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.
Heureux qui mollement laisse couler sa vie,
How many there are among the busy workers of social life chained to town duties, cares, and occupations, living in an atmosphere of bricks and mortar, who have a secret passion for flowers and horticulture! An old writer on gardening, whose name escapes me, quaintly remarks that a flowering plant is like a very delicately organized human being. If treated with fostering care and attention, it returns the labour and affection a hundredfold, becomes a thing of beauty producing lovely flowers to rejoice the heart of the friendly owner. But if neglected and abandoned, or treated with capricious tenderness, it fades, droops, and dies.
At first I was satisfied with the luxuriant wild vegetation of winter in this region, with the sunshine, and with the natural beauties of the district. As I became more and more familiarized with my winter home, I began to grieve that the precious sunshine, light, and heat, that surrounded me should be turned to so little horticultural account. Nature in these southern regions is left pretty much to herself as regards flowers, and it is surprising what floricultural wonders she does produce unassisted. Then the desire came to see what I myself could do with the gardening lore previously acquired in England. So I purchased a few terraces and some naked rocks on the mountain side, about a mile from Mentone, three hundred feet above the sea level, with a south-westerly aspect, and thoroughly sheltered from all northerly winds.
Such climatic conditions are peculiarly suited, as already stated, to the Olive, the Lemon, the Orange tree, which cover the hill sides, and constitute all but the sole agricultural produce. In the gardens, such as they are, mostly, if not entirely planted as adjuncts to the villas built for strangers, many flowers and plants will thrive and blossom, more or less, all winter, with scarcely any care. Thus, the following grow luxuriantly, and many can stand the summer drought without irrigation: - Aloe, Cactaceae in general, Mesembryanthemum, Iris, Maritime Squill, Cineraria maritima, Alyssum, Rosemary, Thyme, Wallflowers, Stocks, Carnations, Marguerite, Geranium, Pelargonium, Marigold, Arabis, Silene Pendula, Primula (common and Chinese), Violets, Pansies, Nemophila; spring bulbs - Crocus, Snowdrop, Hyacinth, Ranunculus, Narcissus, Ixia, Sparaxis; Hepatica, Roses, Chrysanthemum, Salvias of many kinds, Lavender, Mignonette, Fabriana Imbricata, Justicia, Tobacco, red Valerian, Daphne, Spirea, Achillea, Veronica, Erica Mediterranea, Nasturtium, Habrothamnus Elegans, Lantana, Abutilon, Datura Stramonium, Linum trigynum, Sparmannia Africana, Petunia, Cyclamen, Camellias, Azaleas, Calla Ethiopica, Richardia Ethiopica, Wigandia Carcassonna, Bignonias, Begonias, Cineraria, Verbenam Cytisus, Cistus, many species of Passion flowers, Chorozema, and many Australian winter flowering Mimosae and Acaciae. As stated, many of these plants can rest in the warm dry summer without being injured thereby. They are all, or nearly all, perennial in this climate. They start into life with the autumn rains, flowering more or less early in the winter or spring, and most of them continue in full bloom from Christmas to April, a month which, horticulturally, corresponds to June in England.
[BK: Bennet now does a detailed plant by plant description how they pass the summer heat]
In conclusion, I may say, that the horticultural facts contained in this chapter corroborate the researches previously made in other regions of the south of Europe, and prove conclusively that thorough protection from the north winds has an extreme influence on climate and vegetation, an influence which it requires many degrees of latitudes to compensate.
This fact applies to England as well as to the south of Europe. In building our houses and making our gardens, we do not think enough of protection from the north. With its assistance our climate may be rendered much less trying both to the human and to the vegetable constitution, as is proved by Hastings, Ventnor, and Torquay, the chief merit of which is protection from the north.
Tides - Colour - Fishes - Birds - The St. Louis Rocks.
The ordinary notion of the Mediterranean is that of a blue and tranquil ocean lake. At Mentone, during the winter, this poetical view of the great inland sea is often strangely falsified. Sometimes, for weeks together, it is constantly angry, quite realizing the experience of "pious Aeneas" in days gone by. For then is indeed "troubled and perfidious", ever breaking in angry billows on the shingly beach.
To those who are familiarized with the varying forms of our old ocean, ever advancing, ever retreating, this seething, all but tideless sea, which day and night beats the shore with impotent rage, never advancing, never retreating, is at first tedious in the extreme. Gradually, however, the eye, the ear, the mind, become accustomed to its monotonous anger, and open to its real magnificience. Then, indeed, it is a glorious privilege to live, as nearly all do at Mentone, in front of the boundless liquid Mediterranean plain - at one time heaving restlessly, at another, in a calmer mood, covered with myriads of facets on which the sparkling sunshine dances and glitters. The daily rising of the sun, also, in the east, out of the waters, colouring the skies and the waves with hues which surpass those of the rainbow, is a magnificient sight, that never palls.
