exterminations of Merle, the Protestant
Alva or Attila, in the religious wars of the Cevennes—farther back
even than the Roman occupation of Gaul, when we would describe the
townlings of the Causses and the banks of the Tarn. Their story is
of more ancient date than any of recorded time. The very Causses,
stony, arid wildernesses, so unpropitious to human needs, so
scantily populated in our own day, were evidently inhabited from
remote antiquity. Not only have dolmens, tumuli, and bronze
implements been found hereabouts in abundance, but also
cave-dwellings and traces of the Age of Stone. Prehistoric man was
indeed more familiar with the geography of these regions than even
learnèd Frenchmen of to-day. When in 1879 a member of the French
Alpine Club asked the well-known geographer Joanne if he could give
him any information as to the Causses and the Cañon du Tarn, his
reply was the laconic:
"None whatever. Go and see."
It would take weeks, not days, to explore these scenes from the
archæological or geological point of view. I content myself with
describing what is in store for the tourist.
We now enter the defile or détroit, at which point grace and
bewitchingness are exchanged for sublimity and grandeur, and the
scenery of the Causses and the Tarn reach their acme. The river,
narrowed to a thread, winds in and out, forcing laborious way
between the lofty escarpments, all but meeting, yet one might almost
fancy only yesterday rent asunder.
It is as if two worlds had been violently wrenched apart, the cloven
masses rising perpendicularly from the water's edge, in some places
confronting each other, elsewhere receding, always of stupendous
proportions. What convulsive forces of Nature brought about this
severance of vast promontories that had evidently been one? By what
marvellous agency did the river force its way between? Some
cataclysmal upheaval would seem to account for such disrupture
rather than the infinitely slow processes suggested by geological
Meantime, the little boat glides amid the vertical rocks—walls of
crystal spar—shutting in the river, touching as it seems the blue
heavens; peak, parapet, ramparts taking multiform hues under the
shifting clouds, now of rich amber, now dazzlingly white, now deep
purple or roseate. And every one of these lofty shafts, so majestic
of form, so varied of hue, is reflected in the transparent green
water, the reflections softening the awful grandeur of the reality. Nothing, certes, in nature can surpass this scene; no imagination
can prefigure, no pen or pencil adequately portray it. Nor can the
future fortunes of the district vulgarize it! The Tarn, by reason of
its remoteness, its inaccessibility—and, to descend to material
considerations, its expensiveness as an excursion—can never,
fortunately, become one of the cheap peep-shows of the world.
The intense silence heightens the impressiveness of the wonderful
hour; only the gentle ripple of the water, only the shrill note of
the cicada at intervals, breaks the stillness. We seem to have
quitted the precincts of the inhabited familiar world, our way lying
through the portals of another, such as primeval myth or fairy-tale
speak of, stupendous walls of limestone, not to be scaled by the
foot or measured by the eye, hemming in our way.
The famous Cirque des Baumes may be described as a double wall lined
with gigantic caves and grottoes. Here it is the fantastic and the
bizarre that hold the imagination captive. Fairies, but fairies of eld, of giant race, have surely been making merry here! One and all
have vanished; their vast sunlit caverns, opening sheer on to the
glassy water, remain intact; high above may their dwellings be seen,
airy open chambers under the edge of the cliffs, deep corridors
winding right through the wall of rock, vaulted arcades midway
between base and peak, whence a spring might be made into the cool
waves below. All is still on a colossal scale, but playful,
Nor when we alight at the Pas de Soucis are these features wanting. Here the river, a narrow green ribbon, disappears altogether, its
way blocked with huge masses of rock, as of some mountain split into
fragments and hurled by gigantic hands from above.
The spectacle recalls the opening lines of the great Promethean
drama of the Greek poet. Truly we seem to have reached the limit of
the world, the rocky Scythia, the uninhabited desert! The bright
sunshine and balmy air hardly soften the unspeakable savagery and
desolation of the scene, fitting background for the tragedy of the
Dominating the whole, as if threatening to fall, adding chaos to
chaos, and filling up the vast chasm altogether, are two frowning
masses of rock, the one a monolith, the other a huge block. Confronting each other, tottering as it seems on their thrones, we
can fancy the profound silence broken at any moment by the crashing
thunder of their fall, only that last catastrophe needed to crown
the prevailing gloom and grandeur.
