Unfrequented France III.

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PART III.

FROM CLERMONT-FERRAND TO LA ROCHELLE, NANTES AND ANGERS


CHAPTER XV.

ROUND ABOUT CLERMONT-FERRAND


ENCIRCLED by pleasant green hills and purple volcanic ranges, with leisurely breathing space around its dark grey cathedral towering high above gloomy piles of masonry, this sombre city wears perpetual mourning amid a bright and glowing landscape.  The pierre de Volvic, or grey lava of which it is built has, however, for artistic eyes a strange fascination, whether seen from near or afar.  Not on the most dazzling midsummer day are the eyes of the tourist blinded by glare here, and the harmonious greys of the building stone is relieved everywhere by that picturesque window-gardening so well understood in France.

    Nowhere is the art carried to greater perfection than at Clermont, where the humblest attic-dormer is turned into a flowery nook, and where, with two or three bits of wood nailed together, the poorest contrives to transform his grenier window into a bower of blossoms and greenery, delighting all eyes.  This passion for flowers vanquishes all difficulties, small and great.  The wayside cobbler, whose tenement is a mere shed, contrives by means of a trellised bean or convolvulus, and, may be, a pot or two of carnation, to brighten and beautify his poor dwelling; the small shopkeeper turns the angle of his doorway into a rockery, twines his climbing plants around his wooden lattice, and, once there, they go on blooming all the summer.

    Above on the airiest perch, below on the street pavement, midway making of each balcony a garden terrace, are to be found flowers and foliage, the glorious roseate oleander and creamy magnolia being the favourites of richer flower-lovers.  There are streets in Clermont which positively remind you of river-banks in Algeria, so unbroken is the flush of rose-pink afforded by oleanders in rich bloom.

    All the plants are, of course, in pots, and removed in winter.

    If, as Lucretius wrote, and Menander before him, "It is pleasant from a distance to contemplate the sea, being free from the dangers of sailing on its waves," a more certain and disinterested joy arises from the contemplation of fatiguing, hazardous exploits performed in our halcyon days.  To have footed an upward climb of sixteen hundred feet may appear a bagatelle hardly worth noting to the Alpinist, but to ordinary folks—especially folks whose "breathing time of the day" is limited to an hour or two's stroll on the level—it is a positive achievement, a life-long elation.

    It was early in August 1878 that for the first time I visited Clermont-Ferrand, enjoying till my departure, a month later, unbroken tropical weather.  Joining a dear young friend—alas! no more—whose husband was in garrison at the city, and whose brother, a medical student, had gone thither for his vacation, I made one of a delightful family party.

    Of course, no one visits Clermont without making the ascent of the Puy de Dôme (4,805 feet).  Let the weather be tropic, arctic, or Scotch, to the top of that mountain you must go.

    I was favoured both as to weather and company, the day chosen for our excursion being just perfect, and my companion, the young medical student before named, instructed, charming, now a consulting physician in Paris with an almost grown-up son, and still my fast friend.  At eight o'clock we started in an open carriage, taking our breakfast with us, and both disposed to make the most of our day's pleasure.

    What a wonderful drive is that from the volcanic built city to the base of the great volcanoes which emitted flame and fire before the first cavemen were making their flint instruments in Dordogne!  The æons of time we have to go over in our minds before arriving at the life of these extinct volcanoes takes one's breath away!  It is supposed by some geologists that the great volcanic epoch of Central France was coeval with the formation of the Alps; and yet although the active period is lost in the past cycles of time, on every side we have traces of it; we might indeed, from the scoriæ and cinders scattered about the base of the volcanoes, imagine ourselves in the proximity of Mount Vesuvius.

    On this uphill drive we soon get a fine view of Clermont, with its grand old cathedral rising proudly and gloomily above the city.  Winding slowly upward amid cornfields, vineyards, and rocky banks, we gradually obtain a clearer view of the country, and the majestic outline of the Puy de Dôme, with its twin dome, of which the proverb says—


"Si Dôme était sur Dôme,
 On verrait les portes de Rome."


    It is a laborious two hours' zigzag for the horses to the base of the mountain, each turn giving finer views of the volcanic ranges before us—the distant plain of La Limagne and far-away outlines of the dim Cévennes.

    To my thinking these panoramic mountain ranges, to-day blue and vapoury as cloudland, are lovelier than Switzerland.  On reaching the halting-place, we decided at once to mount; and all travellers here should follow our example, carrying their breakfast to the mountain top with them.  By this arrangement the heat of the meridian sun and much extra fatigue is avoided.  A superb climb we had, brilliant sunshine, cloudless sky, but a fresh, invigorating air.

    The sides of the Puy at this season are covered with a great variety of wild flowers, yellow foxgloves, the large yellow gentian, deliciously fragrant fringed dianthus of all shades, from the delicatest rose pink to the deepest rose, everywhere the air being sweet with them; then there are great varieties of exquisite heaths and campanulas, and lovely little deep orange potentillas and hawkweeds.  Nothing is more delightful than to stand below one of the sharp ridges of the Puy, rising boldly against the deep-blue sky; and from lofty summit to base, you see fringes of exquisite flowers, their fragility and brightness contrasting strikingly with the rugged sombreness and severity of the mountain.  All around us lie masses of scoriæ, reminding us that we are among the great extinct volcanoes of Central France.  Looking down on the line of the Dômes below, we see clearly enough the shape of the original craters, that of the Puy de Pariou being conspicuous.

    We bivouacked on a breezy hill-side, and breakfasted in the highest spirits, myself feeling no less frisky than my youthful companion.  How well I remember the excellent flavour of the light wine alternately drunk from his folding leather drinking-cup!  And the cold chicken and fruit and new bread, did ever such viands have so excellent a taste!

    Meantime party after party of tourists followed us, and the broad summit soon wore the aspect of a vast picnic.  The atmosphere was transparent enough for us to make out the different features of the wonderful panorama around us—the vast range of the Dômes, the Mont Dore and the Pic de Sancy towering above the rest; southward the Velay and the Cévennes, eastward the Jura range, westward Clermont with its environment of vine-clad hills and villages dotted here and there, farther westward still, the plain of Limagne.  My companion told me that, when on this spot a few years before, he had found among the Roman ruins Gallo-Roman coins and fragments of pottery.  Now nothing is to be obtained by the most persistent searcher.  It is the geologist who will especially find interest and occupation here.

    At the little restaurant attached to the State observatory, we saw a dozen or more superb St. Bernard dogs.  These noble creatures enjoy entire indolence at this season of the year, but during the winter—which often lasts from September till April —they are occupied, as in Switzerland, with the rescue of snow-bound travellers.

    Resting here a while, we talked of the great Pascal who at twelve worked out the problems of Euclid by himself, and on this spot made his tremendous discoveries; later in life to be "twice converted," from which periods dated the gloom and sacerdotalism darkening his life and hastening his end.  His mediævalism went so far that in his later years he wore a spiked girdle pressing into his flesh when tempted to pleasant thoughts!

 

VIEW FROM THE PUY DE DÔME


    Our descent after this halt was easy and pleasant enough, and we could afford to look with a superior air on those ill-advised travellers who had first stayed to breakfast below, and were now toiling upward in the heat of the day, hot and dispirited.

