AS one turns north-eastward from the Pyrenees the bright abundant landscape passes gradually into a flattish grey-and-drab country that has ceased to be Aquitaine and is yet not Provence.
A dull region at best, this department of Haute Garonne grows positively forbidding when the mistral rakes it, whitening the vineyards and mulberry orchards, and bowing the shabby cypresses against a confused grey sky; nor is the landscape redeemed by the sprawling silhouette of Toulouse—a dingy wind-ridden city, stretched wide on the flat banks of the Garonne, and hiding its two precious buildings in a network of mean brick streets.
One might venture the general axiom that France has never wholly understood the use of brick, and that where stone construction ceases architectural beauty ceases with it. Saint Sernin, the great church of Toulouse, is noble enough in line, and full of interest as marking the culmination of French Romanesque; but compared with the brick churches of northern Italy it seems struck with aridity, parched and bleached as a skeleton in a desert. The Capitoul, with its frivolous eighteenth-century front, has indeed more warmth and relief than any other building in Toulouse; but meanly surrounded by shabby brick houses, it seems to await in vain the development of ramps and terraces that should lead up to its long bright façade.
As the motor enters the hill-country to the northeast of Toulouse the land breaks away pleasantly toward the long blue line of the Cévennes; and presently a deep cleft fringed with green reveals the nearness of the Tarn—that strange river gnawing its way through cheesy perpendicular banks.
Along these banks fantastic brick towns are precariously piled: L'Isle-sur-Tarn, with an octagonal brick belfry, and Rabastens, raised on a series of bold arcaded terraces, which may be viewed to advantage from a suspension-bridge high above the river. Aside from its exceptionally picturesque site, Rabastens is notable for a curious brick church with fortified tower and much-restored fourteenth-century frescoes clothing its interior like a dim richly woven tissue. But beyond Rabastens lies Albi, and after a midday halt at Gaillac, most desolate and dusty of towns, we pressed on again through the parched country.
Albi stood out at length upon the sky—a glaring mass of houses stacked high above the deep cleft of the Tarn. The surrounding landscape was all dust and dazzle; the brick streets were funnels for the swooping wind; and high up, against the blinding blue, rose the flanks of the brick cathedral, like those of some hairless pink monster that had just crawled up from the river to bask on the cliff. This first impression of animal monstrosity—of an unwieldly antediluvian mass of flesh—is not dispelled by a nearer approach. From whatever angle one views the astounding building its uncouth shape and fleshlike tint produce the effect of a living organism—high-backed, swollen-thighed, wallowing—a giant Tarasque or other anomalous offspring of the Bestiary; and if one rejects the animal analogy as too grotesque, to what else may one conceivably compare it?
Among the fortified churches of south-western France this strange monument is the strangest as it is the most vast, and none of the accepted architectural categories seems to fit its huge vaulted hall buttressed with tall organ-pipe turrets, and terminating to the west in a massive dungeon-like tower flanked by pepper-pot pinnacles.
The interior of the great secular-looking salle is covered by an unbroken expanse of mural painting, and encrusted, overgrown almost, from the choir and ambulatory to the arches of the lateral chapels, with a prodigious efflorescence of late Gothic wood-carving and sculpture, half Spanish in its dusky grey-brown magnificence. But even this excess of ecclesiastical ornament does not avail to Christianise the church—there is a pagan, a Saracenic quality about it that seems to overflow from its pinnacled flushed exterior.
To reach Carcassonne from Albi one must cross the central mass of the Cévennes. The way leads first, by hill and dale, through a wooded northern-looking landscape, to the town of Castres, distinguished by a charming hôtel de ville with a box-planted garden said to have been laid out by Lenôtre; and soon after Castres the "wild-ridged steeps" break away in widening undulations as the road throws its loops about the sides of the Montagne Noire—black hollows deepening dizzily below, and long grey vistas unfolding between the crowded peaks. Unhappily a bourrasque enveloped us before we reached the top of the pass, so that we lost all the beauty of the long southern descent to Carcassonne, and were aware of it only as a distant tangle of lights in the plain, toward which we groped painfully through wind and rain.
