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Bennet's Book 1870
Winter and Spring
The Riviera, Mentone, Italy, Corsica, Sicily, Algeria, Spain and Biarritz,
By J. Henry Bennet, MD.
Amusements - Drives - Rides - Pedestrian Excursions - Mountain Villages - Casino - Churches - Social Life.
Since the first edition of this work was published, in 1861, Mentone has quite changed its character. It was then a quiet little Italian town on the sunny shore of the Riviera, with two or three small hotels, principally used by passing travellers, and half a dozen recently errected villas. Now it has become a well-known and frequented winter resort, with a score of hotels, three times that number of villas, and a mixed foreign winter population of above fifteen hundred. Many of these winter visitors are invalids in search of health, but by far the larger proportion are mere sun-worshippers, who have left the north to bask in the southern sunshine, or travellers to or from Italy, glad to rest for a time under the lemon and olive-clad hills of lovely Mentone. Its resources for visitors, however, are still principally in picturesque outdoor life. The scenery is most grand and imposing in the mountain background, most picturesque and romantic in the nearer hills and coast outline. Every ravine, every valley is a path of great loveliness, ascending gently towards the higher range. The flora is very abundant, and, as we have seen, most of our garden spring flowers grow wild in great luxuriance. The geological aspects of the country are also very instructive, and afford constant occupation and amusement to those interested in such pursuits.
Whenever the sun shines there are protected valleys and sunny mountain nooks, where at all times in December and January, as well as earlier and later, warmth, a quiet atmosphere, and flowers sure to be found. Although the Mentonian ampitheatre is limited, as described, it is sufficiently extensive to offer all but endless excursions to visitors, ill or well, and more especially to pedestrians. The protected valleys and hills are very numerous, and within the reach even of the invalid population. Once, also, the higher barrier of mountains has been passed, a perfect Switzerland opens out to the adventurous and valid tourist.
Within the immediate area of the Mentone district there are other points of interest besides the valleys and hills. The drives are very picturesque and lovely in their entire extent, and are all within the peculiar shelter of the district. They are: the beautiful western or Nice road to Roccabruna and the Turbia; the equally beautiful eastern or Genoa road to Ventimiglia and Bordighera; the charming road along the shore to Monaco; the road to the Cap Martin, to its bold, broken, rocky point, to the ruins of the old convent in the centre, and to the telegraph tower; the mountain pass road up the Carei valley, which winds over the mountains to Sospello and Turin; and lastly, the road that leads along the Cabrole valley to the foot of Sta. Lucia and Sta. Agnese mountains.
The first-mentioned drive, that to Roccabruna, Turbia, and Nice, has already been described. It is the road the stranger passes along on his arrival at Mentone from Nice, and is so exquisitely beautiful that it generally remains the favourite excursion, even during a residence of many months. Two hours are required to gently ascend the mountain side from Mentone to Turbia, at the summit of the pass. The village of Turbia, which crowns the pass, is a landmark in history. It was the frontier between Gaul and Liguria in the time of the Romans, and there is still to be seen near the road the very interesting ruins of a tower built by the Roman emperor Augustus, nearly two thousand years ago. These ruins show well in what massive style military works were constructed by the Romans, and are quite worth a special visit.
The Genoa road, which skirts the coast, is, as I have stated, equally beautiful. It begins to ascend at once on leaving the eastern bay, passing over the picturesque bridge and ravine of St. Louis. Above it is positively blasted out of the side of the limestone rock. After a cold gorge the drive is prolonged along the coast to Ventimiglia, a quaint old fortified town, with a good sized river, the Roya, which descends along a fine and wide valley from the foot of the Col de Tende. Ventimiglia is seven miles from Mentone; and Bordighera, where the palm trees are met with in all their glory, is four miles further. On the return, if "imprudently" made towards sunset, a most glorious view is obtained when the highest part of the road is reached near Mentone. The entire amphitheatre is beautifully seen, and the setting sun behind the Esterel mountains reveal their sharp outlines, the Isle St. Maguerite at Cannes, and the lighthouse at Antibes, as distinctly as if only a few miles distant, instead of forty or fifty.
The drive to Monaco, about five miles along the coast, at the foot of the mountains, is certainly one of the most picturesque in Europe. It winds along the shore following the indentations of the coast; at one moment all but level with the beach, at another rising several hundred feet above it. On the land side are mountains, ascending rapidly many hundred feet above the sea, hoar with age, rent and torn in every conceivable shape. On the Mediterranean side are quiet coves and bays, where the waves ripple gently on a sandy beach, at the foot of jagged, capriciously shaped rocks, covered with pines and brushwood.