    "Is it much higher?" they asked of us, as we jauntily skipped down, and we were bound to shake our heads solemnly and answer in the affirmative.  At every turn we were obliged to pause and admire the delicate beauty of the mountain sides, velvety green, and fringed with the loveliest crimson and rose-coloured pinks, filling the air with fragrance.

    On our arrival at the starting-place we found many family groups breakfasting under the trees.  The ascent was evidently a favourite excursion, not only to the rich, but of all classes, some making it bravely on foot from Clermont.

    I do not know why the Puy de Dôme should be my favourite mountain, but so it is.  Never did it look lovelier than when ten years later I looked back from the train on my way to Lyons, as with its sister volcanoes, pyramid upon pyramid of warm purple, it towered above the green Limagne; gradually the lower heights receded from view, at last nothing was left but that solitary dome of amethyst under the golden heaven.

    Thiers, the Ville Noire of George Sand's perfect little novel so called, should be visited by all sojourners at Clermont-Ferrand.  The railway takes you thither in an hour and a half, and you come upon it suddenly at the last.  Never surely was a little town of knife-grinders and scissors-makers so superbly situated!  Its site is worthy of a Granada or at least of a cathedral city.  Instead, however, of cresting spires and noble towers, these grand heights, commanding the vast Limagne, are crowned with modest cottage ornés of retired or flourishing artisans; whilst sheer below—you might almost drop a plummet line from the upper town to the lower—are massed together busy workshops beside a rocky ravine, amid which curls and tosses an ink-black little river, turning thousands of mill-wheels as it goes.  George Sand well christened Thiers the Black Town, for it is as black as black can be, its prevailing inkiness being all the more striking by comparison with the velvety green and gold framework of vineyard and garden.  The building materials, whatever may have been their original colour, are now besooted with the smoke of successive ages; the river rushes by Tartarean as these, whilst the toilers, alike men, women and children, are begrimed with the dust of their smelting-fires and grinding-wheels.  In the upper town, therefore, the stranger finds himself amid such warm blue skies and gold-green luxuriance as call up a vision of the Homeric Islands of the Blest, whilst lower down he finds narrow little streets into which the sun cannot penetrate in the longest days of the year, veritable dens of Vulcan and the Cyclops.

    We see just such luxuriant vineyards and glades anywhere in France; but where shall we find a place so matchlessly black, weird, and picturesque as this capital of knife-grinders?

 

THIERS


    Descending from the railway station and the hills, whence we have a vast prospect of the plain, the range of the Mont Dore, the Dômes, with Clermont-Ferrand below, and dozens of townlets and villages scattered amid the cornfields and vineyards, we may take any one of the score of little streets, steep as ladders placed against a wall, to the Ville Noire below.  Each and every one of these precipitous descents conduct us from the open heavens and broad landscape warm with sunshine to subterranean, almost preternatural darkness, animated with the sound of a thousand hammers and mill-wheels.  Only on the topmost storeys of these gloomy factories are seen scarlet-runners and ivy, in sunny openings even roses and geraniums, pathetic bits of window gardening.

    Immediately bordering the dwarf and foamy Tartarus we see more caverns, picturesque in effect, the funereal background relieved by the glow of the smithy.  Here all day long sit men and women polishing knife-and-scissor-blades, wearing a strange look of dignity and patience.  Outside the town are pleasant open spaces where the agèd sun themselves and the bantlings play amid flowers and trees.  As elsewhere throughout France, toil has here a cheerful side.

    Another ancient little town is Mont-Ferrand, so imposingly crowned by its fine church that from the railway it might be taken for some small cathedral city.  Like Clermont, it is lava-built and sombre to the eye.  Formerly a rival of Clermont itself, relics of its vanished splendour still remain to charm the sketcher—rich old Renaissance hotels, dilapidated it may be, yet both within and without abounding in massive sculptures and elaborate decorations; inner courts with winding stone staircases, having open embrasures, carved portals and pinnacles, each decayed dwelling-place still bearing its owner's arms and heraldic decorations over the principal entrance.  These are now let off in tenements to the very poorest, and as you wander through the streets of Mont-Ferrand, do not fail to follow the first witchlike-looking old woman who beckons you within.  She is certain to have some delightfully picturesque interior to show you, and will feel amply rewarded by the gift of a few sous.  As she mouths and mumbles in the incomprehenible patois of the country, and is weird aspect, you may hesitate; but follow boldly, and she will not fail to give you more than your money's worth.

    At the time of which Fléchier wrote his entertaining and instructive volume, Les Grands Jours d'Auvergne, Clermont and Mont-Ferrand appear to have been of almost equal importance, for he describes the site of a country-house placed midway between the two thus: "We see from it in the distance two towns which seem there placed on purpose to do honour to this spot."  Mont-Ferrand is now a mere suburban village.

    On this Sunday afternoon all the world, having attended mass in the morning, was out disporting itself.  An annual fair was being held here, and we met streams of pedestrians and all kinds of cumbersome old vehicles bringing in peasants from remote districts.  And as a background to this animated scene, to rejoice our eyes, were the sloping vineyards around, beyond these the great mountain range of Central France, palest violet against a cool grey sky.

 

ÉGLISE D'ARS, ÎLE DE RÉ


    Riom is another charming little town of quite another kind within easy reach of Clermont.  Here all is exquisite cleanliness, trimness, and even elegance.

    Despite its many attractions, Clermont-Ferrand is not one of my Lieblings Oerter, or favourite spots, as the Germans say.  It is a dreary city, and the townsfolk have not the traditional engagingness of their nation.  Strangers are regarded as so many additions or addings-up of hotel and restaurant proprietors; not, as elsewhere, in the light of welcome guests.  The place fascinates, but with an eeriness that forbids regret at bidding it farewell.  Here, however, this important link in my long round could not be passed over.


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CHAPTER XVI.

TO NANTES BY WAY OF BORDEAUX, LA ROCHELLE, LES SABLES D'OLONNE, AND MONTAIGU


FROM Clermont-Ferrand the traveller may continue his round, some of the most wonderful sites and cities in all France being taken by the way—Limoges, Périgneux, with its mosque-like cathedral—not omitting thence to visit the island-town of Brantôme—Brive, starting-point for Rocamadour and the underground lakelets and rivers of Padirac,—still continuing in a south-westerly direction till he reaches Bordeaux.

    The first-named sites I have fully described elsewhere, and the great seaport of the Gironde, in which I have spent enchanted days, does not come within my present venue.

    One impression, however, is given here.  Whenever found possible, we should betake ourselves to water-ways in France, only by this means can we realize the immense variety of its aspects.  Every city, town or townling may be made a centre of excursions by water, and where steamers and boats are not available, there are the barges.  By canals alone, a delightful if somewhat leisurely survey of the entire country is possible, barge-folk being very hospitable to accredited strangers.

    Whilst at Bordeaux the lover of the grandiose will do well to take one of the little steamers plying between the city and Lormont, five miles lower down on the opposite bank of the river.  By this means a rapid but unforgettable view is obtained of the noble sea-front of Bordeaux—none in the world nobler, it is said by those able to judge—three miles of handsome quays, crowded with shipping, flags of all nations flying from the masts, proudly dominating all the superb clock towers of the cathedral and St. Michel.  The well-filled little steamer dashes away at an astonishingly rapid rate: soon the great panorama of the majestic city, bridge and spires and housetops fade into mere silhouette—delicate amber pencillings against the soft golden sky.