The rain persisted the next day; but perhaps it is a not undesirable accompaniment to a first view of Carcassonne, since it eliminates that tout-and-tourist element which has so possessed itself of the ancient cité, restoring to it, under a grey blurred light, something of its narrow huddled mediæval life.
He who has gone there with wrath in his heart against Viollet-le-Duc may even, under these mitigating conditions, go so far as to think that the universal restorer has for once been justified by his results—that, granting in advance the possibility of innumerable errors of detail, his brilliant hypothesis still produces a total impression of reality. Perhaps, too, all the floating tags of literary mediævalism—the irresistible "connotations" of keep and rampart and portcullis—help out the illusion, animate the serried little burgh, and people it with such figures as Dante walked among when Bellincion Berti went girt with leather. At any rate, the impression is there—for those who have the hardihood to take it—there all the more palpably on a day of such unbroken rain, when even the official custodians hug their stove, and a beneficent mist hides the stacks of post-cards and souvenirs waylaying the traveller from every window.
The weather, however, so beneficent at Carcassonne, proved an obstacle to the seeing of Narbonne and Béziers, and drove us relentlessly before it to Nîmes, where it gave us, the next morning, one of those brilliant southern days that are born of the southern deluges. Here was Provence at last—dry, clear-edged, classic—with a sky like blue marble, low red hills tufted by olives, stony hollows with thin threads of stream, and a sun that picked out in gold the pure curves of the Maison Carrée.
Among the Greek towns of the Mediterranean there is none as Greek—or, to speak more precisely, as Græco-Roman—as Nîmes. No other city of old Gaul seems to have put itself so completely in harmony with its rich nucleus of "remains"—eliminating or omitting the monuments of other periods, and content to group its later growth subserviently about the temple and the amphitheatre. It was very well for Aries to make its Romanesque venture, for Rheims to crown itself with a glory of Gothic; but with the tranquil lines of the Maison Carrée and the Nymphæum, the rhythmic spring of the arena arches, to act as centralising influences—above all with the overwhelming grandeur of the Pont du Gard as a background—how could Nîmes, so far more deeply pledged to the past, do otherwise than constitute herself the guardian of great memories? The Pont du Gard alone would be enough to relegate any town to a state of ancillary subjection. Its nearness is as subduing as that of a great mountain, and next to the Mont Ventoux it is the sublimest object in Provence. The solitude of its site, and the austere lines of the surrounding landscape, make it appear as much on the outer edge of civilisation as when it was first planted there; and its long defile of arches seems to be forever pushing on into the wilderness with the tremendous tread of the Roman legions.
By one of the charming oppositions of French travel, one may return from this classic pilgrimage through the mediaeval town of Uzès; and, as if such contrasts were not fruitful enough, may pause on the way to smile at the fantastic château d'Angivilliers—a half-ruined eighteenth-century "Folly" with an anachronistic medley of kiosks, arcades, pagodas, a chapel like a Roman temple, and a ruined box-garden haunted by peacocks.
Uzès itself, a steep town clustered about the ducal keep of the Crussols, has a stately terrace above the valley, and some fine eighteenth-century houses, in shabby streets insufficiently swept; but its chief feature is of course the castle which, planted protectingly in the centre of the town, thrusts up its central dungeon over a fine feudal jumble of subsidiary masonry.
