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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.
Rusticus exspectat dum defluat amnis; at ille Labitur, et labetur in omne volubilis aevum.
The view of the mountains from the Borrigo valley is magnificient, for we are at their base, in the very heart of the amphitheatre. The railroad station has been erected at its entrance in the midst of lovely mountain scenery. At the termination of the carriage road there is a picturesque olive mill, and beyond a romantic pathway, which extends for another mile, meandering among Olive and Pine groves, until it reaches the small village of Cabrole, the head of the valley. About the centre of that portion of the valley which is occupied by the carriage road, the torrent receives a tributary from the west, bringing the waters of one of the prettiest ravines of the district. It is called the Primrose and Hepatica valley, owing to the presence of these flowers in profusion in early spring. Being within half a mile of the entrance of the town, these valleys are as accessible to pedestrians as to those who ride or drive. A comfortable open carriage, with two horses, can be had, from either Mentone or Nice, for about 24 pounds a month, including the driver, and all expenses. Horses are but little adapted to the mountainous character of the country, and are so little patronized that they are not always provided. They may, however, be obtained from Nice.
Donkeys are the usual means of ascent to the picturesque mountain valleys and ridges; mules are but little used, as they are said to be vicious and bad tempered. The able pedestrian commands the entire Mentonian amphitheatre; but it is not so with the invalid, with ladies, children, and the weak generally. The donkeys are numerous, as every peasant, the owner of a few mountain terraces, keeps one as a beast of burden. Donkeys are as peculiarly suited to a rugged mountain district as the camel is to the desert. At Mentone they are mostly fine handsome animals, and more than usually docile and goodtempered; probably because they are well tended, and treated with affection and kindness, instead of with contempt and brutality. The peasants always guide them by the voice, not by blows. The donkey women are only the owners of the saddles, hiring the donkeys from the peasants. Hence the necessity of bespeaking the donkeys over night, otherwise they are off to the mountains by early noon.
The views are everywhere magnificient. I have been told that the scenery at Mentone is very like that of Madeira; only at Mentone there are several miles of level coast road along the sea-shore, which at Madeira are wanting. To get a thoroughly good idea of the district, the stranger should take the drives which I have described, and then make an excursion on foot, or on a donkey, to the mountain villages of Roccabruna (one hour), Castellar (one hour and a half), Gorbio (two hours), and St. Agnes (three hours). The first can be reached in a carriage, the others only on foot or donkeys. Sta. Agnese, the most remote, is situated at the summit of the first back ridge.
Roccabruna, Castellare, and Sta. Agnese are mountain villages, founded by their inhabitants, ages ago, on account of the facilities they afforded for their defence. Until a recent period, the adjacent shores, and indeed those of the entire Riviera, were exposed to the constant attacks of the Mahommedan pirates of the south Mediterranean. For most centuries it was the Saracens, later the Turks and Moors of Tunis and Algiers, who periodically ravaged these coasts. The forays were not for wealth, which the poor fishermen and labourers did not possess, but for slaves; for the women were handsome, and the men strong. To withstand these attacks, the inhabitants of the towns choses defensible situations, such as the steep promontories and eminences on which Monaco, Esa, Mentone, Ventimiglia, and San Remo, are situated; fortifying themselves also with strong walls. The agriculturists sought safety by perching their villages on all but inaccessible heights, whence they could see their enemies approaching, and where they could easier defend themselves if attacked.
There are still men alive at Mentone, who, in the early part of this century, were seized on the coast by the Moors, and subsequently lived for years as slaves at Algiers and Tunis. That such should be the case is not surprising, when we reflect that piracy reigned supreme in the Mediterranean until the year 1816, when Lord Exmouth bombarded Algiers, and that it was not finally extinguished until the French took possession of Algiers in 1830. At the time of Lord Exmouth’s bombardment there were thousands of European slaves in the Algerian galleys. These slaves were mostly from the northern Mediterranean shores, taken at sea from the fishing boats and sailing vessels, or from the coast villages and towns by sudden forays.
At Sta. Agnese and Roccabruna there are the ruins of ancient castles. That of Sta. Agnese must have been a place of considerable strength. Local traditions say that it was built by the Saracens, in order to keep in subjection the smiling districts which constitute the Mentonian amphitheatre. Probably, then as now it was a garden, rich in olives, in oranges and lemons, and was considered a desirable conquest by the southern invaders.