 

ST. GEORGES-DE-DIDONNE


    We glide past quays and quays, passing close under the keel of many a noble vessel at anchor—now one of the magnificent steamers, carrying a thousand passengers, that trade between Bordeaux and the Brazils; now a timber-bearing vessel from Norway; now we see the familiar Union Jack floating over some more modern craft from Liverpool.

    And crowded as are these vessels, one against the other, the broad, swift-flowing Gironde has room enough for all.  As we approach Lormont, where it widens out to meet the sea, the current becomes more rapid still—it seems as if the steamer were hurried on against its will.

    The green slopes of the country here entice to a climb, and fine views are obtained from the top.  But we arrived only just in time to catch the last boat returning to Bordeaux that evening.  Instead of a panorama lighted up by sunset glow, however, we saw something equally beautiful.  The full moon—the moon of the Gironde—no silvery splendour, but a ball of fire—rose in glory, and the effect on every feature of the scene was magical.  Mast, keel, figure-head of the vessels passed by, stood out in dark relief against the blue, translucent heavens, the river shone steely bright; whilst the quays, bristling with masts, and the dimly outlined city made up a background mysterious and imposing.

    From Bordeaux, seat not only of shipping and commerce, but of art, music, and the finest cookery in the world, the traveller may take rail or river to Royan, and sweet little Georges-de-Didonne.  That once primitive resort, rendered famous by Michelet in La Mer, having been described by me elsewhere, I will pass on to La Rochelle.  In the dog days how delightful the blooming gardens, cool, antique arcades, freshness and shadow of this most beautiful old city!  The place reminds me of the quaint, stately Italian towns so little changed by time and progress.

    On the hottest day of the year you may stroll under its dusky porches as agreeably as if it were spring; and when you quit these pleasant promenades, can still find shelter in the suburban-like streets, with large gardens offering shelter to the passer-by.  All is quiet, harmonious, mediæval; and the aspect of the Rochellois is in accordance with the staid yet cheerful antiquity of the place.

    Whichever way you turn you come upon some sign of ancient times; and nowhere in my travels have I seen more beautiful old houses than these, with their harmonious grey walls, pointed roofs, carved corbels, projecting gargoyles, and arched windows.  As yet—at the time of my visit—no wholesale demolition had been carried on here, and the new quarters had been built in keeping with the old.  People live after English fashion, each in their own house or hotel, so called; and through the half-open front door I caught glimpses of creepers, trees, and flowers, giving a cheerful and rural aspect to the streets.

    It is a delicious little sea-trip of an hour and a half to the Île de Ré—a half-Eastern, half-Italian island, formerly covered with wood, but now entirely cleared, and devoted partly to vineyards and partly to market-gardens.  The figs and pears are celebrated, and are exported to foreign markets.  The cream, also, is of high repute.  There are, besides, salt-marshes, producing considerable quantities of salt.  The Ile de Re formed part of the dowry of Eleanor of Aquitaine, and on her marriage with Henry the Second passed into the hands of the English.

 

ST. MARTIN'S, ÎLE DE RÉ


    The steamer stops at St. Martin's, a little town with houses in yellow, brown, and pink stucco, their front doors always wide open, showing an inner garden and trellised vines, making breezy shade at every corner.  Some of the houses are handsomely built, and reminded me of a street in Smyrna.  There are flowers on the window-sills, flowers in the doorways, flowers on the roof, something to remind you of summer everywhere.  The refreshing aspect of St. Martin's does not end here.  The town possesses numerous squares, groves, and planted walks of lime and acacia, whilst the country peeps in everywhere.  The little port with its pink and yellow-walled, green-shuttered houses and trailing vines, reflected in the clear green sea, is a bit of Venice.  An artist would call it "malerisch," or paintable.

    The Île de Ré is shut off from the outer world by the sea-journey—a pleasant cruise enough on a summer day, but by no means so in winter, when two hours or more of rain, wind, and tossing have to be endured in the transit, which is sometimes, indeed, impracticable.  The island is strongly fortified, and the only dreary feature in the scenery is a State prison, in which several hundred political offenders of the Commune were confined, with small chance of escape.  Here, too, was placed the unhappy Dreyfus prior to his deportation.  In fine weather it is worth while making this little excursion, if only to see La Rochelle from the sea.  The exquisitely soft grey walls of the town, the imposing spire of the Lanterne, and the picturesque Tour de la Crosse Horloge, all stand out in bold relief against the bright blue sky.  Some way off the harbour rises from the middle of the sea a tall, ominous-looking tower, painted black, and written across in large white letters the memorable name "RICHELIEU."

 

LA ROCHELLE


    It is a place in which you feel at home at once, and quit with regret, this antique, stately, picturesque, most historic La Rochelle.

    Les Sables d'Olonne, after this cool city, is as the desert after a delicious oasis.  The Vendean watering-place is hot, shadeless, and blinding in cloudless sunshine and burnt-umber levels.

    The place is aptly called.  Never, I think, saw I such sands as these—so velvety smooth and firm!  This, and the bluest, warmest sea in the world, are enough to account for the great popularity of the little watering-place.  But a sojourn at Les Sables in June reminded me of Egypt in May, Algeria in March, and all the hottest places I can remember.  There is not a vestige of shade—not a tree, not an inch of wall, not a rock—absolutely nothing to protect the eye and the head from the burning heat and the glare.  Yet July and August form the real season, and when I arrived the hotels were crowding fast.  The town then consisted of a straggling line of brand-new hotels, and green-shuttered, white-walled villas, mostly of the tiniest dimensions; a new casino and a convent, where ladies are received as boarders at six francs a day during the season, and are made very comfortable.  Intervening years have greatly enlarged the place.

    The Sablais are a fine, sunburnt, athletic race, and the women, with their bare legs, short red petticoats, black hair, and brownish-red cheeks, are picturesque creatures, especially as they walk arm-in-arm, with a swinging gait, their short, very short red skirts flowing as they go.  So great is the heat that during the day—that is to say, from nine o'clock in the morning till five at night—there is nothing to do but remain in your room; but the evenings are cool and delicious.  The sands grow golden, the colour of the sea grows an intenser and yet intenser purple, little fishing-boats, with orange-coloured sails, lie at anchor far off; and when I wrote this on almost the longest day of the year, namely, the 26th of June, the night, when at last it did come, hardly seemed night at all, so luminous remained the atmosphere.

    It is odd that the family bathing-hour here should be from five to seven p.m., yet so it is.  Close under the long line of houses fronting the sea stretch long lines of bathing-huts, in which the bathers make their toilet, afterwards walking into the sea, a distance varying with the tide, and, on the evening I speak of, about a quarter of a mile.  Next morning, when I looked out of my window at six o'clock, not a soul was taking advantage of the deliciously cool water and solitude.

 

LES SABLES D'OLONNE


    In spite of the great beauty of the late evenings and early mornings, I cannot conceive of any one staying here during the summer more than twenty-four hours.  The hotels are dear, noisy and crowded, the glare unsupportable, and excepting the sea-bathing, no kind of amusement is offered.  Yet to this little seaside resort flock thousands and thousands of holiday-makers in the hottest months of the year; many marriages are made by parents and guardians, while the young people are flirting in the water; and so great is the influx of visitors that landlords are able in two months to make up for the deadness of the remaining ten.