At this point we alight, our water-way being blocked for nearly a
mile. It is a charming walk to Les Vignes: to the left we have a
continuation of the rocky chaos just described, to the right a path
under the shadow of the cliffs, every rift showing maidenhair fern
and wild flowers in abundance, fragrant evening primrose, lavender,
and fringed gentian. The weather is warm as in July, and of deepest
blue the sky above the glittering white peaks. Half-way we meet the
rural postman, whose presence reminds us that we are still on the
verge of civilization, eerie as is the solitude and desolation
At Les Vignes we lose our pleasant, chatty, well-informed young
boatmen, the brothers Montginoux, and embark for the fourth and last
time. We have now to shoot the rapids.
A boat lay in readiness, two chairs being placed for us, and willow
branches in plenty below; our baskets and bundles carefully raised
so as to be above water.
We were somewhat disconcerted at the sight of our first boatman, an
agèd, bent, white-haired man, hardly, one could fancy, vigorous
enough, to say nothing of his skill, for the hazardous task of
shooting the rapids. He at once informed us that his name was Gall,
to whom the first place was given in French guide-books. Even such a
piece of information, however, hardly reassured us.
Our misgivings were set at rest by the first glance at his
"My colleague, brother of Monsieur le Maire," said the veteran,
A handsome, well-made man in his early prime, with a look of
indomitable resolution, and a keen, eagle-like glance, our second
boatman would have inspired confidence under any circumstances, or
in any crisis.
How Walt Whitman would have delighted in the manly figure before us,
from which his simple peasant's dress could not take an iota of
nobility! This French rustic, brother of a village mayor was
endowed by Nature beyond most, the spirit within—there could be no
doubt of that—matching an admirable physique. Of middle stature,
with regular features and limbs perfectly proportioned, every pose
might have served for a sculptor's model, whilst his action to-day
sufficiently indicated his fitness for weightier responsibilities
and more complex problems. Never shall I forget the study before us
during that short journey from Les Vignes to Le Rozier. The old man
we could not see, he being behind; his companion stood at the other
end of the boat facing the rapids, and having his back turned
With form erect, feet firmly planted, sinews knit, every faculty
under command, he awaited the currents.
It was a soldier awaiting the enemy, the hunter his prey.
The white crests are no sooner in sight than he seizes his pole and
stands ready for the encounter.
A moment more and we are in the midst of the eddying, rushing,
foaming rapids. We seem to have been plunged from a lake of halcyon
smoothness into a storm-lashed sea. Around us the waves rise with
menacing force; now our little boat is flooded and tossed like a
leaf on the turbulent waters; every moment it seems that in spite of
our brave boatmen we must be dashed against the rocks or carried
away by the whirlpool!
But swift and sure he strikes out to the right and to the left,
never missing his aim, never miscalculating distances by an inch,
till, like an arrow shot by dexterous archer, the little craft
reaches the calm. Whilst, indeed, it seems tossed like a shuttlecock
on the engulfing waves, it is in reality being most skilfully
piloted. The skill of the veteran at the stern was equally
remarkable. The two, of course, act in concert, both knowing the
river as folks their alphabet.
To each series of currents follows for a while a stretch of glassy
water, and we glide on deliciously. It was instructive to watch the
figure at the helm then; he laid down his pole, his limbs relaxed,
and he indulged in cigarette after cigarette, pausing to point out
any object of interest on the way.
The swirling, rushing, eddying currents once more in sight, again he
prepared himself for action, and for a few minutes the task became
Herculean, the mental strain being equally phenomenal. His keen,
swift, unerring glance never once at fault, his rapid movements
almost mechanically sure, he plied his pole, whilst lightly as a
feather our little boat danced from cascade to cascade, all but
touching the huge mossy slabs and projecting islets of rock on
There was wonderful exhilaration in this little journey. We felt
that every element of danger was eliminated by the coolness and
dexterity of our conductors, yet the sense of hazard and adventuresomeness was there! My more stout-hearted companion was a
little disappointed, would fain have had even, a more exciting
experience. It is as well to remind the traveller that these
apparently playful rapids are by no means without risks. Several are
literally cascades between rocks, hardly allowing space for the boat
to pass. Here the least imprudence or want of skill on the part of
the boatman might entail the gravest consequences. At one of the points,
indeed, a party of tourists very nearly lost their lives some
years since, their boatman being unfamiliar with the river.
