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Bennet's Book 1870

chapters 1-2
chapters 3-4
chapters 5-6
chapter 6b
chapter 7
chapter 8
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chapter 9-10

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Check In Again On > menton > Bennet 1870 updated 02/2002

Winter and Spring

on the

Shores Of The Mediterranean

The Riviera, Mentone, Italy, Corsica, Sicily, Spain and Biarritz,

As Winter Climates.

By J. Henry Bennet, MD.
Member of the Royal College of Physiscians, London,
Doctor of Medecine of the University of Paris, etc.

euns rediensque gaudet

Fourth Edition. New York: D. Appleton and Co., Grand Street. MDCCCLXX.
Edited by Bernhard Kockoth media systems, Karlsruhe, Germany, 2002

Part I. The Genoese Riviera and Mentone.
Chapter I.
  • Introductory remarks
  • Chapter II.
  • Mentone - Situation - Climate as shown by vegetation
  • Chapter III.
  • Geology
  • Chapter IV.
  • Physical geography and meterology of the Riviera and Mentone
  • Chapter V.
  • Flowers and horticulture on the Riviera
  • Chapter VI.
  • The Mediterranean - Tides - Colour - Fishes - Birds - The St. Louis Rocks
  • Chapter VII.
  • The climate of Mentone and of the Riviera considered medically
  • Chapter VIII.
  • Mentone in its social aspect - Amusements - Drives - Rides - Pedestrian excursions - Mountain villages - Casino - Churches - Social life
  • Part II. Winter climates of Southern Europe
    Chapter IX.
  • The two Rivieras - Italy
  • Chapter X.
  • Corsica - Its physical, geological, and social characteristics.
  • Chapters XI. .. XV.
  • Sicily - The Italian Lakes - Biarritz and Arcachon - Algiers and Algeria - Spain
  • Appendix
  • Meteorological Tables - Remarks - The Journey

  • Preface.

    The present work embodies the experience of ten winters and springs passed on the shores if the Mediterranean, from October, 1859, to May, 1869, under the following circumstances:

    In 1859 I became consumptive, and strove in vain to arrest the progress of disease. The reminiscences of former travel took me to Mentone, on the Genoese Riviera, and under its genial sky, freed from the labours and anxieties of former life, to my very great surprise, I soon began to rally.

    The second winter I wished to find a locality even more favoured, one more in the stream of life, present or past, and sought for it in Italy. The search, however, was vain, and the unhygienic state of the large towns of that classical land partly undid the good previously gained. So I retraced my steps, and again took refuge in quiet healthy Menton. The second trial proved even more satisfactory than the first.

    I therefore determined to adopt Mentone as a permanent winter professional residence. Since then I have adhered to this plan, and have spent the winters at Mentone. Between the close of the Riviera winter season and the resumption of professional duties in London, I take a few week’s holiday, in April and May, and every year have employed the time in the investigation of the climate and vegetation of other countries on the shores of the Mediterranean. Hitherto I have not succeeded in finding a better climate.

    The work was originally a mere essay on the winter climate and vegetation of the Mentone amphitheatre, and was pubished in 1861. This edition contains an account of the wanderings in search of health quarters, for winter and summer, in Italy, Corsica, Sicily, Algeria, Spain and the Italian lakes, with a short description of Biarritz and Arcachon. The purely scientific character has been partly laid aside, and the thoughts, fancies, and travelling impressions of a long period of invalidism have been recorded.

    I have endeavoured to render the description of the Mentone district, where I reside in winter, as complete as possible. Mentone has become Menton, a French town, but I have retained the Italian denomination, because it was the one by which I first knew this smiling spot, and because I prefer the word.

    Going and returning he rejoiceth - Mentone, October 20 to April 20.

    Chapter I.

    Introductory Remarks.

    There are a few Italian travellers to whose mind the word "Riviera" does not recall the recollection of happy days of leisurely vetturino progress, along a sunny, picturesque shore, overshadowed by bold mountains, and inhabited by fishermen who, on a fine autumnal evening, often seem to realize the scene of the market chorus in „Masaniello". When, overtaken by ill health, I was obliged to abandon the hard work of active life, it was a consolation to me to know that I could migrate to this sun-favoured coast, and conscientiously spend the dreary winter in legitimate idleness, in a spot which memory painted in glowing colours. In this instance, the memories of the past were fully verified by the realities of actual experience; and now that rest and mild southern winters have restored me, in a measure, to health, I am desirous to make known the Riviera, and especially Mentone, to the tribe of sufferers obliged to fly from England – „merrie", in winter, only to the hale and strong, who can defy and enjoy the cutting winds, the rain, the snow, and the frost of the northern land.