    Roche-sur-Yon, chef-lieu of Vendée, the department formed from the much-romanced province, does not invite a halt, but the pretty little town of Montaigu caresses the wanderer.  Amid willowy banks and park-like glades the Maine winds past ancient chateau and walls, every step recalling historic tragedy.  The scenery is gracious, poetic, picturable, recalling Troyon, Daubigny and Corot in their most natural and idyllic moments.  Reaches silvery with sallows, cool streams embrowned by overhanging foliage, low-lying meadows with kine lying in the grass, avenues of lofty poplars or birch opening into lovely little dells.  Of these are my memories.

    Nor must I forget another feature recorded at the time.  My visit to Vendean friends here occurred in the last days of, alas! a far-off June: but never shall I forget the flowering of the vine; from end to end the atmosphere being impregnated with this delicate and indescribable fragrance.

    Another and agreeable but wholly unromantic souvenir I carried away from Montaigu—one of the numerous Montaigus throughout France.

    Hospitable of the hospitable is the old-fashioned gentilhomme of Vendee.  In my honour an elaborate déjeuner—this meal not as yet called lunch—was given by my hosts, an old Vendean gentleman and his niece, friends and neighbours being called in to partake.

    The repast of many choice dishes, accompanied by equally choice wines and liqueurs, began on the stroke of mid-day, and we did not rise from table till the clock was well on its way to le tantôt, as our neighbours call the afternoon; that is to say, near four o'clock.

    The extraordinary part of the banquet, after all, consisted neither in its luxuriousness nor its length, but in the fact that we all rose from the table every whit as alert and fresh as when we sat down!  Ever to be "the worst of the company" was Swift's desire, and such will be the happy lot of the one English guest of a French social gathering, every one for the stranger's benefit determined to prove witty, amiable and entertaining.  When I took leave of my Vendean friends it seemed as if I had spent two months instead of two days at this cordial little town.


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CHAPTER XVII.

PAYS NANTAIS


CERTAIN much-favoured towns, as is the case with certain much-favoured personalities, fail to attract.  It is with both a case of—


"Ah! the little more, how much it is
 And the little less, and what worlds away!"


    Nantes, one would think, must prove magnetic to those in search of a pays adoptif, a second and exotic home.

    All the resources of an opulent, stately, and most historic capital are here at one's door.  Literature, science, learning and the arts are fostered as assiduously as in Paris.  A fine opera-house and theatres, museums, libraries, picture-galleries and public gardens, and last, but not least, delightful river-side scenery and an almost southern climate can be enjoyed in the chef-lieu of the Loire Inférieure.  Wintry weather at Nantes generally means wind and rain, summer heats are tempered by showers and cool grey skies, whilst the mean temperature is so high that tropic plants, oleanders, magnolias, and pomegranate trees flourish out of doors all the year round.

 

NANTES, THE LOIRE AND THE ERDRE


    I find in the diary of my twelve months' stay, the following note: "March—early this month, camellias are in full bloom in the Jardin des Plantes, also roses, pansies and other flowers."

    That year was spent under a French roof, and under the most agreeable and profitable circumstances.  But my dear Nantaise friend and hostess having taken up her abode in Paris, I never returned to the great seaport on the Loire.

    Although a stroll in the beautiful public garden recalled the tropics, the winter of my sojourn was said to be unusually cold and wet, and with spring rains came an awful inundation.

    We were located on the fourth floor of a handsome house in the Place Cambronne, overlooking the Loire as it flowed towards St. Nazaire.  Unforgettable was the sight from our windows.

    Like a doomed city, Nantes now reared its stately front above the world of waters encompassing it.  From the east, from the west they came, till the monotonous, quick-flowing river seemed turned into an ocean.  The fairy-like islands in the river's mouth had been gradually disappearing, the trees showing now a lofty summit above the engulphing tides, now a mere arrow-head, on the morrow to show nothing at all.  Far down the river side the panorama of pleasant gardens and country villas was undergoing the same transformation, daily and hourly diminishing to view.

    In prosperous seasons, there is no more splendid or inspiriting scene than that of the river flowing westward, war-sloops, merchant vessels, and smaller craft crowding its ports, flags of all known nations waving here by turns; to the right, to the left, its receding banks showing smiling villages and imposing châteaux, their slated roofs and turrets and pinnacles flashing in the sun, countless church spires crowning these, and beyond all the glittering sea.

    But "the waters of the flood are upon the earth," and the face of everything was changing.  Many a verdant landscape was already hidden by the relentless tides, many others, though as yet only partially submerged, were doomed to the same fate; the sweeps of low-lying pasture close to the river had become one vast lake, the ships that hitherto lined the two miles' length of quay were gathered together in the docks and securely fastened, sprightly little steamers and pleasure-boats ply their busy trade no longer, nothing breaks the solitude of the seething, raging waters but an occasional boat sent perilously to the rescue here and there.  The Île de la Gloriette was now hardly recognizable.  Its dimpled hillocks, lawny glades, and smiling gardens had all vanished; nothing remained visible but the summits of the poplars and the upper storeys of the farmhouse, its sole habitation.

    Such was the bird's-eye view of things from our vantage-ground, but the aspect of the city itself was still more appalling.  Suburban gardens, full of roses and chrysanthemums a few days before, were now mere ponds; in many streets, little raised bridges were already erected for pedestrians; shops, dwellings, and warehouses in exposed situations were daily and hourly emptied and abandoned, whole quarters wore the aspect of a plague-stricken place.  Every day brought its appalling story of loss and ruin, and people crowded as anxiously round the newspaper and telegraph offices as in time of war.  Now word would be brought of hundreds of drowning cattle, now one village was submerged, now another, all around them rolling the world of waters, the overcharged heavens betokening torrents of rain yet in store, whilst tree-tops, chimneys and spires just rose above the flooded land.

    To material interests, also to heroism, were sacrificed many lives, and whole flocks and herds were swept away.  The anxious and the morbidly curious flocked to the Morgue, where lay victims awaiting recognition.  The pious filled the churches, with tears and murmurs invoking the help of Virgin and patron saint.  By way of hastily improvised foot-bridge, canoe and rafts, crowds besieged the Mairie, gazing on the telegrams that arrived from every part.  All was consternation, misgiving, and suspense.

    Misfortune did not come singly.  The partially subsiding floods were followed by a hurricane and final deluge.  Only babes and the impotent rested in bed that night.  Our own block was a scene of indescribable confusion, each storey emptying its tenants, those on the ground floor no less alarmed than those, like ourselves, higher up.  It was a case of water, water everywhere, invading floods below, invading floods above, every imaginable vessel being got out, frantic hands being laid upon any and everything that would hold water, costly vases from the drawing-room now keeping company with wash-tubs and cooking-pots, not a few comic touches relieving the pêle-mêle, hurly-burly, double-double, toil and trouble, for the nonce, social distinctions, etiquette, conventionalities being lost sight of, everything forgotten but a common danger and suddenly awakened fellowship.