Both going to Monaco and returning, from early morn to evening, this lovely road is steeped in the glowing sunshine of the south. Monaco, a little town perched on a rocky peninsula all but surrounded by the sea, is itself very interesting. It is a calm and lovely spot on a fine sunny day, with its pretty little port, all but rock-surrounded, clear and blue, enlivened only by a few fishingboats.
For a few hours each day it contains the small steamer which plies daily between Monaco and Nice under the auspices of the managers of the "Cercle". The railway which has been open for some time from Monaco to Nice has naturally all but entirely diverted the traffic. But few will trust to the faithless, capricious deep who can avoid it. The line is to be opened through to Mentone this autumn (1869). It runs along the shore, through Cap Martin in a tunnel, and terminates at Mentone at a very picturesque station. At present the railway works are a scar on the surface of nature, and rather spoil the pretty beach along which they pass. Nature will soon, however, obliterate the wound she has received, with wild plants and southern verdure, and then we shall only look upon it as a messenger of progress and civilization. The French Government has promised to construct a port at Mentone. A jetty thrown out beyond the old Genoese castle, which is built on a rock in the sea, at the point of the promontory on which the town stands, would greatly protect and improve the anchorage. It would also enable passengers to land from steamers without having to use boats, a great desideratum.
Menton and the village of Roccabruna formed a part of the principality of Monaco from the early Middle Ages. The Princes of Monaco held their small principality as feudatories of Piedmont, and although swept away by the French Revolution, were recognized in their former rights at the treaty of Vienna. Their authority, however, was harshly exercised, and in 1848 Mentone and Roccabruna made a small revolution in imitation of France, drove the Prince away, and declared themselves independent. The happy independence thus gained, with Arcadian immunity from taxes or conscription, they enjoyed until 1860, when the Prince of Monaco ceded his rights over his revolted subjects to the Emperor of France for the sum of 120000 pounds. Monaco, his faithful city of six hundred inhabitants, he retained as the capital of the diminished principality, under the jurisdiction of France.
The old city of Monaco is built on an elevated promontory, and from its advancing considerably into the sea beyond the coast line, it is rather too much exposed to the mistral or north-west wind to be an agreeable winter residence. It was well known to the Romans, is often mentioned by classical writers, and has had a little history of its own throughout the dark and Middle Ages. Its princes have been small kings on their sea-girt rock, and have often waged war, under the wing first of one powerful protector, then of another. The Sardinians, the French, the Genoese, have all in turn been allies or foes, until at last a real annexation to France has taken place. By a treaty made with that country, the customs and criminal jurisprudence have been surrendered, as well as Mentone.
The French Emperor has, however, allowed the Prince of Monaco to retain his gaming establishment, although none are permitted in France, and that when even the German Dukes are beginning to blush at this source of revenue, and to talk of abandoning it, a rather singular fact. But the oranges, the lemons, and the oil, are nearly gone with Mentone and Roccabruna, and the Princes of Monaco do not feel disposed, it may be presumed, to abandon the motto of Monaco of old:
Son Monaco sopra un scoglio
The gaming establishement used to be on the Monaco promontory, in the town. But M. Leblanc, the present lessee, has spent a very large sum of money in building a beautiful casino on the model of the one at Homburg - a first class hotel - and several elegant villas, in a more protected and better situation. These buildings have all been erected in a picturesque spot, on one side of the port, about half a mile east of the town. Thus the promontory on which Monaco is perched shelters the new gambling colony, in a great measure, from the north-west wind, to which the town itself is exposed. Indeed, Leblanc is showing much more taste in his erections, and in the arrangement of the ornamental grounds around the casino, than the Mentonians have as yet exhibited. Monaco is, I believe, the only regular gaming house open in winter. The garden is well laid out, and the terraces from the sea are covered with shrubs and flowers that flourish and bloom in winter. There are large beds of Tea, Bengal, and monthly Roses, which flower all winter in more or less profusion. Thus the rose amateur never loses sight of his favourite flower. The band plays twice a day, it is composed of fourty thoroughly good musicians, selected from Germany and Italy, and discourses really „sweet music" in a noble music-hall or ball-room. It is a great treat to listen to so admirably led and so well-trained an orchestra, in this out of the way place, and it is a pleasure we Mentonians can enjoy when we like.
On a fine sunny winter’s day it is a most charming excursion to drive over to Monaco, to lunch at the comfortable hotel, or al fresco in pic-nic style, to sauter over the pretty gardens, to listen for an hour to the fairy-like music, and then to return leisurely home, before sunset chills the air. It is a pity, however, that the vice of gambling should be the means of placing these quiet, health-giving pleasures at our disposal. I try, when I go there, which I sometimes do for the sake of the flowers and the music, to forget all about it, and in that view seldom or never enter the gaming saloons. I never recommend any one to settle at Monaco, for I cannot but think that the immediate proximity of a gaming table, in the absence of all active occupation, is dangerous to many who would never positively seek its excitement and risks.