The castle of Roccabruna is evidently of much more recent date, although it goes back to the Middle Ages. It recalls the recollection of the stronghold of a "Rhine Baron", intent on levying black-mail on those who travelled along the coast-road from Nice to Genoa. Although a mere mule track, this road must have been much frequented in winter in the days when there was not a single carriage road across the Alps, and when winter rendered their snow-clad summits an all but impassable barrier.
All along the coast to Genoa may be seen at intervals the ruins of watch-towers, erected in former times in positions favourable to defence, or suitable for looking out. They evidently formed a part of the general system of protection everywhere necessary against the pirates. These towers, the old towns, pressed into the smallest possible space, and surrounded with walls, the villages perched on heights up to which the inhabitants had to toil wearily after the day’s labour, all vividly point to times far different to the present. Truly we, of the present day, have much to be thankful for; our lot has been cast in much happier times.
A waterfall called the Cascade, in the Carei valley, is worth visiting. After rain there is a good fall of water, above a hundred feet high, tumbling over vast masses of broken water-worn rocks, and forming charming pools. The prettiest road is through Castellare and skirting the lower part of the back range, over which the water descends. The return can be made down the Carei valley, by the Turin or Sospello road. It is a favorite place for ferns, and also for picnics. The road from Castellare, a donkey-track, taking the visitor to the centre of the background of the Mentonian amphitheatre, affords many lovely views.
In the immediate vicinity of the cascade there is a hermit’s cave high up in the rock. Its very existence was a tradition until an English sailor climbed up a few years ago, and found some bones, utensils, a half-obliterated inscription, and a date, 1598. Since then it has been repeatedly reached by Scottish deer-stalkers and hardy mountaineers; but not without considerable risk. Indeed, I do not advise any one to attempt it. The view from the castle of Roccabruna is very beautiful, as also are those from Castellare, Gorbio, and Sta. Agnese. They are all four mere mountain villages, inhabited by the peasantry who till the upper terraces; a simple, hard-working race, who know but little of the world and of its doings.
From Gorbio to Roccabruna there is a donkey-track over the hills that leads through a very beautiful mountain district, with magnificient views on every side. From this road is well seen, skirting the mountain side, an aqueduct, which brings water to Roccabruna from a great distance. It was completed about twenty years ago.
Most of the places best suited for excursions are indicated on the map of Mentone, which has been drawn up with great care from the Italian ordnance survey. Let no one, however, imagine, says my Mr. Moggridge, that when all have been visited he has exhausted the beauties of the immediate neighbourhood of Mentone; on the contrary, there is frequently an entirely new view to be had within 200 or 300 yards right or left of main paths, while each hill, little knoll, or gorge affords a variety on the scenery, either peculiar to itself, or in combination with the distant country. There is one gorge to which I would direct attention, because it is within reach of Menton - the Gorge of Piaon, one hour‘s walk from Sospel (Hotel Carenco) on the road to Molinetto [ Moulinet ]. Two very pretty waterfalls greet you at the entrance; a little further the savage rocks, the broken forrests, and the tossing, tumbling river give a succession of views ever charming ever new, that are excelled ony by the great gorges of the Roya. Many wild flowers may be gathered here even in the Mentone season.
The language spoken by the peasantry is a "patois", semi-Italian, semi-French, inclining to Italian. The proprietors and tradesmen all speak both Italian and French, but with them French appears to predominate. The shop-signs formerly Italian are now French. In feeling, the Mentonians occupy about the same midway position, although their Italian sympathies predominate. At the time of the annexation they petitioned unanimously to be "left alone", but their petition was not allowed to see the light. They are rather a handsome race, with Italian features, black hair, and dark eyes. Many very handsome young women are seen.
Mentone has made a great step in advance since I first drew attention to it as a winter sanitorium, ten years ago. There are now many commodious villas and apartments to let furnished, and many more are building. There are also many good hotels and several boarding-houses. Clercy’s Hôtel des Anglais, where I have hitherto spent the winter, is one of the largest and best modern houses in Mentone, and admirably situated. Most of the hotels take inmates "en pension", that is, boarders, and the terms for board and lodging vary from eight to ten or twelve francs a day.
By means of the railway Nice now may be easlily be visited between breakfast and dinner, and that without any great fatigue. On the other side, the Italian government is pushing on the railway from Genoa to the French frontier very rapidly. There are now several thousand labourers at work at various points, and it will certainly be completed to Mentone before long.
The uncertainty which long reigned as to the course the railway would take at Mentone has much interfered with building operations, and with the extension of the town. No one liked to build when aware that the house, once built, might have to be taken down to make room for the railway. The final completion of the railway, which is to open this October 1869 will most assuredly be the signal for great improvements, and for still greater extension of the accomodation offered to strangers. The Mentonians are now quite aroused to their own interests, and are rapidly shaking off the apathy of former days. Nice capitalists, also, are beginning to invest their funds at Mentone.
