BK media systems
Bennet's Book 1870
Winter and Spring
The Riviera, Mentone, Italy, Corsica, Sicily, Algeria, Spain and Biarritz,
By J. Henry Bennet, MD.
The geological features of the country are very interesting, and much may be observed in a small compass. The high range of mountains which form the amphitheatre belong to the lower cretaceous rocks, and are composed of stratified limestone. The stratification is, in general, easily recognized, but it has been partly effaced in some localities by igneous action. At both the eastern and western extremities of Menton bay this formation juts out into the sea. At the eastern extremity, the road to Genoa is cut out of the side of the mountain, and ascends to a great elevation, crossing a deep ravine in the limestone by a bold bridge, the Pont St Louis.
The conlomerate is magnificiently developed both at the entrance to the Mentonian amphitheatre, on the Nice road, near the village of Roccabruna, and seven miles further on, at Ventimiglia. It is, indeed, one of the most interesting features in the geology of the district. The deposit is composed of large stones, rounded by water and friction, imbedded in calcareous gravel, constituting what has been termed pudding-stone, and is very extensive; it indicates a period of great convulsion, a period when the waters of the Mediterranean were probably thrown with terrific violence on the mountain masses which form the Maritime Alps in the far off background. Porphyry, and granite stones of large volume, are common in this conglomerate, and these formations are only met with at a considerable distance from the Mediterranean coast.
Is the conglomerate at Roccabruna and Ventimiglia a true boulder drift; is it evidence of the glacial period having existed on this coast? Was it formed under water during the glacial epoch, when, no doubt, the mountains in the background were one mass of glaciers descending to the sea; when the polar bear roamed on these shores, and polar fish and shells inhabited these seas?
Thus, in this little Mediterranean bay, do we find various important phases of the earth’s marvelous history stamped in inedible characters. On the east of the amphitheatre are rocks, the nummulitic, which point to sunny skies, warm seas, and exuberant life, existing previous event to the raising of the main chain of the Maritime Alps, for countless ages. On the west are conglomerate stones which possiblly speak of polar cold, of gloom and barreness, that also existed during countless ages. Around is the evidence of another era, the present; itself destined unquestionably to ultimate change.
On the shore, at the eastern extremity of the inner bay, in the "red rocks", as they are called, are several good-sized caves, which contain in great abundance organic remains – the bones of large and small mammifers – imbedded in hard sand and calcareous matter. The organic remains thus imbedded cover the floor to a depth of many feet, and are mixed with the flint weapons and utensils and knives, which have excited so much attention during the last few years; testifying as they do to the existence of races of savage men in far back pre-Adamite times.
The existence of these Bone caves at Mentone, along with the geological features of the district, draws attention to one of the most interesting and difficult geological questions of the day. These flint instruments were evidently made by men, and by men to whom the first dawn of human civilization was unknown, who were living as savages now live in Australia. They lived evidently in the caves, and destroyed the animals, the bones of which form the floor, by means of the flint weapons, feeding on their flesh. The question is, when did they live?
In order to still further clear up the geological history of the Mentone cave deposits, a museum has been formed in the town-hall of Mentone, where the bones and flint utensils found in them by geological amateurs are to be collected for future investigation, along with all other specimens pertaining to the natural history of the district. I would also add, that up to the present time there has been no discovery of human bones under such circumstances as to prevent doubt or cavil, although several presumed discoveries have been brought forward. This is, at present, one of the difficulties of the question. We may, therefore, join in the search at Mentone, and perhaps find the solution to this mystery, so anxiously desired.[BK: Bennet wrote these lines before the famous human skull from the Neanderthal epoch had been found in one of the deeper caves]
As we have seen, several of the lower or secondary hills enclosed in the amphitheatre are formed of a loose sandstone. With the exception the soil may be said to be principally of limestone formation, with here and there aluminous clays. The agricultural geology of the district is consequently exceedingly interesting, offering much to observe in a very limited area.
The clay strata, in their natural unworked state, appear, as elsewhere in Italy, very sterile. The sides of the deep ravines worn in them by mountain torrents present very little natural vegetation; as may be seen in the upper part of the Gorbio valley, and to the east of the mountain village of Castellare. Where, however, the fall is not precipitous, and especially where terraces have been formed, and the soil has been worked and manured, the clay strata appear to become very productive. This is easily explained, as clays contain the potash, lime, and other salts necessary for vegetation, and everywhere merely require cultivation and irrigation to become fertile.