From Nîmes to the Mediterranean the impressions are packed too thick. First the Rhone, with the castles of Tarascon and Beaucaire taunting each other across its yellow flood, Beaucaire from a steep cliff, Tarascon from the very brink of the river; then, after a short flight through olive-orchards and vineyards, the pretty leafy town of Saint Remy on the skirts of the Alpilles; and a mile to the south of Saint Remy, on a chalky ledge of the low mountain-chain, the two surviving monuments of the Roman city of Glanum. They are set side by side, the tomb and the triumphal arch, in a circular grassy space enclosed with olive-orchards and backed by delicate fretted peaks: not another vestige of Roman construction left to connect them with the past. Was it, one wonders, their singular beauty that saved them, that held even the Visigoths' hands when they wiped out every other trace of the populous city of stone-quarriers, with its aqueducts, walls and temples? Certainly, seeing the two buildings thus isolated under the radiant lonely sky, one is tempted to exclaim that they might well have checked even barbarian violence, and that never again did the stout Roman trunk throw out two such flowers of grace and lightness. It is as though, from that packed Provençal soil, some dust of Greece had passed into the Latin stem, clearing a little its thick sap; yet it is just because the monuments remain so sturdily Roman that the grace and the lightness count so much.
This Alpilles country between Rhone and Durance is itself the most Grecian thing west of Greece: Provence of Provence in every line of its bare sharp-cut heights, tufted with a spare classic growth of olive, cistus and myrtle, it explains why the Greek colonist found himself at home on these ultimate shores, and why the Roman conqueror bowed here to Attic influences.
Pushing south-east from Saint Remy, one comes, through a broadening landscape, to the old town of Salon, where Nostradamus is buried, and thence, by a winding road among the hills, to the wide valley where Aix-en-Provence lies encircled in mountains.
For a town so nobly seated it seems, at first approach, a little commonplace and insignificant; the eye, lighting on it from the heights, seeks a sky-line like that of Clermont or Périgueux. Aix, in this respect, remains inadequate; yet presents itself to closer inspection as a charming faded old place, tinged with legal and academic memories, with a fine double row of balconied and sculptured hôtels along its leafy cours, and a number of scattered treasures in the folds of its crooked streets.
Among these treasures the two foremost—the picture of the Buisson Ardent in the cathedral, and the Gobelin tapestries in the adjoining Archbishop's palace—belong to such widely sundered schools that they might almost be said to represent the extreme points within which French art has vibrated. It is therefore the more interesting to note that both are intrinsically and preëminently decorative in quality—devotional triptych and frivolous tapestry obeying the same law of rigorously balanced lines and colours. The great picture of the Burning Bush is, with the exception of the Virgin of Moulins, perhaps the finest flower of that early French school of painting which was so little known or considered that, until the recent Paris exhibition of "Primitives," many of its masterpieces were complacently attributed to Italian painters. Hanging midway down the nave, where a golden light strikes it when the sacristan flings open the splendid carved doors of the west front, the triptych of Nicholas Froment unfolds itself like a great three-petalled flower, each leaf burning with a rich limpidity of colour that overflows from the Rosa Mystica of the central panel to the pale prayerful faces of the royal donators in the wings.
The cathedral has its tapestries also—a series from the Brussels looms, attributed to Quentin Matsys, and covering the choir with intricately composed scenes from the life of Christ, in which the melancholy grey-green of autumn leaves is mingled with deep jewel-like pools of colour. But these are accidental importations from another world, whereas the famous Don Quixote series in the Archbishop's palace represents the culminating moment of French decorative art.
They strike one perhaps, first of all—these rosy chatoyantes compositions, where ladies in loosened bodices gracefully prepare to be "surprised"—as an instructive commentary on ecclesiastical manners toward the close of the eighteenth century; then one passes on to abstract enjoyment of their colour-scheme and balance of line, to a delighted perception of the way in which they are kept from being (as tapestries later became) mere imitations of painting, and remain imprisoned—yet so free!—in that fanciful textile world which has its own flora and fauna, its own laws of colour and perspective, and its own more-than-Shakespearian anachronisms in costume and architecture.
From Aix to the Mediterranean the southeastern highway passes through a land of everincreasing loveliness. East of Aix the barepeaked mountain of Sainte Victoire dominates the fertile valley for long miles. Then the hermit-haunted range of the Sainte Baume unfolds its wooded flanks to the south, the highway skirting them as it gradually mounts to the plateau where the town of Saint Maximin clusters about its unfinished Dominican church—a remarkable example of northern Gothic strayed into the classic confines of Provence.