Nice is a small southern capital, with its Italian opera and French theatre, its daily fashionable promenade and drive, its military band, and its swarm of gaily dressed people. Most of the northerners who crowd there in the winter are not invalids at all. There are also specimens of the more restless of our countrymen and women, Anglo-Saxons, who, after wandering all over Europe for years, settle down at last for the winter at Nice, on account of its social attractions, because it is near home, and because letters reach in thirty-six hours.
Until latterly but few of this tribe of health loungers have chosen Menton as a residence. Many, however, are becoming attached to this picturesque Mediterranean nook. Mentone is also beginning to attract mere sun-worshippers, and a foreign population of the same description as that of Nice and Cannes will no doubt gradually grow up.
The inhabitants of Menton are exceedingly gracious and cordial to strangers, and are doing their utmost, in a quiet southern way, to render the place agreeable to them. An elegant Cercle or club has been built in the centre of the town, which is well supplied with newspapers. It is open to visitors by subscription, and contains billard, card, and conversation rooms, and a good sized theatre and ball-room. On the shore, in the town, there is an esplanade, or sea-terrace, constructed in 1861, and to which the name "Promenade du Midi" has been given. It is intended to continue this terrace as far as the Cap Martin, when it will make a delightful sea-side promenade and drive.
The inhabitants have invested, I have been told, nearly all their savings in building villas and suburban houses for their visitors, and can now accommodate about fifteen hundred comfortably and hygienically. These houses have been mostly built outside the town, along the seashore, so that they unite the climatic advantages which Mentone affords with the hygienic conditions that are equally, indeed more necessary. There are also some villas built, and more building, at some distance from the coast, in the Carei or Turin valley, where it expands before reaching the sea. There is room here for a little suburb of houses away from the sea, which are much wanted. Thus Mentone is following the wake of Nice, Cannes, Hyères, and Pau, where the residences prepared for invalids are principally suburban, that is, in hygienic situations.
During the last year or two, I am happy to say that a considerate amount of attention has been devoted by the press at home to the hygienic state of southern health-resorts. As I consider myself in a great measure the originator of this feeling, being the first author on climate who has made hygienic conditions the chief basis of his researches, I am gratified to find that public opinion is beginning to awaken to these vital questions. One or two writers, however, have mentioned Mentone as more decidedly deficient in this respect than other sanitaria on the coast; a most unfounded and unfair mistake. So far from this being the case, I do not hesitate to say that the hygienic state of Mentone is much better than that of any other sanatorium between Marseille and Genoa, not from the peculiar "virtue" on the part of its inhabitants, but because its population, native and foreign, is smaller.
The drainage of large towns involves one of the most difficult problems of modern civilization. In the small primitive agricultural towns of the Ligurian coast and of the south of Europe generally the want of main drains is not felt. All the inhabitants are usually land proprietors. Olive and Lemon trees, even in the sunny south, will not bear crops or fruit without manure, and where is it to come from in countries where there is little or no pasture unless it be from the homes of the proprietors?
When, however, hundreds, nay thousands, of strangers pour into little country towns, as they have poured into Hyères, Cannes, Mentone, and San Remo, where large hotels are built each containing more than a hundred people, and numerous villas occupied by large families, the state of things alters at once. The only possible outlet for drains is the seashore, and a very small amount of drainage thrown into little sheltered bays in an all but tideless sea like the Mediterranean would soon reproduce the polluted shores of Naples.
The only way to prevent towns, in such situations as the Genoese Riviera, becoming unhealthy from the drainage of a redundant population is for them to remain small. It is therefore hoped that the winter emigrants from the north will disperse themselves over the entire Riviera, finding out and colonizing new sites.
[BK: indeed, at the beginning of the 20th century, many obscure villages on the Riviera have received hotels and villas to lodge the wealthy winter-visitors from the north. But those, already popular deep in the 19th century only augmented their popularity and became magnets for more and more visitors and residents, a trend which continues until today. Although a rather shabby town, San Remo continues to be a flagship attraction of the italian Riviera.]