The scenery changes at every turn. Just as one moment we are in
lake-like waters, smooth as a mirror, the next apparently in
mid-ocean, so we pass from sweet idyllic scenes into regions of
weird sternness and grandeur. Now we glide quietly by shady reaches
and sloping hills, alive to the very top with the tinkle of
sheep-bells; now we pass under promontories of frowning aspect, that
tower two or three thousand feet above the water's edge. The colours
of the rock, under the shifting clouds, are very beautiful, and
golden, bright and velvety the little belts and platforms of
cultivated land to be counted between base and peak. We have to
crane our necks in order to catch sight of these truly aerial fields
and gardens, all artificially created, all yet again illustrations
of the axiom: "The magic of property turns sands to gold."
Truly marvellous is the evidence of this love of the soil in a
region so wild and intractable! High above we obtain a glimpse of
some ancient village, its scrambling roofs shining amid
orchard-trees and firwoods, or an isolated chalet of goatherd or
shepherd breaks some solitude. One ruined château crests the jagged
cliffs, a real ruin among the semblances of so many!
Again and again we fancy we can descry crumbling watch-towers,
bastions, and donjons on the banks of the Tarn, so fantastic the
forms of the Causses on either side.
Soon straight before us, high above the wooded heights that hem us
in, rises the Causse Noir—dark, formidable, portentous as the rock of
Ishtakhar keeping sentinel over the dread Hall of Eblis, or the
Loadstone Mountain of the third Calender's story, which to behold
was the mariner's doom. The Causse Noir from the Tarn is a sight not
soon forgotten. With black ribs set close about its summit, it wears
rather the appearance of a colossal castellation, an enormous fort
of solid masonry, than of any natural mass of rock.
What with this spectacle, the excitement of the rapids, the varied
landscape, the study of that statuesque figure before us, the
brother of M. le Maire, this stage of the way seemed all too short. We regretted—except for the sake of our boatman—that there were not
twenty-five more rapids still to be passed before we reached our
destination. We regretted too—who could help it?—that we were not
hardy pedestrians, able to clamber amid the rocks overhead, and make
that wonderful expedition on foot described by French discoverers of
this region, M. Martel, "the Columbus of the nether world," and his
fellows. But if the half may not always prove better than the whole
in travel, at least it is better than nothing, and the day's
excursion here described had of itself amply repaid the long journey
Sorry, then, were we to come in sight of the bridge spanning the
Tarn beyond the village of Le Rozier. Just eight hours after quitting
St. Énimie we alighted for the last time, and, following our
boatmen, took a winding path that led to the village.
It was a scene of quiet, pastoral beauty that now met our eyes. The
Tarn, its sportive mood over, the portals of its magnificent gorge
closed, now flows amid sunny hills, quitting the wild Lozère for the
more placid Aveyron; immediately around us being little farmsteads,
water-mills, and gardens, whilst opposite, like a black
thunder-cloud threatening a summer day, the Causse Noir looms in the
THE WINDING TARN
AFTER a day of
gloom and downpour the weather became again perfect—no burning sun,
no cold wind; instead, we had a pearly heaven with shifting sunlight
and cloud, and the softest air.
The carriage-roads of the Lozère are a good preparation for
ascending Mont Blanc or the Eiffel Tower.
Here we seem to be perpetually going up or coming down in a
balloon; and to persons afflicted with giddiness, each day's
excursion, however delightful, takes the form of a nightmare when
one's head rests on the pillow. For days, nay, weeks after
these drives on the "Roof of France," my sleep was haunted with
giddy climbs and still giddier descents. It was the price I
had to pay for some of the most glowing experiences of my
much-travelled life. The journey to Montpellier-le-Vieux
formed no exception to the rule. Happy, thrice happy, those
who can foot it merrily all the way!