    Never did city present a more woeful appearance than did Nantes next day following the inundation.  The wind had stripped it of head-covering—literally scalped it from one end to the other—and the shattered slates and tiles lay on the pavement like fallen leaves in autumn.  People were rushing hither and thither, with one frantic cry on every lip—"Les couvreurs! les couvreurs!"—"the tilers! the tilers!"—literally, the coverers, a word, doubtless, coined expressly after some such calamity in former days.  But the wind still blew fearfully, and heroic tilers, willing to scale the roofs of six-storeyed houses at the peril of their lives, even with prospect of guerdon and glory, did not offer themselves by thousands.  Nor was the progress of the dreaded inundation stayed, so that in the distance loomed a far more terrible catastrophe still.  Scared and pallid-faced folks were running in all directions, too full of their own concerns to pay much heed to friends and neighbours.

    Let us now turn to the seductive side of what Michelet truly calls "le torrent révolutionnaire."  The Loire is the paramount attraction of Nantes, and numerous riverside excursions live in my memory.  Who, indeed, would choose to travel by road when a water-way is at hand?  On Sunday afternoons, with other holiday-makers, we used to take little steamers plying between the city and suburban villages, a delightful way of seeing the country and country folks.  Upon one occasion it was my good fortune to journey with the French Association for the Advancement of Science as far as Couéron—a hundred and thirty-four miles down stream and ten miles within Savenay, blood-red full-stop of the Vendean insurrection.  The object of this excursion was to inspect the great State iron foundries of Basse Indre and Couéron, which, however, I will not re-describe here.  Fullest particulars of these are, of course, afforded by Joanne and Murray.

    The weather was brilliant, and, chatting pleasantly with this acquaintance and that, we enjoyed the quiet scenery of the Loire—low-lying banks which we sometimes seemed nearly to touch, thickly planted with willows and bulrushes and feathery spikes of the rose-pink salicaria amid the green.  Sometimes we came suddenly upon a group of village children bathing, who would gaze at us in wondering amazement, or a little garden lying close to the water's edge, with picturesque old women knitting under the thickly-trellised vines, or a company of washerwomen beating their linen under a penthouse.  But the banks of the Loire between Nantes and Couéron are monotonous, and as we had no awning to protect us from the sun, we were most thankful to alight.  It was a rich and inspiriting experience, and abounding in amenities.

    As is the Cherwell—sung by Spenser—to the ,Thames, so is the Erdre to the Loire.  Another red-letter day was one I partly spent on its translucent waves.

    At seven o'clock in the morning the little steamer plying between Nantes and Nort quitted the quay, and we were gliding between the lovely banks so poetically described by Michelet in his preface to L'Oiseau.  The villa in which he lived and wrote some of his most charming works is pointed out to visitors.  "J'allai taut que terre me porta et ne m'arrêtai qu'à Nantes, non loin de la mer, sur une colline qui voit les eaux jaunes de la Bretagne aller joindre dans la Loire les eaux grises de la Vendée.  Austère comme devait être la porte de la Bretagne, ce séjour avait la luxuriance verdure du côte Vendéen."  He goes on to describe the pomegranates and magnolias in full bloom out of doors, amid which he fancied himself in the south.  The banks of the Erdre reminded me of my native Orwell, between Ipswich and Harwich, and in some places of "winding Winandermere, the river lake."  On either side are picturesque châteaux and smiling villas, standing in gardens, with richly-wooded hills rising at the back, and emerald lawns and pastures stretching to the water's edge.  Firs and pines mingle their dark foliage with birch and chestnut, oak and beech, now yellowing and purpling into autumnal splendour.  Here and there are quaint little villages, at each of which we stop and drop or pick up passengers—nuns, priests, peasant folk, and sportsmen; no English or American tourist, no alien but myself.

    As we approach Nort the scenery changes, and we find ourselves in a narrow current with sedgy banks, suggestive of wild-fowl shooting, and to right and left, wide solitary stretches of marsh and moor.  At the village we alight and take the diligence to Nozay, driving at a snail's pace through an open country, with farm buildings sparsely scattered amid the waste, and a landscape made up of alternating pasture, wood, and heath, the frequent crucifixes at the roadside reminding us that we are in the most Catholic country in the world.  Quitting the crazy mail-coach at Nozay, we traverse an avenue of chestnut-trees, and find ourselves at the handsome lodge of Grand Jouan, where we are most courteously received by the sub-director and a professor.  Here, as in the former excursion, my errand was scientific and economic; in other words, a visit to the State Agricultural College, long since transferred to Rennes.

 

BELLE ILE EN MERE, OFF NANTES


    The return from Nort to Nantes was made by moonlight, a glittering yet not too glittering spectacle, the little waves scintillating with silvery light; "an interminable smile," not of ocean, but of a soft flowing, tranquil river.


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CHAPTER XVIII.

PAYS ANGEVIN


IN tropical July heat, it was with no little sense of relief that I alighted at the station of Les Rosiers, on the line from Saumur to Angers, for a quiet stay in a French country house.

    I found my hosts waiting for me at Gennes, reached by omnibus from the railway, and together we climbed the green heights surmounted by the fine old tower of St. Eusèbe.  Thence we obtained a superb panorama, the Loire, flowing steely bright, here and there a pretty fishing-boat on its surface, on either side undulations of corn, vineyard and wood.  Between the river and the hill just reached, stretched richly cultivated sweeps, parcelled out, the patches making a mosaic of green, purple and gold.  Ripe red wheat predominated, intermingled with the paler hued barley and rye, and beds—they were hardly more—of purple beet-root and dark-green hemp; brilliant vines here growing like gooseberry bushes, potato and lucerne in full blossom, and other crops adding to the colour.  Everywhere are fruit-trees in superabundant plenty, walnut and service-berry, pear, apple and plum forming avenues along the public way, fruity boulevards in the open!  The richness and fertility of such a scene fill the heart with joy, the Loire adding to its beauty.

    Extremely curious is the old church of St. Eusèbe, with its Romanesque tower of grey stone—one of many equally interesting in these parts.

    A good road, bordered with fruit-trees, and passing through clean, prosperous-looking villages, led to my friend's house, standing in such a garden-full of flowers as I shall never forget.  It was not what our French friends call "un jardin lêché," but something much more delightful; namely, a garden without design or plan, and, except for abundant watering, left much to itself; with bits of vegetable-garden and orchard running into the parterres, delightful little corners, all turf and shadow, woods in miniature, green walks shaded by cherry-trees laden with fruit, trellised vines, a tiny rivulet overgrown with loosestrife and willowherb, glimpses of yellow cornfields through all, and flowers in indescribable, royal, distracting abundance everywhere!

    Would I could describe them!  A chapter, nay, a volume would not do it.  Take, for instance, the pinks and carnations, introduced into France by the good King René, here rivalling the rose both in splendour and perfume.  Then take the larkspur, a poor creature of a flower with us, banished long ago from rich people's gardens; but how beautiful when seen in perfection, with glorious minarets of delicate blossoms in white, pink, lavender, and deep purple; in fact, a bed of larkspurs is a garden in itself if properly cultivated.  Then there is a countless variety of the familiar antirrhinum, brilliant gold and ruby colours predominating, but others in plenty; the bright rose-pink and pure white belle de nuit, known to us as marvel of Peru, and to our American friends as four-o'clock, and roses in great splendour and abundance.