We have authentic records of the climate and meteorology of the Mediterranean in the writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans, such as Pausians and Vitruvius, extending to above two thousand years. Both climate and meteorology appear to have been then what they are now, and the Mediterranean was navigated, by those who inhabited its coasts, pretty much as it is navigated in our own days, in a cautious land and shelter-loving manner. Then, as now, the winter was a stormy time, and the danger of navigating with sails in a sea in which there is so much uncertainty as to the direction of the wind, and such frequent collision between north and south, was so impressed on the minds of mariners, that all long voyages were abandoned. Merchant vessels were pulled on shore, and remained, "in port", free from the dangers of the deep, from the beginning of October until the beginning of April. Marine insurances were known at Athens even in those times; but navigation in the six forbidden months was considered so dangerous that no insurances were taken, and the interval was specially set apart dor deciding ligitation in maritime cases, at a time when all the parties concerned were sure to be at home.
Mariners in those days hugged the shore, and at the slightest unfavourable change ran into the nearest port, or took shelter under the nearest headland; and this, notwithstanding all the modern improvements in navigation, they do even now. With a slight breeze, the sea, near the land, is studded with vessels, their white lateen sails extended, like swallows skimming over the waters of the deep; but if a stiff wind and a heavy sea rise, they instantly seek shelter, and disappear. Then, for days together, not a sail is seen, until fine weather returning, again lures them out of their retreats.
In the port at Mentone, at Ventimiglia, and all along the coast, scores of these small vessels may be seen, high and dry on the beach, waiting for cargo or fair weather. So it was that the Greeks pulled up their vessels on the shores of Troy, after landing, and it was when thus drawn up that they were fired and destroyed by their leader.
Although poetically called tideless, the expense of water that forms the Mediterranean obeys the same laws as the great ocean. Like the ocean, it feels the vicinity of our cold satellite the moon, and rises and falls, at stated hours, under its influence. The body of water, however, is so much smaller than that of our ocean, notwithstanding the depth of the Mediterranean, that the moon’s attraction produces a comparatively trifling effect. There are also other and more recondite causes which contribute to make the Mediterranean all but tideless.
The height of the tidal wave varies considerably in different regions of this great inland sea, ranging from a few lines to a foot or more.
Whenever the wind blows on or off the shore, it raises or lowers the sea-level, all over the Mediterranean, several feet. At Mentone, when the wind has been blowing several days from the south-east or south-west, the sea reaches nearly to the road in the eastern bay. When, on the contrary, it has been blowing several days from shore, not only the shingle, but a line of sandy beach is often uncovered.
When the sea is breaking furiously on the beach, as it does during a great part of the winter, there is no but little marine life visible. The sea-level being ever the same, owing to the absence of perceptible tides, there are no exploring walks on the sands at low tide. On calm days, however, a walk to the extreme end of the Cap Martin introduces the amateur naturalist to pools lying between jagged rocks, where there is much to be observed. There are also other points along the eastern coast where similar pools may be found, containing various kinds of sea weed, sea anemones, hermit crabs, inhabiting pretty shells which they have dragged from deeper water, and other marine treasures; only to be discovered, however, on days of perfect calm.
The Mediterranean is a deep sea, and its depth is very great on this coast near the shore. According to Lyell, Saussure found a depth of two thousand feet a few yards from the land at Nice, and from Toulon to Genoa the sea is everywhere very deep near the shore. Thus is explained the absence of deltas at the mouths of the largest torrents which descend from the mountains, and fall into the sea in the Mentonian amphitheatre. For countless ages these torrents have been rolling, during winter rains, great masses of boulders into the sea, and yet no impression has been produced on the outline of the two bays, which remains perfect. No doubt these boulders, which form the shingly beach, soon fall into these all but unfathomable depths, just as stones rolled down a house-top would fall into the space below. The same remark applies, in part, to the Paillon at Nice. Thus, at the bottom of these marine valleys are now forming, no doubt, beds of conglomerate, similar in character to the one which the village of Roccabruna is perched.
The Mediterranean is a warm sea. At all the times of the year it is five or six degrees warmer than Atlantic Ocean under the same latitude; and in winter it is never cooled down to the same extend as the latter in northern and even temperate regions. Even in winter, I have never found it lower than 54 degrees on the Mentone coast in deep water.
Owing to the paucity of rain, and to the small number of large rivers that empty into the Mediterranean, the supply of fresh water to that sea is much below the amount taken by evaporation. To meet this deficiency a wide stream of current of sea-water, many hundred feet deep, sets in through the Straits of Gibraltar from the Atlantic. Below that inward current of Atlantic water lies an outward current of water of a denser gravity - from increased saturation with salt - than the upper and inward Atlantic current.