The pedestrian has by far the easier task. Throughout
the two hours' drive thither, and the somewhat shorter journey back,
the horses had to crawl at a snail's pace, their hoofs being within
an inch or two of the steep incline as the sharp curves of the
corkscrew road are turned. The road in many places is very
rough and encumbered with stones; and there is a good deal of
clambering to be done at the last. Let none but robust
travellers therefore undertake this expedition, whether by carriage
or on foot.
Our landlord drove us, much to our satisfaction; his horses,
steadiest of the steady, his little dog trotting beside us, sniffing
the air joyously, as if he too were a tourist in search of
exhilaration and adventure.
Over against Le Rozier, towering high above Peyreleau, its
twin village, rises a sharp pyramidal spur of the Causse Noir, its
shelving sides running vertically down. That mountain wall,
impracticable as it seems, we have to scale.
The road cut so marvellously round it is excellent, wild
lavender scenting the way. As we wind slowly upwards we see an
old bent woman filling a sack with the flowery spikes for sale.
Thus the Causse, not in one sense but many, is the breadwinner of
the people. We follow this zigzag path westward, leaving
behind us sunny slopes covered with peach-trees, vineyards, gardens
and orchards, till flourishing little Le Rozier and its neglected
step-sister, Peyreleau, are hidden deep below, dropped, as it seems,
into the depths of a gulf.
DOLMEN DE ST. GERMAIN
An hour's climb and we are on the plateau, where the good
road is quitted, and we take a mere cart-track between pastures,
rye-fields, and woods of Scotch fir. So uneven and blocked
with stones is the road here, that the poorest walker will soon be
glad to get down. The deliciousness of the air, and the
freshness of the scenery, however, soon make us insensible to bodily
fatigue. Every minute we obtain wider and grander horizons,
the three causses being now in view, their distant sides shining
like gigantic walls of crystal; deep blue shadows here and there
indicating the verdant clefts and valleys we know of. All
lightness and glitter are the remoter surfaces; all warm colour and
depth of tone the nearer undulations. What a wealth of colour;
what incomparable effects for an artist!
The prospect now increases in wildness, and we seem gradually
to leave behind the familiar world. We are again in the midst
of a stony wilderness, but a wilderness transformed into a fairy
region of beauty and charm.
Nothing can be softer, more harmonious, more delicate than
the soft grey tints of the limestone against the pure heaven; every
bit of rock being tapestried with the yellowing box leaf, or made
more silvery still with the flowers of the wild lavender.
East, west, north, south, the lines of billowy curves in the
far distance grow vaster, till we come in sight of what seems indeed
a colossal city towering westward over the horizon; a city well
built, girt round with battlements, bristling with watch-towers,
outlined in gold and amethyst upon a faint azure sky.
It is our first glimpse of Montpellier-le-Vieux.
The jolting now becomes excessive; we leave our carriage,
conductor and little dog to follow a traverse leading to Maubert,
the farmhouse and auberge where are to be had guides, food, and
bedchambers for those who want them.
We could not miss the way, our driver said, and woe betide us
if we had done so. We seem already to have found the city of
rocks, the famous Cité du Diable; so labyrinthine these streets,
alleys, and impasses of natural stone, so bewildering the
chaos around us. For my own part, I could not discern the
vestige of a path, but my more keen-eyed companion assured me that
we were on the right track, and her assertion proved to be correct.
After a laborious picking of our path amid the pêle-mêle of jumbled
stones, we did at last, and to our great joy, catch sight of a bit
of wall. This was Maubert; a square, straggling congeries of
buildings approached from behind, and of no inviting aspect. A
dunghill stood in front of the house, and hens, pigs, and the
friendliest dogs in the world disported themselves where the
flower-garden ought to have been. At first the place seemed
altogether deserted. We knocked, shouted, ran hither and
thither in vain. By and by crawled forth, one after the other,
three ancient, witch-like women, staring at us and mumbling words we
could not understand. On nearer inspection they seemed worthy
old souls enough, evidently members of the household; but as their
amount of French was scant, they hurried indoors again. A few
minutes later a young, handsome, untidy housewife popped her head
from an upper window, and seeing that we were tourists, immediately
came down-stairs to welcome us.