    The peculiar mild climate of western Italy, and especially of the coast-line of the Gulf of Genoa, known under the name of Riviera di Levante, and Riviera di Ponente, is more referable to the protection afforded by mountain ranges than to latitude. Along the western Riviera, from Genoa to Nice, and on the south-eastern shores of France, from Toulon to Nice, protection from north winds is still greater than on the west coast of Italy. During the winter the most protected and warmest part of this south-eastern coast of France and western coast of Italy, the undercliff of central Europe, is the Riviera die Ponente, extending from Nice to Genoa. As one of its names implies – Cornice – the Riviera is a mere ledge or coast-line at the foot of the mountains, which protect it north and east. My knowledge of the Riviera is principally derived from ten winters‘ residence at Mentone, for I have merely examined the other regions of the Riviera as a traveller.

    The opening of the railway from Paris to Menton has rendered this lovely region very easy to access, even to confirmed invalids, and I believe that the time is fast approaching when tens of thousands from the north of Europe will adopt the habits of the swallow, and transform every town and village on the coast into a sunny winter retreat. I may remark that the Riviera is the first point where birds of passage from the north make a halt for the winter. [BK: indeed, the main reason why the books of Bennet were so successful, the opening of a railway connection to Menton, thus the best climate easy to reach in late 19th century. Bennet had the advantage of high education as well as several years Menton experience before the arrival of the railways and the boom that followed. In modern terms he described a remote region of the world before an international airport was built in the vicinity.]

    Chapter II.

    Situation - Climate as shown by vegetation.

    Indi i monti Liguristici e Riviera
    Che cor aranci e sempre verdi mirti,
    Quasi avendo perpetua primavera
    Soarge per l’aria, bene olenti spirti

    Ariosto, Canto primo, lxxii.

    Mentone is a small Italian town of five thousand inhabitants, situated in latitude 43N 45‘, nineteen miles east of Nice, at the foot of the Maritime Alps. The immense masses of which descend to the sea so abruptly in some places as to leave no shore, their beetlings crags terminating directly in the sea. This is the case immediately behind and to the eastward of Nice. Owing to this circumstance, there was formerly no continous carriage road from Nice to Genoa. The land communication between these cities was carried on by means of a very picturesque, but very unsafe mule track, along the rocky coast. The carriage road that now exists was commenced by Napoleon at the beginning of the nineteenth century, for a military road, all but indispensable when Italy was annexed to the French Republic. The road has been improved since and carries in many places over and along high mountains and precipitous cliffs.

    On leaving Nice for Genoa, the road at once begins to ascend the Turbia, a shoulder of the Mont Agel. This mountain is about 3000 feet high, and is one of the spurs that run directly into the sea. The ascend occupies two hours, the road reaching an elevation of 2100 feet, two miles before arriving at the village of Turbia. The descent occupies an hour and a half, and at its termination is situated the town of Mentone.

    Indeed, I should advise travellers Mentone bound, not pressed for time, or over-burdened with travelling "impedimenta", to abandon the railway at Nice, to sleep there, and to drive to Mentone during the following afternoon. There is not a more beautiful drive in Europe, and by rail it is entirely lost. The railway, now open from Nice to Mentone, on the Italian frontier, much facilitates this stage of the journey, to those who wish to travel rapidly.

    When the village of Turbia [ La Turbie ] has been reached, and the descent begins, a glorious panorama presents itself to the eye. At our feet lies Monaco, crowning a promontory that advances into the sea and forms a small port. As the road descends, winding along the mountain side, a brown sun-burnt village appears - Roccabruna [ Roquebrune ], clinging to the rocks. Then a corner is turned, and behold a magnificient mountain amphitheatre appears, that of Mentone [ Menton ]. The higher mountains, receding round a beautiful bay opening to the south-east, form this amphitheatre, the centre of which is about two miles from the sea-shore. The entire bay and the town of Mentone, with its background of swelling olive-clad hills closed in by the amphitheatre of mountains, are thus thoroughly proected from the north-west, north, and north-east winds. These mountains positively appear to all but encircle the Mentonian bay in their arms, to thus separate it and its inhabitants from the world at large, and to present it to the blue Mediterranean waves, and to the warm southern sunshine.

    Owing to the Mentonian bay opening to the south-east, south, and the south-west, winds blow directly into the bay, and, when strong, occasion a heavy, rolling swell. When, however, hurricanes reign in continental Europe from the north-west or the north-east, the wind sometimes turns round the protecting mountain west and east, and is really felt on the shore, much to the surprise of those who have been told that north winds cannot by any possibility reach this favoured region.