The exceptional warmth of the Mediterranean exercises, as we have seen, an influence on the climate, which it modifies favourably. It also exercises a remarkable influence on the finny tribes that inibit it. In the tropics, and in warmer seas also, the fish are neither so good nor so numerous, although more brilliant and fantastic in colour and shape. The Mediterranean is no exception to this rule, as I can testify from personal experience. The fish it contains is in general neither good nor abundant, which accounts for the Roman Catholic inhabitants of its shores consuming so large a quantity of the product of the herring and cod fisheries of Northern Europe.
At Mentone the great depth of the sea at a short distance from the shore is no doubt an additional drawback, as very deep waters are neither favourable to the breeding of fish, nor are they good fishing-grounds. Our best fishing-grounds are all shoal sandbanks, as for instance the Dogger Bank, and that of Newfoundland.
On a fine day, when the sea is calm, the Mentone fishermen are on the alert betimes, and the bay is studded with boats. A very close-meshed bag net is thrown out and buoyed, and then dragged in shore by long ropes, with great excitement on the part of those engaged. There are often ten or twelve men, women, and children to each net. When at last, however, it is drawn in, and its contents are scattered on the beach, these efforts recall the fable of the mountain in labour. There is seldom anything in the bag but a few pounds‘ weight of a small transparent whitebait kind of fish, a few sardines and small red mullets, some diminuitive sword-fish, and two or three crabs the size of a five-shilling piece, that have not been able to get out of the way.
The small-meshed nets must be very destructive to young fish; and as they are everywhere used on the Mediterranean coast, they must tend to render its waters even more unproductive than Nature intended. It has been satisfactorily established that our whitebait are the young fry of the herring, so that both on our shores and on the Mediterranean the wholesale destruction of these small fish is equally unjustifiable.
The French Government, which has paid great attention, during the last past years, to pisciculture, to the replentishment both of its salt and fresh waters with fish, has become alive to this fact. A few years ago the small fry were sold at Mentone for four sous a pound; the larger for eight sous. Now the small fetch twenty, and the larger thirty sous. It is hoped that the destruction of small fry will be legally prevented.
The gentle art is cultivated at Mentone by many zealous native piscatorians, who may be seen day after day fishing from the parapet of the quay at the entrance of the town, from rocks lying in the sea, or from the shore. Their patience and skill, however, meet with but a poor reward, as might be anticipated from what has been stated. Their principal recompense appears to be the lazy enjoyment of the harmonies of nature so dear to all who love "the contemplative man’s recreation". The melody of the waves breaking at our feet, the surging of the blue waters over the seaweed covering the submarine rocks, the varied hues that the fuci assume, as they are alternatively expanded, buoyed up by the coming wave, and then left high and dry as it retreats, the effects of the ever-varying cloud, shadow, and sunlight on the sea, the rocks, the mountains, and the horizon, are never better observed, or more thoroughly appreciated, than by the unsuccessful angler. Very little piscatorial success satisfies the true lover of nature, and such nearly all enthusiastic piscatorians are. This love of nature is, I believe, the key to their oft-abused pastime.
Cuttle-fish are abundant in these waters, and are eaten by the inhabitants as a delicacy. They are occasionally found of enormous size. I have seen a monster, at least six feet in length, with villanous-looking tentacula several feet long. Such antagonists would be very formidable even to a strong swimmer, if they attacked him. They could easily pull him under water; but I have not heard of any such accident. Monstrous cuttle-fish, with shells twelve feet in circumference, characterized the warm seas of the chalk period and of the epoch in which the nummulites of the St Louis rocks existed. Well authenticated tales are told of tentacula as thick as a man’s arm, thrown by cuttle-fish like those of yore over the sides of a boat in these regions, and dragging seamen overboard. These "strange fish" have long ago died out in the Mediterranean, but, probably those I have seen are their lineal but degenerate descendants. The small and beautiful Nautilus is still alive, although it, too, lived in these remote days along with its awful companion.
The fishing for cuttle-fish is quite one of the features of the place. The boat is rowed gently along the shallow parts of the bay, where the rocks are covered with seaweed. In the prow sits the fisherman, holding a long stick, to which is tied a piece of meat as bait, partially covered with a few green twigs. This perch is poked among the seaweed, under the rocks and stones, in likely places. If the cuttle-fish is there he makes a clutch at the bait, and clings, to it with such extreme tenacity that he is easily hauled into the boat. At night fishing is often carried on by means of a fire lighted in a kind of metal basket suspended over the prow of the boat. This nightfishing has a picturesque effect as seen from the shore.
Often, when, stepped in the southern winter sunshine, I lie in my favourite leisure haunt, among the St. Louis rocks, gazing at the Mediterranean, in one of its calm, placid moments, I think of these monsters and repeat to myself the harmonious verses of Mrs. Hemans:
"What hidest thou in thy treasure-caves and cells, Thou ever-sounding and mysterious sea."