She would send for her husband to act as guide at once, she
said; in the meantime, would we breakfast?
The farmhouse, turned into a hostelry, only required a little
outlay and cosmopolitan experience to be transformed into quite a
captivating health resort. If, indeed, health is not to be
recruited on these vast, flower-scented heights, nearly three
thousand feet above the sea-level, swept clean by the pure air of
half-a-dozen mountain chains, where may we hope to find
Even now non-fastidious tourists may be fairly comfortable.
A large, perfectly wholesome upper dining-room; bedrooms containing
excellent beds; a farmhouse ordinary with game in abundance;
courteous, honest hosts, and one of the marvels of the natural world
within a stroll—surely scores of worn-out brain workers would regard
Maubert as a paradise, in spite of trifling drawbacks.
We found a pleasant young French tourist with his
blue-bloused guide eating omelettes in the salle-à-manger.
Soon the master of the house came up—a young man of perhaps
twenty-five—as well favoured as his wife, and much neater in
appearance. This youthful head of the family possesses a large
tract of Causse land, besides owning in great part what may prove in
the future—is, indeed, already proving—a mine of wealth, an El
Dorado, namely, the city of rocks, Montpellier-le-Vieux.
We now set out, our host, whilst quite ready to talk,
possessing all the dignity and reserve of the Lozérien mountaineer.
As we sauntered through patches of oats, rye, potatoes, and hay, I
obtained a good deal of information about rural affairs.
Chatting thus pleasantly, we come nearer and nearer the city,
painted in violet tints against an azure sky, to find it, as we
approach, a splendid phantasmagoria. What we deemed citadels,
domes and parapets, proved to be the silvery dolomite only:
limestone rock thrown into every conceivable form, the imposing
masses blocking the horizon; the shadow of a mighty Babylon
darkening the heaven; but a Babylon untenanted from its earliest
beginning—a phantom capital, an eldritch city, whose streets at last
echo with the sound of human voice and tread!
I do not know how Montpellier-le-Vieux would look on a dull,
grey day; doubtless imagination would people it then with gnomes,
horrid afrits, and shapes of fear. To-day, under an exquisite
sky, pearly clouds floating across the blue, a soft southern air
wafting the fragrance of wild pink, thyme and lavender, it was a
region surely peopled by good genii, sportive elves and beneficent
fairies only. We were in a phantasmal world; but a world of
witchery and poetic thrall.
The Cité du Diable unfolds its marvels all at once, as soon
as the traveller has entered its precincts. Before us rose the
colossal citadel so-called, pyramid upon pyramid rock, which our
guide said we must positively climb, the grandest panorama being
here obtained; a bit of a scramble, he added, but a mere bagatelle,
the affair of a few minutes only.
We were at the foot of a chaotic wall of enormous blocks,
piled one upon the other, with deep, ugly fissures between—the
height, from base to summit, that of St. Paul's Cathedral. In
order to reach even the lower platform of these superimposed masses
it was necessary to be hoisted up after the manner of travellers
ascending the Pyramids, only with this disadvantage—that holding on
to the rocks where any hold was possible, and planting the feet as
firmly as was practicable on the almost vertical sides—we had here
to bestride chasm after chasm.
The climbing, beyond a somewhat breathless scrambling and
painful straining of the limbs, was nothing to speak of. For a
few moments I could revel in the marvellous spectacle before me.
Lying on a little platform, perhaps two yards square, under
the bright heavens, I had, far around and beneath, the wide panorama
of the dolomite city, vista upon vista of tower and monolith,
avenues, arches, bridges, arcades, all of cool, tender grey amid
fairy-like verdure and greenery. Not Lyons itself, seen from
the heights of La Fourvière, shows a more grandiose aspect than this
capital of the waste, unpeopled by either the living or the dead!
Hardly had I realized the magic of the prospect when I became
conscious of frightful giddiness. The flowery shelf of rock on
which I lay was only a foot or two removed from the edge of the
piled mass just climbed so laboriously, and, sloping downwards,
seemed to invite a fall. From this side the incline was almost
vertical, and the turf below at a distance of over a hundred feet.