The sandstone hills are more naturally fertile than the clays, to their own peculiar vegetation - Conifers, Heaths, and Brooms – but do not offer the same resources to cultivation. The green sand, where it appears, gives, as usual, a most productive soil, as for instance high up in the Cabroles valley.
The hard stratified limestone which constitutes the Mentonian basin, and of which the higher range of hills is mainly, if not entirely composed, by its decomposition forms a very fertile soil. At the foot and on the sides of the limestone rocks are vast masses of stones and detritus that have fallen from the cliffs adjoining, broken off by the combined action of moisture, sun, and wind. These gradually crumble where they lie, yielding up their mineral constituents, and forming a suitable nidus for seeds sown either by the hand of Nature or by that of man. If the lemon or olive is planted in such soil, it grows at once vigorously and healthily. If vegetables and cereals are sown, they appear to be equally at home. The numerous terraces recently constructed on the side of the mountain, and at the foot of the cliffs near the St Louis ravine, and the self-sown plants growing naturally in the same region, illustrate these facts. The vegetation of the Mentonian amphitheatre, except that of the sand hills, is what may be termed a lime vegetation.
Fruit-trees of all kinds seem to find the sea-level too warm, and are principally cultivated at a much greater elevation, such as the vicinity of the Turbia, or of Sta. Agnese, above 2000 feet high. Here Vines, Apple, Pear, Cherry, Peach, and Almond-trees abound, covering the terraces, and taking the place of the Olive-tree. The winter frosts are severe at ths elevation, for I have repeatedly seen ice an inch thick. This degree of winter cold seems, indeed, to suit their constitution better than the mild winter climate of the seashore region.
As we have seen, the Mentonian district, which has been the principal seat of my observation and study, is a small amphitheatre, situated on the coast-line or undercliff of the mountains of southern Europe, as they reach the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean climate, when the north winds blow, is like this upper region of our own atmosphere. The air, containing but little moisture when these north winds reign, as they do during the greater part of the winter, the sky is blue, and the sun shines through it fiercely, even in mid-winter. It thus warms all the objects with which it comes in contact, and which are sheltered from the wind, that is, the entire undercliff.
The north-west wind, called the Mistral in this part of the Mediterranean, usually blows from the south of France as a cold, dry, cutting wind, which is much dreaded. When the Mistral blows, the sky remains blue, and the sun shines warmly.
With south-westerly and south-easterly winds, the fall of rain at Mentone, and on the Riviera in general, is often very great in a limited space of time – indeed, quite tropical. This is sometimes the case when northerly winds meet southerly currents on or near the coast line, and condense their moisture. The rainfall may amount to five or six inches in the twenty-four hours.
The rain, in these instances is often confined to the upper mountains, and increases the volume of torrents and rivulets, although it may remain quite fine at and around Mentone, as also on the sea horizon.
When, on the contrary, it rains a few miles out at sea, whilst there is fine dry weather at Mentone, the wind generally comes from the contrary direction, from the north. The cold north wind, passing overhead, impinges upon the sea some distance from the shore, meeting warmer atmospheric strata. Dark banks of clouds thus form on the horizon and rain falls several miles from the coast. In either case, the coast ledge may, and often does, enjoy a happy immunity.
There are two rainy seasons on the Riviera. One, the autumnal equinox, at the latter end of September, and during October; the other, the vernal equinox, in March, ending with the first week of April.
During the summer but little or no rain falls. In some years the drought lasts, without cessation, for six or seven months, from April or May to October or November. Thence the absolute necessity of tanks for the irrigation of the lemon and orange-trees, which, as we have stated, cannot thrive and bear fruit without irrigation during the dry season.
During the ten winters that I have passed at Mentone, living in the eastern bay, I have never seen a fog, either at sea or land, day or night, morning or evening.
Generally speaking, the sky is clear, and the sun shines in the heavens like a globe of fire. Even on cloudy days the sun is often seen, and its power felt. Sunshine is quite different in the south of Europe to what it is in England and the north-west of Europe. In the Mediterranean region it is quite otherwise. In fine weather, winter or summer, the sky is of a hard blue, and objects at a distance of many miles are seen clearly and distinctly, without any of that haze which forms so peculiar a feature in an English landscape.