Saint Maximin owes its existence—or that part of it contingent on possessing so important a church—to the ownership of the bones of Saint Mary Magdalen, whose supposed relics were formerly venerated in the great Burgundian church of Vézelay, but in the thirteenth century were officially identified among the treasures of the Provençal town. As the penitent saint is supposed to have spent her last years in a grotto on the heights of the Sainte Baume, it seems more fitting that she should now rest at its foot than on the far-off rock of the Morvan; and one is glad that the belief was early enough established to produce the picturesque anomaly of this fine fragment of northern art planted against the classic slopes of the Maritime Alps.
The great Gothic church was never finished, without or within; but in the seventeenth century a renewal of devotion to Saint Mary Magdalen caused the interior of the choir to be clothed with a magnificent revêtement of wood-carving in the shape of ninety-two choir-stalls, recounting in their sculptured medallions the history of the Dominican order, and leading up to a sumptuous Berniniesque high-altar, all jasper, porphyry and shooting rays of gold.
Saint Maximin, though lying so remotely among bare fields and barer mountains, still shows, outside its church, some interesting traces of former activity and importance. A stout old Dominican monastery extends its long row of ogival windows near the church, and here and there a vigorous bit of ancient masonry juts from the streets—notably in the sprawling arcades of the Jewish quarter, and where certain fragments of wall attest that the mountain village was once a strongly defended mediæval town.
Beyond Saint Maximin the route nationale bears away between the mountains to Nice; but at Brignoles—a city of old renown, the winter residence of the Counts of Provence—one may turn southward, by Roquebrussanne and the Chartreuse of Montrieux (where Petrarch's brother was abbot), to the radiant valley of the Gapeau, where the stream-side is already white with cherry-blossoms, and so at length come out, at Hyères, on the full glory of the Mediterranean spring.
One's first feeling is that nothing else matches it—that no work of man, no accumulated appeal of history, can contend a moment against this joy of the eye so prodigally poured out. The stretch of coast from Toulon to Saint Tropez, so much less familiar to northern eyes than the more eastern portion of the Riviera, has a peculiar nobility, a Virgilian breadth of composition, in marked contrast to the red-rocked precipitous landscape beyond. Looking out on it from the pine-woods of Costebelle, above Hyères, one is beset by classic allusions, analogies of the golden age—so divinely does the green plain open to the sea, between mountain lines of such Attic purity.
After packed weeks of historic and archæological sensation this surrender to the spell of the landscape tempts one to indefinite idling. It is the season when, through the winter verdure of the Riviera, spring breaks with a hundred tender tints—pale green of crops, white snow of fruitblossoms, and fire of scarlet tulips under the grey smoke of olive-groves. From heights among the cork-trees the little towns huddled about their feudal keeps blink across the pine-forests at the dazzling blue-and-purple indentations of the coast. And between the heights mild valleys widen down—valleys with fields of roses, acres of budding vine, meadows sown with narcissus, and cold streams rushing from the chestnut forests below the bald grey peaks. Among the peaks are lonely hermitages, ruined remains of old monastic settlements, Carthusian and Benedictine; but no great names are attached to these fallen shrines, and the little towns below have no connection with the main lines of history. It is all a tranquil backwater, thick with local tradition, little floating fragments of association and legend; but art and history seem to have held back from it, as from some charmed Elysian region, too calm, too complete, to be rudely touched to great issues.