No descent was practicable except by bestriding the same fissures,
two feet wide, and clinging to the sides of the rocks, as before.
I now felt that terrible vertigo which I am convinced accounts for
so many so-called suicides from lofty heights. To throw myself
down seemed the only possible relief from the terrible nightmare.
Had I been longer alone I must, at least, have allowed myself to
slip off my resting-place, with certain risk to life and limb.
As it was, I called to my companion, who had scaled another
storey—had, indeed, reached the topmost shelf of the citadel; and
she tripped down looking so airy and alert that I felt ashamed of my
Reassuring me as best he could, our guide now grasped one of
my hands, with the other got a strong grip of the rock, and the
first dreaded step was achieved. The second presented greater
difficulties still. Once more he tried to carry me, but found the
task beyond his strength. So, shutting out the prospect beneath, I
allowed myself to be dragged down somehow, never more to venture on
such giddy heights. The incomparable view had been dearly purchased.
All had ended well, however, and I could once more enjoy the
scene. When the first bewilderment of wonder and admiration is
over; when the fantastic city no longer appears a vision, but a
reality, pile upon pile of natural rock so magically cast in the
form of architecture, we realize countless beauties unperceived at
first. The intense limpidity and crystalline clearness of the
atmosphere, the brilliance of the limestone, the no less dazzling
hue of the foliage everywhere adorning it, the beautiful lights and
shadows of the more distant masses, line upon line of far-off
mountain chain, mere gold and violet clouds rising above the rugged
outline of the Causses, the deep, rich tones of the nearer—these
general effects are not more striking than the details close under
our feet. About every fragment of rock is a wealth of leaves,
flowers and berries, the dogwood and bilberry with their crimson and
purple clusters and tufts, wild lavender and thrift, whilst the
ground is carpeted with the leaf of the hepatica.
We found also the pretty purple and white toad-flax, [Linaria
versicolor] the handsome gold-flowered spurges [Euphorbia,
sylvatica and E. cyparissea], the elegant orange and
crimson-streaked salvia, [Salvia glutinosa] with others more
familiar to us. If the adorer of wild flowers is a happy
person here in September, what enchantment would await him in the
spring! Like the Russian Steppes and the African Metidja,
these wastes are then a mosaic of blossom. The foot-sure,
hardy and leisurely traveller must not content himself with the
bird's-eye view of this dolomite city just described. He
should spend hours, nay, days here, if he would conscientiously
explore the stone avenues, worthy to be compared to Stonehenge or
Carnac; the amphitheatre, vast as that of Nimes or Orange; the
fortifications, with bulwarks, towers, and ramparts; the necropolis,
veritable Cerameicus, or Père-la-Chaise; the citadel, the forum, the
suburbs; for the enthusiastic discoverers of Montpellier-le-Vieux,
or the Cité du Diable, have made out all these.
The most striking rocks have been fancifully named after the
celebrated structures they resemble. We find the Château
Gaillard, the Sphinx, the Gate of Mycenæ, or of the Lions, the
Street of Tombs supposed to resemble Pompeii, all of colossal
dimensions. Thus the citadel measures a hundred and fifty feet
from the ground, at this point Montpellier-le-Vieux attaining an
altitude of two thousand five hundred feet above the sea-level.
When I add that the Cité du Diable measures nearly two miles in
length and a mile in breadth, and that its city and suburbs,
so-called, cover a thousand hectares, an area a third less than that
of Windsor Forest, the enterprising tourist will have some feeble
notion of the waste before him. The place is indeed altogether
indescribable—surely one of the most striking testimonies to the
force of erosion existing on the earth's surface. The
explanation of the phenomenon is found here. At a remote
period of geological history the action of mighty torrents let loose
sculptured these fantastic and grandiose monoliths, bored these
arcades and galleries, hollowed these fairy-like caves.