    In my friend's garden are hardly any but these old-fashioned flowers; a large variety of sweet-williams, and by no means least, if last mentioned, the exquisitely graceful and poetic cornflower, or bluet, here cherished as a garden flower, but chiefly known in England by one variety, that bluest of the blue, centaurea cyanea.  Here we have cornflowers, white, purple, rose-coloured, or white with just a tinge of shell-like pink, violet, or orange.  It is the poet's and the children's flower in France, and you find no garden without it.

    Hard as it would be to give any idea of the flowers in this highly favoured country, it would be harder still to describe the quantity and luxuriance of the fruit.  Everything flourishes here; and as we stroll from one end of the garden to the other we can pluck such fruit as only rich folks can heap upon their tables in England—mulberries, ripe and luscious; strawberries, raspberries, cherries, gooseberries; in fact, every kind you can think of, with plums, peaches, figs, pears, and grapes ripening as fast as possible to replace all these.  The delicious Alpine strawberries called fraises des quatres saisons are to be had till November.  Then there is almost every vegetable that money can purchase at Covent Garden, artichokes, green peas, all kinds of salads, the aubergine or mad apple, unknown with us; salsify also, and cardon, a kind of artichoke, both excellent vegetables; none of these in France are luxuries of the rich, but the daily portion of the working classes also.  So rich is the soil, and splendid the climate, that peasant folk here so eat asparagus, green peas, and strawberries every day, as they eat bread and cheese with us, and doubtless find in them much more nourishment than we believe.

    The garden, which is in fact a dozen gardens in one, runs all round the house, and on one side is a large clear pond, overshadowed by lofty poplars and acacias; such a pond as Constable would have loved to paint, with delicious play of light and shadow, and meditative cows, always knee-deep in the grass, and glimpses of golden cornfields beyond.

    Around on every side we have the same landscape—wide sweeps of ripening harvest-fields and clusters of fruit-trees in their midst, patches of bright green hemp or vine, tall Lombardy poplars and larches making shadows here and there, and above all, wooded hills crowned by church spire or château; everywhere perfume of wild rose and honeysuckle, everywhere the singing of birds.

    As a French writer has written of this region, namely, the country of Gennes and neighbourhood, all is antique here, it is one of the most curious portions of Anjou.

    The places we visited in our evening drives—the tremendous heat of the day keeping us indoors from eight in the morning till seven at night—were no less interesting than the people.  This is a land of dolmens and antiquities.  St. George-les-Sept-Voies possesses a curious old church, with a Romanesque tower, and a most beautiful altar-piece, not mentioned that I can discover in any guide-book, but quite a masterpiece.  It is carved in wood, and so thickly covered with gold as to look as if made of gold itself.  In the centre compartment is the figure of Christ, the body coloured to represent life, and on each side are two figures of angels, also of wood, and coloured.  There is much expression and pathos in these faces, and also grace and skilfulness in the modelling.  Underneath are represented the objects connected with the Passion, namely, the crown of thorns, sponge, sword, nails, scourge, manacles, etc.  On a level with the figure of the Saviour and the angels are the holy women and the apostles.  This curious work of art—the effect of which is splendid in the extreme, the gold being as fresh as if laid on yesterday—is supposed to have been brought from the Abbey of St. Maur or St. Florent le Vieil, but nothing of certainty is known about it.  Close to the church is the ancient priory, now inhabited by the curé, in which lived formerly eight monks.  The panelled kitchen, handsome Romanesque chimney-piece and ceiling, give evidence of former splendour.

    As we drove homeward from St. George, the antiquity and former ecclesiastical riches of the place became more apparent.  Here and there are fragments of ruined arch and portico, evidently portions of chapels, and as yet uninjured by time; quaint old farmhouses with slate-roofed towers and turrets, and picturesque dormers.  These were before the Revolution most likely monastic institutions.  In fact, most of the land hereabouts belonged to the Church up till the time when by virtue of assignats it fell into the hands of the peasants.  Occasionally, also, we came upon some majestic menhir standing in the midst of cornfields or vineyards, the abundance of so-called Druidic monuments forming one of the most curious features of this curious country.  One of these, the Pierre couverte de la Bajoulière, is remarkable, and is said to have served as a chapel after 1144, mass being performed there for some nuns who had been driven from their convent by the monks of St. Florent.  This dolmen stands in a bit of country as rocky and wild as that of Plougastel in Brittany.  The huge blocks of granite lying around reminded me also of Tunbridge Wells, though here the scenery is on a grander scale.  The upper part of the dolmen consists of three huge slabs resting upon smaller ones, the whole measuring, I should say, twenty feet.  The interior, which has been often searched for treasure, is now choked up with rubbish, and the stones so embedded in the soil as to lose much of their height.  But the effect is still striking, and the entourage wild and picturesque, the plain being covered with huge masses of fantastically shaped rock; beyond are views of fair open country, and on one side a row of quaint windmills standing against the clear sky.  Windmills are always planted in companies here, and are very characteristic objects of the landscape.

    I remember no lovelier pictures of a pastoral kind than those we encountered in our evening drives—rivulets, overshadowed by Corot's trees—silvery poplars and willows—under which cows were resting, or women washing, a shaggy sheep-dog invariably looking on; or we drove along the banks of the cool, grey Loire, with little fishing-boats at anchor far away, close, as it seemed, to the purple and orange sky; patches of golden corn and ridges of fir and pine clothed the hills; whilst by the road we saw little rustic scenes—here a girl bringing home her sheep, knitting as she goes; there a couple of children coming home from school, whom father had mounted on his plough-horse.  Every incident of daily life is poetized by the exquisite atmosphere and the peace and prosperity reigning everywhere.  How, indeed, can existence be hard or ugly on a soil so favoured, in a climate so happy?

    Those warm July evenings recalled Eastern experiences.  Here was the same transparency of light, the same brilliance, if I may so express it, of shadow, the same indescribable lustre, softness, harmony.  In my friends' garden the extraordinary luminosity of the atmosphere was especially remarkable.  The effect of the glistening white walls against the purple sky could be compared to nothing but Algeria, while so intense was the clearness that the upper leaves of a grove of lime-trees glowed with light as if the moon or sun were shining!  Yet there was no moon—only a few stars shone; it was the purity of the air alone that lent such silveriness and luminosity.  Again, nothing in England can be compared to the brilliance of the ripe corn here as seen about sunset.  The cornfields outside our garden are now veritable floods of amber; we seem at this time of day, in fact, to be living in a golden vapour, in a world where every object is of gold; later on the effect is of pearliness and silveriness, but none the less beautiful.  The heat during the day had been tremendous.

    I must not forget one curious feature of this landscape—namely, the rock-dwellings.  The subterranean habitations reminded me of Virgil's description—


Ipsi in defossis specubus secura sub alta
Otia agunt terra, congestaque robora, totasque
Advolvere focis ulmos, ignique dedere.