Menton, as an English colony was, I may say, founded by the Rev. Mr. Morgan, an English clergyman, who settled with his family at Mentone in 1857, built a house there, and may thus be considered the father of the English settlement. The Church service was for some years performed in a chapel made by throwing several rooms into one, in an old "palace" on the sea-shore, reached by thoroughly Italian streets - alleys we call them. A church on a valuable site in the eastern bay was completed and opened for devine worship in 1863. The fact of this church having been built at an inconvenient distance from those who reside on the western side, has led to the nomination, by the Bishop of Gibraltar, to the chaplaincy of the western bay, of a second clergyman, the Rev. W. Barber, incumbent of St. John’s, Leicester. Since Mr. Barber’s incumbency, a second, more elegant and consequently more expensive, church has been erected in the western bay. It is built in the early style of the 14th century, of stone of the country with Arles-stone dressings. The design contemplates the erection of an aisle when the numbers of the English population require further accommodation. It is a fair specimen of an English church in a foreign country. Owing to a considerable expense having been incured by the erection of a Gothic structure in a country where no such buildings are now thought of, there is still a debt on the church, to extinguish which the contributions of future and past visitors are required.
The town of Mentone has presented to the Protestant community a plot of ground for a cemetery adjoining their own. It is situated on the eminence that crowns the old town, where a fortified castle reared its head in former times, the ruins of which may still be seen. It is a peaceful, picturesque spot, and is already the last home of some whose memory is dear to the Mentonians. It has been surrounded by a wall at the expense of the Protestant congregations, and a small mortuary chapel has been built, to which the mortal remains of those who have died in hotels can be removed and kept as long as the relatives wish. There is no law that renders prompt burial imperative in France. But in hotels it is difficult to resist the "custom" of the country, which is in favour of prompt burrial.
A few years ago Mentone was merely a small Italian town, like the other towns on the Riviera, with but little power to supply the wants of foreigners, and especially of the English, who, wherever they are, expect to be made comfortable. Every winter has improved the markets, in quantity and quality, and this will no doubt continue to be the case, especially since the road to Sospel has been completed and has opened out Menton to the Alpine districts, from which it was formerly separated by its barrier of mountains.
The principal reliance however is still on the markets of Nice, and of Ventimiglia, a town of six thousand inhabitants, situated, as we have seen, seven miles more to the east. The Menton bay itself produces little if anything beyond olive oil, lemons, oranges, and a few vegetables. The only good butter comes from Milan. It comes by steamer from Genoa to Nice twice a week, and is supplied to Mentone from thence. Poultry reaches from all parts – from the mountain regions around, from the coast towns, and even from Turin. Many fouls, turkeys, ducks, are brought by the diligence which travels daily between Turin and Nice, passing over the Col de Tende.
Fish was scarce and dear before the railway was opened to Nice. Now it comes in great abundance, by rail, from the Atlantic to Nice, and reaches Mentone in a good state of preservation, once the cool weather has set in. Thus soles, turbots, oysters, are all but daily obtainable.
The expense of living at Mentone has all but doubled since I have known it; that is, within a period of ten years, and is now quite as high as at Nice. This is, however, easily explained by the more luxurious style of living, and I cannot say that the inhabitants of Mentone are to blame. House rents have risen considerably, owing to the demand having been very much greater than the supply, which raises prices all the world over. Many houses are now building, or in contemplation, which will no doubt tend to diminish rents, or at least to prevent further rise. Moreover, the neighbouring town of San Remo, also a good winter station, is beginning to be alive to the money value of foreign residents, and is making great efforts to please and secure them, opening hotels and building villas, which will create a salutary diversion.
The cost of living has, thus, increased, but then the markets are infinitely better supplied, which accounts for the change. As I have been told by the Mentonian hotel keepers, the dinners we positively require and exact every day at the hotels and „pensions" are to them festive dinners, which they never dream of unless to welcome friends for a marriage or a baptism. To provide this high standard of food to many hundred strangers, the country has to be ransacked for a hundred and fifty miles around; Genoa, Turin, Milan, Nice, are all put under contribution.
There is an English grocer established at Mentone, Willoughby by name, who keeps a store of groceries and English delicacies. He acts as a house agent, and any application for information addressed to him on the subject of houses, apartments, or anything else, would meet with immediate attention. There is also a large bazaar or store kept by en entreprising Mentonian familiy - the Amaranthes - in which every imaginable article for comfort and luxury is to be found.
As year by year the number of winter visitors and residents increases, their wants and requirements become better supplied; the invalid population itself brings us invalid professors and artists, willing and able to make themselves useful. There is also a French communal college, the professors of which are all well educated, intelligent men, who teach French, Italian, and classics. Two gentlemen receive private pupils - Dr. Müller, a German gentleman, a good English scholar, accustomed to tuition, and married to an English Lady, and C. M. Barber, Esq., a highly qualified man, son of the Chaplain of the Western Bay Church.