The Cap Martin, a semicircular peninsula, covered with an Olive grove in the centre, and a protecting Pine forrest on the coast margin, is another charming drive. It forms one side of the western bay, and is a most picturesque and attractive spot. The road branches off from the one to Nice near the town, passes through an Olive grove of fine, curious old trees, and then divides into two. The one, after passing by some pretty orange orchards, skirts the shore, fringed with irregular, water-worn rocks, blanched by the waves which the south-west wind drives with extreme fury. When there is a storm from the south-west of south-east, it is a magnificient spectacle to watch the sea dashing violently on the sharp, jagged masses of limestones, and breaking into dense masses of foam and spray.
At the extremity of the cape, just as the seashore road begind to turn and to ascend, there is a little sheep track, that winds round the promontory, above the sea, at the foot of the steep myrtle-covered cliffs; and amidst the confused, irregular mass of rocks which line the shore there are various little warm and lovely bays. This path, which I have christened "Monaco lane", is, without any doubt, one of the most delightful spots in the district for the quiet contemplation of nature’s sterner beauties. The time to spend an hour or two here is in the afternoon, when the sun, passing to the west, pours its warm rays on this, the western side of the cape. An intelligent survey of the wilderness of rocks will reveal a hundred nooks worth of an emperor’s siesta.
The other branch of the Cap road ascends to the higher ground of the promontory, and leads, through lovely woods of Olive and Pine, with a brushwood of Myrthle, Lentiscus, prickly Broom, and Thyme, to some old ruins, said by some to be Roman, and by others to be the remains of a convent. Near them is a telegraph tower, which the electric wire has rendered useless.
Both these roads afford at every step magnificient views of the bay of Menton, of the grandiose mountains behind it, and of the bold and irregular coast line as far as Bordighera, built on a promontory which advances out to sea in a south-eastern direction, is a very prominent object from every part of the coast as far as Antibes. It gives at a distance the promise of greater beauty than is realized on a closer inspection.
The Cap Martin roads have hitherto been in a bad state of repair, owing to contested ownership and to the working of stone quarries in the vicinity. The entire cap, however, has been recently purchased by an enlightened French gentleman, a winter resident, and we may hope for better things. M. Sabatier intends to give the town of Mentone the option of re-purchasing it for a public park. Should it not do so, he purposes building a villa for himself, It is to be hoped that the town will take advantage of his liberality, and convert the cape into what would be the most picturesque drive and promenade in Europe. It would be a great boon, a great charm and attraction, to all lovers of the beautiful in nature who spend the winter in Mentone.
The Turin road (see local map) ascends the deepest and longest valley in the amphitheatre - that of Carei, at the entrance of the town. The ascent begins about a mile from the shore. It is for some distance gentle, until about a mile beyond the village of Monti, when it begins to climb the side of the mountain by a terraced, engineered causeway, like the one of the great Swiss passes into Italy. This road, only recently completed, reaches the summit of the pass, about three miles from the shore, at an elevation of about 2400 feet. It then descends and joins the road from Nice to Turin by the Col de Tende at Sospello, the second stage from Nice. Menton is thus now in free communication with the highland regions that surround it, and from which it had hitherto been cut off by its surrounding mountain barrier. Supplies of mountain forage, and of mountain produce generally, now easily reach Mentone by road carriage, whereas formerly they could only reach by mules, or round by Nice.
Moreover, a beautiful and interesting highland district has become accessible throughout the winter, not only to hardy pedestrians, as heretofore, but to all strangers and invalids capable of prudently leaving the protected regions and of spending a few hours in a carriage. This part of the Maritime Alps contains many places of interest, many picturesque localities, which can then be visited by all but the more confirmed invalids during a great part of the winter.
The last named drive is along the Boirie or Cabrole valley [BK: Borrigo and Cabrolle]. This road, a remarkable good and nearly level one, is about a mile and a half in extent. It skirts a mountain torrent, which occupies the very centre of the Mentone amphitheatre, and which carries to the sea the watershed of a considerable extent of the surrounding mountains. When I first knew Mentone there was no bridge over this torrent where it throws itself into the sea, near the entrance of the town, and after heavy rains it was sometimes so swollen as to intercept all communication for many hours. A new bridge has been built, so that here, at last, travellers will no longer have to wait "until the river runs dry", for what we could never say with Horace
Rusticus exspectat dum defluat amnis; at ille Labitur, et labetur in omne volubilis aevum.