    On very exceptional occasions snow may even fall on the shore-level, melting as it falls. In January, 1864, there was a frost of unusual intensity throughout the south of Europe, in Italy and Spain especially. At Mentone it froze on the sea-level several nights consecutively, both in the eastern and the western bays, and snow fell on the shore-level. Many Lemon-trees were killed, and much fruit destroyed. But the trees that were killed were all at the outlet of valleys running up to the mountains, where they had been planted, I was told, in opposition to previous experience. Every twenty or thirty years an exceptionally intense frost occurs, and kills the Lemon-trees in all but really warm and sheltered positions. On no other part of the Cornice road do Lemon-trees grow as freely as at Mentone. At Cannes they are all but unheard of, and at Nice they only grow in sheltered and protected sites, and not luxuriantly. As I have stated, the latitude of Sicily, five degrees further south, must be reached to find them growing with equal luxurriance; and even there they are generally protected by walls, and refuse to grow wherever there is a down-draught from neighbouring mountains.

    The Orange-tree flowers but once in the year, and bears one crop of fruit only. It is a more hardy tree, as this botanical fact implies, and can bear without injury, as we have seen, several degrees of frost. There are many fine groves of Orange-trees at Mentone, especially the one at the base of the Cap Martin. Some trees in private gardens, and others growing near Monaco, only a few miles distant, and in a locality presenting the same climatic condition, are as good as any in Europe, if allowed to remain on the tree until really ripe. To bring out the sweetness of the orange, it should be allowed to remain on the tree all summer.

    The longevity of the Olive-tree, in a congenial climate like that of Mentone, may be said to be indefinite. There are Olive-trees still alive at Monaco, at the Cap Martin, and elsewhere, which are supposed to be coeval with the Roman empire. In the variety of the Olive-tree generally cultivated on the Riviera the terminal extremity of the branches hangs down, so as to give it the characteristic appearance of a weeping ash or willow. I never fully appreciated the beauty of the Olive-tree, although I had seen it in its glory in southern Italy, until I had passed a winter, sitting with a book under the shadows of an Olive-clad mountain at Mentone.

    Above the Olive-tree elevation, that is, above 2000 feet or thereabout, Pines only are met with naturally, although fruit-trees, Apples, Pears, Cherries, and Vines are cultivated; as for instance around St. Agnes, a mountain village. Behind the Mentone amphitheatre the Pines only occupy northern slopes until we reach the Col de Tenda. Still these Pine forrests certainly contain no timber "fit for building men-of-war", as a member of the House of Commons stated during the debate on the cession of Mentone and Roccabruna to France. On the noble side, in one spot, in the grounds of the Madonna Villa, in the western bay, are some very fine specimens of the Pinus Picea, the stone or umbrella Pine, the classical Pine of Italy. There is something peculiarly Italian in the appearance of this tree, with its canopy of rich green leaves extending table-like. In Italy it is often a prominent feature in the landscape, that it becomes associated with the traveller’s mind with the monuments and ruis indelibly stamped on his recollection. Indeed, when sitting under the shade of these trees, the deep blue sea at our feet, the clear sky above, and the sharp clear outline of the adjoining mountains around, it is impossible not to feel that we really are in Italy.

    The deciduous trees are principally Planes, Willows, and Fig-trees. The planes are planted in two avenues, for the sake of the dense and grateful shade they give in summer. One avenue is the main road to Nice, and is continued into the town; the other is along the banks of the torrent which descends from the mountain by the side of the Turin road, in the valley "du Careï".The plane trees do not loose their leaves until the nights become cold, so that they are often preserved until the end of December. There are a few deciduous Oaks and Chestnuts scattered about the hills and valleys.

    Owing to the absence of frost in all but very exposed situations, many of our English garden flowers, which are cut down by the first frosty night, continue to flourish and bloom all then winter through. This is the case, for instance, with the Geranium, the Heliotrope, the Verbena, the Nasturtium, the Salvia, and some kinds of Roses, including the China Tea-rose, which continue to flower throughout the winter in many gardens. There are also many flowers peculiar to much more southern climates, which bloom throughout the winter. But as I purpose devoting a special chapter to cultivated flowers and horticulture, I shall now confine myself to wild nature:

    Wild, sweet-smwlling Violets appear about the middle of December in the warmest spots. The Narcissus nivens, and some other flowers of the same genus are found equally early. By the end of January violets have become a weed, flowering from the crevices of every wall, along every path, and in every torrent-bed that the sun reaches. Wild Anemones of different species, some of which are very beautiful, begin to blossom in December or January. They are rapidly succeeded by Daffodils, Narcissuses, Hyacinths, Tulips, Gladioles, Hepaticas, and Primroses. All these flowers are found wild, but only in certain regions known to the "initiated" and to some of the donkey women. The white Alyssum, which we use for garden edgings, is very common, and flowers throughout the winter, as does a large species of daisy.