    The formation is tuffeau, or yellow chalk, a soft calcareous stone that easily lends itself to the cutting, and which is commonly used here for building purposes.  The rocks are hollowed out into ready-made habitations, and in walking or driving through this curious country we are constantly coming upon a little Troglodyte village.  Sometimes we had the back of the houses towards us, and could see nothing of them but tall chimneys rising out of the fields along the roadside; at others we passed the inner side of a cave containing half-a-dozen dwellings, with crops and fruit trees flourishing overhead.  Many have no windows, and are only ventilated by chimney and door, but others have smaller ones, and are not uncomfortable looking.  Vines and roses are trained on the walls, giving a warm southern look to the scene.  We visited several of these caves, and in one found a spinning loom which had been worked there for years.  I must say the idea of living and working in the bowels of the earth seemed to me disconcerting, though the darkest and most comfortless of the caves have long ago been abandoned to the animals and farm implements.

    The Troglodyte villages are as unlike anything English as can be conceived; but when we get to the villages themselves, such as St. George-les-Sept-Voies, la Menitré, and others, the neat little cottages, with flower-garden, and newly-constructed villas of middle-class owners, have a familiar aspect; order and tidiness and a look of prosperity we find everywhere.

    In some places the scenery is of a different character—for instance, by way of Le Toureil to the banks of the Loire.  Here we passed between oak woods and fir ridges, recalling parts of Surrey and Sussex, coming suddenly by a winding descent to a quaint Renaissance church by the river.  It was after sunset, and only a rose-pink and golden glow indicated the west.  The beauty of the scene on such a night is indescribable—the delicacy and brilliancy of the rainbow-tinted sky, the pearly surface of the Loire, the deep shadows reflected by undulating banks and wooded islets, the distant fishing-boats—here indeed was inspiration for a painter, full of inexpressible poetry, grace and harmony, a thousand sudden gradations of colour making up the whole.

    Harvest began during my visits about the middle of July, and, of course, the corn was cut by the sickle, the patches being very small.

    The workpeople employed on my friend's property were all catered for on the place, the commissariat and cooking being entrusted to the wife of the fernier or farm-bailiff.  As the weather was intensely hot, they took their meals out-of-doors; and a merry party they made, consisting of the cook, housemaid, and indoor man-servant, the farmer, his wife and children; besides these, dairy-woman, stockman, two labourers, a needlewoman, and two lads, making in all fifteen persons who dined and supped under the walnut-trees.  And after the long day's toil and the copious repast and equally copious potions of light wine, alike young and old were ready for the dance, their employers and guest footing it merrily on the turf with them by moonlight.  Not since those Angevin days have I danced, but in France one's dancing days are never over!

    One day we visited an auctioneer, and found the same contradictions so often met with in rural France.  On the one hand, very great worldly ease and a certain amount of education—nay, culture; and on the other, the utmost homeliness, I am almost tempted to say, sordidness.  Our neighbour was rich in his way, and was doing a good business; he was fond of music, and spent his leisure moments in studying the violin; he loved reading, and had on his shelves Renan's Vie de Jésus, Erckmann-Chatrians' novels and other works of a high class, yet he was living the life of a peasant, evidently without higher ambitions.  We had gone to purchase some ducks, and meantime a collation was spread for us—wine and preserves, with bread-and-butter—for hospitality reigns everywhere, and you no sooner cross the threshold, whether of rich or poor, than you are invited to take some refreshment.  After tasting of these good things, we went in search of the ducks, which, however, were too clever to be caught.  An old woman-servant, who lived with her employers on terms of perfect equality, vainly put off in a boat on the large pond, and with her blue gown, white cap, and a shaggy dog perched on the edge, made a picturesque figure.  All round the clear, brown water were blue-green sallows, and sedgy banks gay with tall, pink loosestrife and willow-herb; the sky was of deep blue, and between the blue and brown glided the boat, with its picturesque figure and attendant dog.  The ducks, wary as rabbits, so successfully hid themselves amid the sedge, that there seemed no prospect of catching them, so we drove off without having accomplished our errand.

    This is a land of wild flowers, birds, butterflies and insects.  All day long the garden resounds with the notes of warbler and goldfinch, thrush, chaffinch, and many more.  No one is allowed to touch them, and there is fruit enough and to spare for all.

    At night the humming of insects surpasses anything I remember of the kind.  They are invisible, yet the place is alive with them.  Combined with the indescribable brilliance and luminosity of these summer nights, such sounds made up fairy-like experiences.


――――♦――――

 
CHAPTER XIX.

PAYS VENDÉAN, AND BACK TO PARIS


WHAT old traveller will lodge in the heart of a town built on a river?

    On the occasion of my first visit to the quiet, elegant, conservative chef-lieu of the Maine and Loire, I arrived thither from Saumur, en touriste, putting up at a hotel on the Quay Ligny.

    Next morning I beheld a ravishing prospect.  The broad, bright Maine flowed close below, its cool, greyish-blue waters broadening towards the verdant Vendée and spanned by three noble bridges, whilst opposite rose spires, domes and towers burnished with the first red and gold of sunrise.  The pearliness of the atmosphere, the delicious light and shade, the harmonious outlines, made a perfect picture.

    Nor does the city disappoint when visited.  Angers covers a small area, and its most remarkable monuments and sites lay in close proximity to each other.  But no place for a hurried survey is this richly endowed little capital, and once visited, one longs to return for yet a more intimate acquaintance.  Days, nay, weeks may well be devoted to the antiquities, splendid art collections, libraries and museums here—if only travellers can tear themselves from the river!  At Angers, as at Nantes, existence, at least in summer, is nothing if not amphibious.  The beautiful Maine, with its pleasure steamers and boats, is a siren—vainly do we stop our ears.

    Les Ponts de Cé must be visited by the hastiest.  This curious little town, famous in revolutionary history, is also renowned for its pretty maidens and windmills.  It is built storey-wise; that is to say, the old part of it lies low down in the Maine valley, and is often under water, whilst the new is built on a much higher level, and offers a refuge to the inhabitants of the former whenever an inundation happens.  It is a quaint, old-world place, and as you drive over the bridge you obtain a magnificent view of river, orchards and vineyards, green as emerald shutting in the blue, and far-off villages, with church and chateau; whilst nearer are overhanging rocks, and rows of windmills perched airily on their summits, like weird, unearthly birds of prey, for a moment at rest with their wings folded in their eyrie.  It is impossible, without an artist's pencil, to give any idea of the oddness and mixed comicality and sombreness of such a scene.  Do not some landscapes cause us to laugh, just as much as Offenbach's music, or those quaint animals and flowers that seem to have been created for that purpose?  The company of windmills of Les Ponts de Cé, solemn as sentinels on their lofty ramparts, mischievous-looking as elves, keeping guard over a fairy realm, pathetic as scarecrows made of heroes' gear and garments, bear no likeness to any spectacle I remember, and would remain in the memory without blood-stained associations.  Every spot hereabouts recalls the Vendéan insurrection, which, poetized into a fervent outburst of loyalty to throne and church, was in reality an organized and universal revolt against the Republican levies; in other words, enforced military service.  A legend, assiduously nursed by romancers during the best part of a century, has at last and finally been disproved by historic research.