It was the mistral that drove us from this Eden, poisoning it with dust and glare, and causing us to take refuge north of the sea-board Alps. There, in a blander air and on a radiant morning, we left Aix behind, and followed the Durance to Avignon. Approaching the papal city from the east, one may get a memorable impression by following the outer circuit of its walls to the Porte de l'Ouille, which opens on the Place Crillon just below the great rock of the palace. Seen thus from without, Avignon is like a toy model of a mediæval city; and this impression of artificial completeness is renewed when, from the rock-perched terrace below the palace, one looks out on the Rhone valley and its enclosing amphitheatre of mountains. In the light Provençal air, which gives a finely pencilled precision to the remotest objects, the landscape has an extraordinarily topographical character, an effect of presenting with a pre-Raphaëlite insistence on detail its sharp-edged ruins, its turreted bridge, its little walled towns on definite points of rock. The river winding through the foreground holds its yellow curve between thin fringes of poplar and sharp calcareous cliffs; and even the remoter hills have the clear silhouette of the blue peaks in mediæval miniatures, the shoulder of the Mont Ventoux rising above them to the north with the firmness of an antique marble.
This southern keenness of edge gives even to the Gothicism of the piled-up church and palace an exotic, trans-Alpine quality, and makes the long papal ownership of Avignon—lasting, it is well to remember, till the general upheaval of 1790—a visible and intelligible fact. Though the Popes of Avignon were Frenchmen, Avignon is unmistakably, almost inexplicably, Italian: its Gothic vaguely suggests that of the Ponte Sant' Angelo, of the fortified arches and tombs of mediæval Rome, and reconciles itself as easily to the florid façade of the seventeenth-century Papal Mint in the square below as to the delicate classic detail of the west door of the church.
Rome—but Imperial not Papal Rome—was still in the air as we left Avignon and followed the Rhone valley northward to Orange. All this part of France is thick with history, and in the ancient principality of Orange the layers are piled so deep that one wonders to see so few traces of successive dominations in the outward aspect of its capital. Only the Rome of the Emperors has left a mark on the town which lived with so vigorous and personal life from the days when it was a Gaulish city and a trading station of Massaliote Greeks, and which, when it grew too small for its adventurous brood, sent rulers to both shores of the North Sea; and the fact that the theatre and the arch survive, while the Orange of Carlovingian bishops and mediæval princes has been quite wiped out, and even Maurice of Nassau's great seventeenth-century fortress razed to the ground—this permanence of the imperial monuments, rising unshaken through the blown dust of nearly a thousand years, gives a tangible image of the way in which the Roman spirit has persisted through the fluctuations of history.
To learn that these very monuments have been turned to base uses by barbarous prince-bishops—the arch converted into a fortified Château de l'Arc, the theatre into an outwork of the main fortress—adds impressiveness to their mutilated splendour, awing one with the image of a whole reconstructed from such fragments.
Among these, the theatre, now quite stripped of ornament, produces its effect only by means of its size, and of the beautiful sweep of its converging lines; but the great golden-brown arch—standing alone in a wide grassy square—keeps on three sides a Corinthian mask of cornice and column, and a rich embossing of fruit and flowergarlands, of sirens, trophies and battle-scenes. All this decoration is typically Roman—vigorously carved and somewhat indiscriminately applied. One looks in vain for the sensitive ornament of the arch of Saint Remy, in which Mérimée's keen eye saw a germ of the coming Gothic: the sculpture of Orange follows the conventional lines of its day, without showing a hint of new forms. But that very absence of imaginative suggestion makes it Roman and imperial to the core.
Ahead of us, all the way from Avignon to Orange, the Mont Ventoux lifted into the pure light its denuded flanks and wrinkled silvery-lilac summit. But at Orange we turned about its base, and bore away north-eastward through a broken country rimmed with hills, passing by Tulette, the seat of a Cluniac foundation—of which the great Rovere, Julius II., was Prince and Prior—and by Valréas, which under the Popes of Avignon became the capital of the Haut Comtat, the French papal dominion in France.
Like too many old towns in this part of France, Valréas, once a strongly fortified place, has suffered its castle to fall in ruins, and swept away its towers and ramparts to make room for boulevards, as though eager to efface all traces of its long crowded past. But one such trace—nearer at hand and of more intimate connotations—remains in the Hôtel de Simiane, now the hôtel de ville, but formerly the house of that Marquis de Simiane who married Pauline de Grignan, the grand-daughter of Madame de Sévigné.