    Mignonette grows wild in some localities, on the terraces of the eastern bay for instance, but it has but very little odour, unlike the sweet-scented species of our gardens, which is a native of the opposite, or African shore of the Mediterranean. The Caper plant,a tropical shrub, thrives and produces fruit abundantly, a fact in itself evidence of a warm climate. It is of deciduous habit, and losing its leaves early in the autumn merely to regain them late in spring, does not at all contribute to winter decoration. There is a Caper plant root, growing out of a terrace behind the Hôtel des Anglais, which is said to have been there at least three hundred years, as proved by authentic recors. The Pepper-tree is cultivated in gardens, on account of its foliage. It remains in leaf during the winter, and is a handsome tree with pendulous foliage and handsome red berries in clusters.

    Succulent plants thrive wherever planted, and in some regions have become quite wild. The Mesembryanthemums from the Cape of Good Hope are peculiarly luxuriant in their groth, and brilliant in their bloom. The Aloe is equally at home in the district, indeed throughout the Riviera. But at Mentone it does not seem to be appreciated as in Nice, where many magnificient specimens are to be seen. Indeed, the Mentonians do not appear to value landscape gardening, or gardening of any kind. Very few flowers are cultivated, except for preparing perfumes, or in the gardens attached to the houses let to strangers. This complete absence of that intense love of flowers and ornamental gardening which pervades all classes in more rigorous climates, characterizes Southern Europe - Italy, France, and Spain.

    The lily tribe, to which the spiny Aloe belongs - unlikely as it may seem to the non-botanical observer - has another representative at Mentone which covers the terraces in February with white clusters of lovely flowers, and which we can also claim, a species of garlic, the Allium Neapolitanum. To the same natural order belongs the Asparagus, a species of which grows wild in this district, and is nealy allied to the wild Asparagus found in England.

    The Oleander, or rose Laurel, as the French call it, with us a stove plant, grows in the open air to the size of a small tree. From the brilliant red hue of its flowers when in full blossom it has given the name of Campo Rosso to a small town in the valley of Dolce Acqua beyond Ventimiglia. It fringes the margin of all the rivers in Mount Atlas, thus forming a botanical link between Europe and Africa. It flowers the summer and early autumn, and as neither its habit not its evergreen foliage are remarkable, it does not attract much attention. The Tamarisk, with us a well-known sea-side shrub, also becomes a small tree with a good-sized trunk. As with us, it loses its foliage in winter, but regains it early in April. There is a row of these Tamarisk-trees skirting the beach in the western bay. They grow in the shingle that forms the beach, a few feet from the sea, thus illustrating, as in the north, their peculiar marine sympathies. Some plants, like some men, thrive anywhere, are cosmopolite, whilst others flourish only in their native soil, under special conditions, and without them pine and eventually die.

    In early spring a very familiar plant shows its large, velvety, mealy leaves, in many places, on the road sides, at the bottom of walls - the Verbascum. At the same time appears in great abundance and luxuriance, in the same regions, a large, elegantly-variegated white and green Thistle. They both are in flower early in April, as also is the Antirhinum, or Snapdragon, which is found wild on the warm terraces. It belongs to the same natural order as the Verbascum, that of the Scrophulariaceae. This is also the time when the elegant little grape Hyacinth, the star of Bethlehem, the Cistus or rock rose, the prickly Broom, the Cytisus, and many other beautiful flowers are in full bloom, and transform the ravines and terraces into regular gardens. I must not either forget to mention the orchids, of which many different kinds are found – the fly Orchis, the spider Orchis, the Orchis lutea, the longbraced.

    Nearly all the cultivated vegetation of the Mentone amphitheatre - Lemon, Olive, and Orange-trees - except what is found on the narrow seaboard, grows on terraces, built, or excavated on the side of the mountain. These terraces have been produced by the labour of many ages. The mountains and hills rise too rapidly from the sea level for even Olive-trees to grow without this preliminary step being adopted to support and form the soil. A terrace is a ledge cut in the hill side. The stone taken out of the hill forms the outer wall, the dust, the broken stones, and a little earth brought from some other region, form the soil. These terraces are very expensive to make - as much so, I have been told, as houses; whereas the product is prospective only. The man who builds them sinks his capital more for his children’s benefit than for his own. If he plants Lemon or Orange-trees, he must also dig a large tank, and be able to get water to fill the tank, in order to irrigate them in the rainless summer. If he plants Olive-trees, they grow so slowly, that even in twenty years the produce is insignificant. The stones, even, have to crumble into soil, under the influence of moisture, wind, and weather, and manure has to be added, before the terrace can produce the green crops which are generally planted on those occupied by young trees.

    And yet these mountain-sides are scarred with these terraces, which rise in successive tiers, and are the foundation of the agricultural riches of the country. They are in evidence, in stone, of the thrift and industry of past generations - a silent but eloquent monument of the domestic virtues of the forefathers of the present race. Many new terraces have been built during the last past years, owing to the increasing prosperity of the inhabitants.