    On one occasion after a stay with my friends in their town-house—all well-to-do French folks are two-housed—I returned to Nantes by the Loire.  All travellers should follow this example, but not in the dog days!  The heat was tremendous—I am writing of August—a burning sun and cloudless sky, deepening in intensity as the day wore on, and lending a golden hue to the verdant landscape through which we glided so slowly.  The banks were bright with mullein, willow-herb, and loosestrife, and sometimes we approached them so nearly that they were almost within arm's length; at others the river widened, on either side rising stately chateaux, feudal ruins, frowning rocks and smiling villages, every stage recalling some legend or incident of the Civil War.

    This most delightful journey by water-way might well occupy a week instead of a day.

    Here a ruined tower recalls the legend of Barbe-Bleue only yesterday set at naught, stultified in wittiest fashion by Anatole France, there St. Florent invites a halt, not only for its magnificent site, but for the sake of a mausoleum.  In its ancient church was buried that noble Vendéan gentleman and soldier, who on his death-bed issued one of the grandest orders ever breathed by a victorious general in ferocious times: "Grâce aux prisonniers, Bon-champs l'ordonne," four thousand Republicans being thereby rescued from instantaneous slaughter.  Not without regret at getting only a bird's-eye view of such scenes, and not without thankfulness, I reached Nantes.  The heat, glare and brilliance of an August day in the Loire valley being only comparable to a tropical experience.  Not all the riverside verdure, not even the afternoon breeze could give a sense of coolness and refreshment.

    At the starting-point these rounds naturally end, but the various routes to Paris taken by me at different times in west central France would of themselves fill a volume.

    Memory especially lingers on a certain five hours' journey by diligence through the Vendéan Bocage from Poitiers to Saumur.  First we passed wide sweeps of corn, maize and oats, vineyards and long unbroken lines of rich culture.  Then the panorama changed, and instead we gazed upon distant forest and woodland, only small patches of pasture or tillage interspersed between barren heath and brushwood.

    Parthenay is a very pretty, picturesquely situated town, with woods, water and grey ruins around.  No place in Vendée is fuller of historic associations, and at the time of my visit its condition must have been as primitive as in the bloodstained days of the Blancs and the Bleus, no gas in the streets, neither bells, trays, nor modern accommodation in the hotels.

    By five o'clock next morning and in sweet summer weather, I was off by the diligence for Bressuire.  It was the hay-making season, and from my seat in the coupé I had delicious scents of hay, honey-suckle and wild rose, whilst on every side were flowers in splendid profusion, amid the crops, corn-cockle and corn-flower, by the hedgerows wild geraniums, larkspurs, marigolds, salvias, campanulas, and a brilliant rose-pink pea, with foxglove and mullein.  Bressuire is a clean, brand-new town, with so many others in Vendée, having been reconstructed on the ruins of the old.  It suffered as much as Parthenay during the Civil War; at the time of my visit a ruined chateau-fort or stronghold still recalling the past.

    These modern spick-and-span Vendéan towns, each—at the time I write of—with crumbling tower and walls, appealed strongly to the imagination, bringing home to the least imaginative minds the diabolical aspect of war.

    Saumur was reached after five hours' drive through a smiling, delightful, solitary land, no one was abroad but peasants in their fields, men and women busy with sickle and scythe, or occasionally a priest would be seen wending his way to baptism, marriage or burial in some remote village.  Madame Dacier's, perhaps I should rather say Eugénie Grandet's home is an elegant little town with pretty white-walled, slate-roofed houses, each standing in its garden, oleanders, magnolias, pomegranates and other tropical flowers filling the borders.  The site of Saumur on the Loire is almost as fine as that of Angers, and here the fastidious traveller, with Falstaff, can say, "Shall I not take mine ease at my inn?"

    "Fait-on toujours l'amour à Saumur?" runs the dictum.  Saumur looks indeed a love-making place, so gay, coquettish and engaging are its suburban streets.  Town proper there is none, the country creeping in everywhere, not for a moment can you lose yourself amid roofs and walls.  The Cavalry School lends bustle and animation to what was formerly a provincial Athens, and the whilom stronghold of Protestantism is now given up to the manufacture of rosaries!  Here, however, the arts are still cultivated.  The city of the great Plessis de Mornay, the Daciers—and Eugéne Grandet—possesses metropolitan, artistic, and intellectual resources.

    All roads lead to Rome—and Paris.  Leisurely travellers in quest of yet more pastoral scenes, may zigzag thither by Niort.  From Angers or Saumur it is a step backwards, but well worth the taking.  My own visits have been made from other points, but the town is well worth a détour, having claims of its own, historic, pictorial, economic.

    Arrived at the chef-lieu of the Deux Sèvres, the traveller might fancy himself in a capital, so vast and handsome is its railway station, so teeming with activity are its wide, well-built streets, yet the population numbers twenty thousand and odd souls only.  No rags, beggary or uncared-for-ness meet the eye in the pleasant town, charmingly placed on the banks of the Sèvre Niortaise, and surrounded by flower-gardens and richest fruitage.  The cultivated spaces on both sides of the river have a warm, southern look; here are huge fir-trees laden with fruit, melons, peaches, nectarines and grapes ripening in a most ripening sun.  Nearly three hundred acres in the neighbourhood are devoted to the delicacy of the Pharaohs; in other words, the onion.  This part of La Vendée indeed may be said not only to flavour the soups of Europe, but its wedding cakes.  The export of Niort par excellence is candied angelica, none other, wherever grown or prepared, attaining equal perfection.  There is much sweet pastoral scenery within easy reach of the town.  Mules are reared here for the peninsula, and on one farm alone we saw forty young mules of great beauty.

    A prettier sight is not to be seen than that of these handsome, carefully tended animals disporting themselves towards sunset, on account of tropical heat, their breathing-time of the day.  The celebrated meadow-lands called Belle Isle are then seen at their best.  Nothing can be lovelier then than these stretches of velvety pasture, sparkling streams, flowery reaches, and alder trees, all bathed in effulgent gold, all given up to a happy consciousless frisking animal world.

    Yet another step backward, and we reach Fontenay-le-Comte, situated on the tiny river Vendée.  Never surely since Rubicon has stream so insignificant become so historic!  Here, however, the Vendée is navigable, and lends to this small chef-lieu d'arrondissement—as we should say, sub-chef-lieu—the bustle of a port.

    Formerly precious to the archæologist, from its present aspect we might suppose that Fontenay, like La Roche-sur-Yon, the chef-lieu of the department, had been virtually created, edified, and embellished just because a town was wanted.  Far away from the railway-station, bits of antiquity peep out, reminding us that this most modern place possesses history upon history, is indeed a veritable palimpsest written in stone.  The architectural glories of the little Vendéan town have all but disappeared; by way of compensation we see what municipal enterprise can effect in France.  Schools, training colleges, museums, libraries, theatres, boulevards, all of a comparatively recent date, here suggest a small city.  We may indeed say that since the foundation of the Third Republic the merest townlet has caught a Parisian afflatus.

    No matter from what point of the compass Paris is accessible, there a round of French travel naturally ends.  Having reached the starting-point, I end this record—to the reader a matter of a few hours only, to the writer, of weeks, months, I may say years of delightful and well-rewarded but laborious wayfaring.  There is no short road to a knowledge of France any more than to a knowledge of the French people.  Even thirty-five years' study are all too little for such a subject; let others complete a modest beginning!




THE END



Richard Clay & Sons, Limited, London and Bungay.

 


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