The Mentone vegetation shows the influence of a powerful sun warming a chilly atmosphere. Deciduous trees lose their leaves in December, as soon as the nights become cold, and do not regain them until April, when they are becoming warmer. The green, forrest-like appearance of the hills and valleys, in midwinter, is owing entirely to the evergreen Olive, Orange, Lemon, and Pine-trees. The few deciduous trees are mere dry sticks until April. On the other hand, in sheltered situations exposed to the south, the heat of the sun during the day so warms the soil, that it has no time to cool at night. These situations thus become regular forcing-beds, producing, as I have stated, Violets in December, Anemones in January, and all our spring flowers in February.
From what precedes, it will be perceived that the characteristics of the climate of Mentone, and of the Riviera in general, as evidenced during the ten winters I have spent there, are: absence of frost, prevalence of northerly winds, moderate dryness of the atmosphere, complete absence of fog, paucity of rainy days, clearness and blueness of the sky, general heat and brilliancy of the sun, a rather cool or chilly night temperature, and a bracing coolness of the atmosphere throughout the winter, out of the sun’s rays. On the rare occasions, however, when it rains, with the wind from a nothern quarter, there may be as miserable and chilly a state of things as in a drizzling November day in England. As rain only falls on a small number of days, and then not often during the whole day, and as the other days are uniformly bright, clear, and sunshiny, for five days out of six, throughout the winter, exercise in the open air can be prudently taken, from nine until three, four, or five P.M., according to the season, with both pleasure and benefit.
It is well to recollect that in such a climate, in the warmer temperate zone, winter is by no means avoided. The descriptions of the winter climate of Nice, Cannes, Hyeres, and Italy in general, contained in most books of travel, works on climate, and guide-books, are mere poetical delusions. The perpetual spring, the eternal summer, the warm southern balmy atmosphere, described to the reader in such glowing terms, only exist in the imagination of the writers. Although there is so much sunshine, so much fine weather, such immunity from fog and drizzling rain, we are still on the continent of Europe, with ice and snow behind, for more than two thousand miles, to the north pole. It is still winter. Wind, rain, a chilly atmosphere, and occasional cold weather, with snow on the mountains and flakes of ice in exposed situations, have to be encountered. The existence of Orange and Lemon-trees, of Geraniums, Heliotropes, Verbenas, and Roses, flowering throughout the winter, does not necessarily imply the absence of cold weather, merely the absence of absolute frost.
A few miles from Mentone, at Bordighera, groves of Palm-trees grow in great luxuriance, and are looked upon by all travellers as evidence of an all but tropical climate; as are those that grow on the „Place" at Hyeres, and in the gardens of Nice. Such, however, is not the case. Palms will grow as out-door trees in any region of the Riviera, and would be generally cultivated, were it not that their cultivation is unprofitable everywhere, except at Bordighera, which has the monopoly of supplying Rome with palms on Palm Sunday. But they either do not produce fruit, or their fruit is not fit to eat.
The presence of the sea exercises a considerable influence over the climate of Mentone, as the temperature of the Mediterranean is never very low. When the weather is cold, and especially when the sun is obscured, the sea is a reservoir of heat, and perceptibly warms the air. When, on the contrary, as is usually the case, the sun shines, the evaporation which constantly takes place cools the air at the sea-level, and it becomes perceptibly warmer as the hills are ascended. There are sheltered sunny nooks in the vicinity of Castellar, a mountain village 1500 feet above the sea-level, where, owing, no doubt, to the concentration and reverberation of the sun’s rays, the climate is exceptionally mild, and where violets and anemones appear at least ten days before they are found at much lower elevations, or even in sheltered spots at the sea-level.
The summer climate of Mentone is said to be cool and pleasant, owing, as we have seen, to the sea-breeze which sets in regularly in the morning, and blows the greater part of the day, and to the cool land-breeze, which descends at night from the higher mountains. The trying feature of the summer climate in the Riviera is undoubtedly the high night temperature, which has to be borne constantly, during the summer, from May to October.
Some of the mountains that surround the Mentonian amphitheatre are above 4000 feet high, the Aiguille and Gran Mondo for instance, and present lovely plateaux and Pine forrests, and would offer a charming summer retreat, were Pensions Hotels built upon them. The time will come, no doubt, when this will be accomplished, and when the winter invalids will only have to ascend the mountains that have protected them from the north winds in winter to find shelter from the south in summer. But now these mountain heights are left to the shepherds.