Menton offers great attraction to invalid artists, for they can both attend to their health and study their art in midwinter in the open air. The scenery is glorious, and the play of the sunshine and of light and shadow on the mountains, on the clouds, and on the sea, produces evervarying effects, which entrance the artist’s eye. A winter passed at Mentone is a drama, a little epitome of life. The place is so small, so separated by its mountain barriers from the rest of the world, and the number of resident strangers is so limited, that a kind of common tie binds them together. This feeling may not be extend to the entire foreign community, but it is very strong among the members of the same nation. It does not, of course, include passing strangers, the visitors from Nice, and those who only remain a few days or weeks in autumn and spring, on their way to or from Italy; they are looked upon as strangers. The true Mentonian family is composed of the winter residents, of those who have made up their minds to spend six months in the happy, smiling Mentonian amphitheatre.
In October the question is - who is coming? In November nearly all the winter residents have arrived, and have located themselves. Friends find each other; unforseen point of contact "at home" are brought out, and little groups are formed of intimates, of those who have the same ideas and sympathies.
Then comes the close of the year, Christmas, with its home associations, and the new and wondrous sight of summer sunshine and Lemon blossoms, of large dragonflies, and of other insects, pursuing each other in the sun, instead of the sleet and snow and gloom which we remember, and of which we read, in the fatherland. Sometimes, however, snow tips even our mountains, and reminds us of home. Later, comes the new year, welcomed at Mentone as in France, and the festivities of the Romish Church. Lent, the Holy week, the Carnival, are all celebrated, according to the traditions of the Middle Ages, in a very picturesque manner, by the native population, as in the large towns of Italy. About the month of February the English community in its turn begins to suffer. Some of the invalids have struggled in vain for health and life. The departed have endeared themselves to the survivors; they have lived amongst them, have shared their joys, their sorrows, their exile feelings. At last March and April arrive, the glorious southern spring, the real spring of the old southern poets, of Homer and Anacreon, of Horace, Virgil, and Lucretius. Here, truly, with the exception of a few days of south wind and rain in March, the poetical spring has arrived. The Olive and Orange terraces are enamelled by nature with real garden flowers, and day after day troops of visitors, principally English, may seen returning from mountain excursions, flower laden.
I would, in passing, earnestly request visitors not to pay the children and the donkey-women for seeking and bringing them flowers. Some of our wealthy residents do so occasionally, without reflecting that by thus acting they are giving a market value to wild flowers. The result has been felt already. Peasants, who formerly delighted to allow children and strangers to gather the violets and flowers of no value whatever to themselves, begin to guard them jealously, and to drive off all who attempt to pick them. Were this to become general, half the charm of the mountain walks would be destroyed.
It has been said, truly, that a love of flowers and of their cultivation is "the last infirmity of sober minds". We have to abandon, one by one, those who fostered and cherished our early steps, who shared our hopes and fears, who sympathised with us in our success, were pained by our failure. It is the penalty we must pay for living, to lose those to whom life has been wrapped up, to find ourselves abandoned in our earthly pilgrimage in sad succession by those without whose companionship it is no longer what it was.
The survivors, improved both in health and spirits, are more keenly alive than ever to the harmonies and beauties of the sea, the sky, the mountains, and the earth. Plans for the future are once more taken into consideration, and the journey homewards is thought of. Moreover, Nice then sends to Mentone troops of healthy, pleasure-seeking people, strong, gay, and happy. Then comes the comparing of routes for the return home, of plans for the summer, and finally the leave-taking and departure. Most are sorry, at last, to leave the little sunny Mediterranean nook where they have spent so many happy hours, and it is to be hoped recovered health, or at least arrested the progress of serious disease. In many cases more friendhsips have been formed than would have been formed in years at home, and the new and valued friends have to be abandoned as well as smiling Mentone. In some instances, however, as in my own, the separation, both from friends and Mentone, is only a temporary one; there is the hope of again meeting.
Such is Mentone, physically and materially. I was so pleased with my first residence there, that I should have at once decided on returning the following winter, had it not been for the love of change, which impelled me to search for a still better climate. This desire for change is quite a feature in the invalid population met with in the south of Europe. It is in some respects beneficial in its operation, by giving the mind fresh objects of interest to take the thoughts from self, and from many sacrifices which health exiles from home, and their companions, have to make. The difference between the smiling sunshine of a Mentone winter, a mere long English September, and our eight month‘ dismal season is very great, and yet there are few of the cheerful Mentonian exiles who would not gladly return to our cloud-obscured island.