This is the first reminder that we are in the Grignan country, and that a turn of the road will presently bring us in full view of that high-perched castle where the great lieutenant-governor of Provence, Madame de Sévigné's son-in-law, dispensed an almost royal hospitality and ruled with more than royal arrogance.
The Comte de Grignan was counted a proud man, and there was much to foster pride in the site and aspect of his ancestral castle—ce château royal de Grignan. If Italy, and papal Italy, has been in one's mind at every turn of the way from Avignon to Tulette, it seems actually to rise before one as the great ruin, springing suddenly from its cliff in the plain, evokes a not too audacious comparison with the rock of Caprarola. In France, at least, there is perhaps nothing as suggestive of the fortified pleasure-houses of Italy as this gallant castle on the summit of its rock, with the town clustering below, and the vast terrace before it actually forming the roof of its church. And the view from the terrace has the same illimitable sun-washed spaces, flowing on every side into noble mountain-forms, from the Mont Ventoux in the south to the range of the Ardèche in the west.
The ancient line of Adhémar, created Counts of Grignan by Henri II., had long been established on their rocky pedestal when they built themselves, in the sixteenth century, the magnificent Renaissance facade of which only the angle towers now subsist. Later still they added the great gallery lined with full-length portraits of the Adhémar, and under Louis XIV. Mansart built the so-called Façade des Prélats, which, judging from its remains, did not yield in stateliness to any of the earlier portions of the castle. From this side a fine flight of double steps still descends to a garden set with statues and fountains; and beyond it lies the vast stone terrace which forms the roof of the collegial church, and is continued by a chemin de ronde crowning the lofty ramparts on the summit of the rock.
This princely edifice remained in unaltered splendour for sixty years after the house of Adhémar, in the person of Madame de Sévigné's grandson, had died out, ruined and diminished, in 1732. But when the Revolution broke, old memories of the Comte de Grignan's dealings with his people—of unpaid debts, extorted loans, obscure lives devoured by the greedy splendour on the rock—all these recollections, of which one may read the record in various family memoirs, no doubt increased the fury of the onslaught which left the palace of the Adhémar a blackened ruin. If there are few spots in France where one more deeply resents the senseless havoc of the Revolution, there are few where, on second thoughts, one so distinctly understands what turned the cannon on the castle.
The son-in-law of Madame de Sévigné was the most exorbitant as he was the most distinguished of his race; and it was in him that the splendour and disaster of the family culminated. But probably no visions of future retribution disturbed the charming woman who spent—a victim to her maternal passion—her last somewhat melancholy years in the semi-regal isolation of Grignan. No one but La Bruyère seems, in that day, to have noticed the "swarthy livid animal, crouched over the soil, which he digs and turns with invincible obstinacy, but who, when he rises to his feet, shows a human countenance"— certainly he could not be visible, toiling so far below, from that proud terrace of the Adhémar which makes the church its footstool. Least of all would he be perceptible to the eyes—on other lines so discerning!—of the lady whose gaze, when not on her daughter's face, remained passionately fixed on the barrier of northern mountains, and the highway that ran through them to Paris. Paris! Grignan seems far enough from it even now—what an Ultima Thule, a land of social night, it must have been in the days when Madame de Sévigné's heavy travelling carriage had to bump over six hundred miles of rutty road to reach the doors of the Hôtel Carnavalet! One had to suffer Grignan for one's adored daughter's sake—to put up, as best one could, with the clumsy civilities of the provincial nobility, and to console one's self by deliciously ridiculing the pretensions of Aix society—but it was an exile, after all, and the ruined rooms of the castle, and the long circuit of the chemin de ronde, are haunted by the wistful figure of the poor lady who, though in autumn she could extol the "sugary white figs, the Muscats golden as amber, the partridges flavoured with thyme and marjoram, and all the scents of our sachets," yet reached her highest pitch of eloquence when, with stiff fingers and shuddering pen, she pictured the unimaginable February cold, the "awful beauty of winter," the furious unchained Rhone, and "the mountains charming in their excess of horror."