Erosion has been the architect of the Cité du Diable, partly by
impetuous floods, partly by slow filtration. Water has
gradually, and in the slow process of ages, built up the whole, then
vanished altogether. Nothing strikes the imagination more than
the absolute aridity of the region now. Not a drop left in the
bed of ancient lake or river, not a crystal thread trickling down
the rock channelled by ancient cascades, and nevertheless abundance
of greenery and luxuriant foliage everywhere! The waterless
world of stone is not only a garden, but a green forest!
Immediately around us flowers, ferns, and shrubs adorn every bit of
silvery-grey rock, whilst wherever space admits we see noble trees,
pines, oaks, beeches, some of marvellous growth, yet perched on
heights so remote and lofty as to appear mere tufts of grass.
PORTE DE MYCÈNE
And then the wonderful deliciousness and invigorating quality
of the air! Like tasting the waters of the Nile, it is an
experience never to be forgotten.
Those, indeed, who have once breathed the air of the Lozère
will have only one desire: to breathe it again.
True, Montpellier-le-Vieux, departmentally speaking, is in
the Aveyron, if so phantom-like a city can be said to have a local
habitation and a name. But the Lozère chain is still in sight;
its breezes are wafted to us; we seem still in what is perhaps the
most picturesque department of the eighty-seven.
The fine prospect framing in Montpellier-le-Vieux is best
appreciated as we walk back to the farm, our mind not then being
full of expectancy. What a superb coup d'œil!
Distance upon distance, one mountain range rising above another,
almost in endless succession, the various stages showing infinite
gradation of colour—subtle, distracting, absolutely unpaintable!
No wonder the air is unspeakably fresh and exhilarating, seeing that
it blows north, south, east and west from lofty Alps. We have
in view the sombre walls of the three Causses, the wide outline of
the Larzac, in a vast semicircle the western spurs of the Cévennes,
whilst from east to west stretch the Cantal chain.
The drive back to Le Rozier is another balloon descent from
the clouds. With St. Énimie, the little town lies,
figuratively speaking, at the bottom of a well, and as we approach
we could almost drop a plummet-line on to the house-tops. It
is a dizzy drive, and many will shut their eyes as their horses'
hoofs turn the sharp curves of the precipitous mountain sides, only
an inch or two between wheel and precipice.
The road between Le Rozier and Millau is delightful, the
verdure and brilliance of valley being in striking contrast with the
dark-ribbed Causse Noir frowning above. For two-thirds of the
way we follow the Tarn as it winds—here a placid stream—amid
poplars, willows, and smooth green reaches. Gracious and
lovely the shifting scenes of the landscape around, stern and
magnificent of aspect the Causse, its ramparts as of iron girding it
round, its gloomy escarpments showing deep clefts and combes, lines
of purply gold and green breaking the grey surface.
Close under this mighty shadow—a bit of fairyland by the
dwelling of evil genii—are sunny little lawns, peach-groves,
orchards, and terraced villages.
As we approach Millau we meet streams of country folk
disporting themselves, some afoot, others in rustic vehicles, the
men wearing clean blue blouses over the Sunday broadcloth, the women
neat black gowns, kerchiefs, and spotless white coiffes. The
fields are deserted. Man and beast are resting from the
labours of the week.
The landscape now changes altogether, and we are reminded
that we have quitted the Lozère for the Aveyron. The air has
lost the matchless purity and exhilarating briskness of Sauveterre
and Montpellier-le-Vieux. Alike sky, atmosphere, and
vegetation recall the south. Pink and white oleanders bloom
before every door; the quince, the mulberry, the peach, ripen in
every garden. We long to get at our boxes and exchange woollen
travelling-dresses for cottons and muslins.
Pleasant and welcome as is this soft air, this warm heaven,
this bright, rich-coloured, flowery land, we strain our eyes to get
a last glimpse of the Causse Noir. To betake ourselves to
cosmopolitan hotels, cities and railways, after this sojourn in
elfdom, was like closing the pages of the Arabian Nights or
the Fables of Pilpay for a newspaper!
As yet, however, we were far from conventionalities. I
had set my heart upon revisiting Rodez and Vic-sur-Cère; once again,
therefore, I circumambulated to Clermont-Ferrand; this time,
however, not halting at Aurillac, a centre of the Cantal
fromagerie, or cheese-making, and from that point of view
Rodez is superbly situated on a lofty, sunny plateau,
surrounded by hills and far mountain chains; but between these and
the city, which is almost encircled by the Aveyron, lies a broad
belt of fertile country, the soil of a deep claret colour.
Just as Venice should be approached by sea at dawn, so all
travellers should reach Rodez at sunset.
Never shall I forget the first enchanting view of its
glorious cathedral that September afternoon of the year before, the
three-storeyed tower of flamboyant Gothic dominating the vast
landscape, the rich red stone flushed to a warmer dye, the noble
masonry of the whole glowing with the lustre and solidity of copper
against the clear heavens.
This lofty, triple-terraced tower is called the marvel of
Southern France, and no wonder. The cathedral of Antwerp
itself is not more captivatingly lightsome and lovely. High
above the ancient city, with its encompassing river and
wide-stretched plain, confronting the far-off mountains, almost on a
level with their summits, visible from afar as a lighthouse in
mid-ocean, rises this belfry of Rodez.
Certain places, as well as certain individualities, exercise
extraordinary fascination. The old capital of Rouergne, and
later of the Comté of Rodez, is one. Many and many a French
city I have visited of far greater architectural and historic
importance; Poitiers among these, Troyes is another; yet I should
never go out of my way to revisit Poitiers or Troyes, whilst certain
other French cities I have visited year after year. Great was
my delight to find a new, cheerful, spick-and-span hotel, that had
been opened since my former visit. The time-honoured house of
Biney has two credentials worthy of mention—very low charges and
good food. Its modern rival has greater claims upon the
wayfarer's gratitude—pleasant, wholesome rooms, neat chambermaids,
and the kind of modernization so necessary to health and comfort.
The Hôtel Flouron, too, was presided over by a lady, and when we
have said this we have implied a good deal.
A grand old town is the capital of the Aveyron. We must
see it again and again to realize its superb position and the unique
splendour of its cathedral, towering over the wide landscape as our
own Ely Cathedral over the eastern plains. To-day it was not
flushed with the flaming red and gold of sunset, as when first gazed
at by me, but its aspect was perhaps all the more grandiose for
From both extremities of the town we obtain vast panoramas,
looking down as if from a mountain top; the plateau or isthmus on
which Rodez stands being two hundred and fifty feet above the
circumjacent plain, the river Aveyron almost cutting it off from the
Vic-sur-Cère, our next halting-place, is an earthly paradise,
a primitive Eden, as yet unspoiled by fashion and utilitarianism.
When we arrived, we had the entire place to ourselves—inn,
river-side walks, and dazzlingly green hills. No palm island
in mid-Pacific could offer a sweeter, more pastoral halting-place.
It is indeed a perfect little corner of earth, beauty of the quiet
kind here reaching its acme; and neither indoors nor abroad is there
any drawback to mar the traveller's enjoyment.
From the windows of our hotel, close to the station, we enjoy
a prospect absolutely flawless; Nature in one of her daintiest moods
is here left to herself. The inn stands amid its large
vegetable, fruit and flower gardens; looking beyond these, we see
the prettiest little town imaginable nestled in a beautiful valley,
around it rising romantic crags, wooded heights, and gentle slopes,
fresh and verdant as if the month were May. Through the smooth
meadows between the encompassing hills winds the musically-named
stream, the Iraliot, and from end to end the broad expanse of green
is scented with newly-mown hay. The delightful scenery, the
purity of the air, the excellent quality of the waters, ought to
turn Vic-sur-Cère into a miniature Vichy. Fortunately for us,
such had not as yet been the case, and the simple, straightforward
character of the people was still unspoiled by contact with the
outer world. "Everybody can get a livelihood here," we were
told by an intelligent resident; "only the idle, the drunkard, and
the thriftless need come to want."
Vagrancy is altogether absent; the children are neatly
dressed and very clean; the men and women have all a look of
cheerful independence as they toil on their little farms or mind
their small flocks and herds.
How kindly the good folks of the homely Hôtel du Pont
welcomed their guest of the year before, filling my basket at
departure with gifts of flowers, fruit, and little cheeses, begging
me to return the following summer!
With what reluctance we bade them farewell and took train to