Edward Harrison Barker.

Wanderings by southern waters, eastern Aquitaine online

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covered with luxuriant vineyards. These slopes, arid, barren, and
sun-scorched, are perfectly suited to the cultivation of the vine, the
fig, and the almond; but the elevation is still too great for the
olive. According to the authors of 'Gallia Christiana,' a saint named
Fricus, or Africus, came at the beginning of the sixth century into
the valley of the Sorgues, and was the founder of the burg. St.
Affrique was a strong place in the Middle Ages, and for this reason it
was disturbed less by the English than some other towns in the
Rouergue. After the treaty of Brétigny the consuls went to Millau and
swore fealty to the King of England, represented there by John
Chandos.

As I toiled up the side of the valley in the direction of Millau, I
noticed the Rocher de Caylus, a large reddish and somewhat
fantastically shaped block of oolitic rock, perched on the hill above
the vineyards. Here the lower formation was schistous, the upper
calcareous. The sun was intensely hot, but there was the shade of
walnut-trees, of which I took advantage, although it is said to be
poisonous, like that of the oleander.

When I reached the plateau there was no shade whatever, baneful or
beneficent. If there was ever any forest here all vestige of it has
disappeared. I was on the border of the Causse de Larzac, one of the
highest, most extensive, and hopelessly barren of the calcareous
deserts which separate the rivers in this part of France. Not a drop
of water, save what may have been collected in tanks for the use of
sheep, and the few human beings who eke out an existence there, is to
be found upon them. Swept by freezing winds in winter and burnt by a
torrid sun in summer, their climate is as harsh as the soil is
ungenerous.

But although I was sun-broiled upon this _causse_, I was interested at
every step by the flowers that I found there. Dry, chaffy, or prickly
plants, corresponding in their nature to the aridity and asperity of
the land, were peculiarly at home upon the undulating stoniness. The
most beautiful flower then blooming was the catananche, which has won
its poetic French name, _Cupidon bleu_, by the brilliant colour of its
blossom. Multitudes of yellow everlastings also decked the solitude.

On reaching the highest ground the crests of the bare Cevennes were
seen against the cloudless sky to the south. A little to the east,
beyond the valley of the Cernon, which I intended to cross, were high
hills or cliffs, treeless and sterile, with hard-cut angular sides,
terminating upwards in vertical walls of naked stone. These were the
buttresses of the Causse de Larzac. The lower sides of some of the
hills were blue with lias marl, and wherever they were steep not a
blade of grass grew.

Having descended to the valley, I was soon climbing towards Roquefort
by the flanks of those melancholy hills which seemed to express the
hopelessness of nature after ages of effort to overcome some evil
power. And yet the tinkling of innumerable sheep-bells told that even
here men had found a way of earning their bread. I saw the flocks
moving high above me where all was wastefulness and rockiness, and
heard the voices of the shepherds. There were the Roquefort sheep
whose milk, converted into cheese of the first quality, is sent into
distant countries whose people little imagine that its constituents
are drawn from a desert where there is little else but stones.

I came in view of the village, clinging as it seemed to the steep at
the base of a huge bastion of stark jurassic rock. Facing it was
another barren hill, and in the valley beneath were mamelons of dark
clay and stones partly conquered by the great broom and burning with
its flame of gold. When I reached the village I felt that I had earned
a rest.

Cheese, which has been the fortune of Roquefort, has destroyed its
picturesqueness. It has brought speculators there who have raised
great ugly square buildings of dazzling whiteness, in harsh contrast
with the character and sombre tone of the old houses. Although the
place is so small that it consists of only one street and a few
alleys, the more ancient dwellings are remarkable for their height. It
is surprising to see in a village lost among the sterile hills houses
three stories high. The fact that there is only a ledge on which to
build must be the explanation. What is most curious in the place is
the cellars. Before the cheese became an important article of commerce
these were natural caverns, such as are everywhere to be found in this
calcareous formation, but now they are really cellars which have been
excavated to such a depth in the rock that they are to be seen in as
many as five stages, where long rows of cheeses are stacked one over
the other. The virtue of these cellars from the cheese-making point of
view is their dryness and their scarcely varying temperature of about
8° Centigrade summer and winter. But the demand for Roquefort cheese
has become so great that trickery now plays a part in the ripening
process. The peasants have learnt that 'time is money,' and they have
found that bread-crumbs mixed with the curd cause those green streaks
of mouldiness, which denote that the cheese is fit for the market, to
appear much more readily than was formerly the case when it was left
to do the best it could for itself with the aid of a subterranean
atmosphere. This is not exactly cheating; it is commercial enterprise,
the result of competition and other circumstances too strong for poor
human nature. In cheese-making, breadcrumbs are found to be a cheap
substitute for time, and it is said that those who have taken to
beer-brewing in this region have found that box, which here is the
commonest of shrubs, is a cheap substitute for hops. The notion that
brass pins are stuck into Roquefort cheese to make it turn green is
founded on fiction.

Having remained at Roquefort long enough to see all that was needful,
to lunch and to be overcharged - commercial enterprise is very
infectious - I turned my back upon it and scrambled down a stony path
to the bottom of the valley where the Cernon - now a mere thread of a
stream - curled and sparkled in the middle of its wide channel, the
yellow flowers and pale-green leaves of the horned poppy basking upon
the rocky banks. Following it down to the Tarn, I came to the village
of St. Rome de Cernon, where the houses of dark-gray stone, built on a
hillside, are overtopped by the round tower of a small mediaeval
fortress which has been patched up and put to some modern use. I
thought the people very ill-favoured by nature here, but perhaps they
are not more so than others in the district. The harshness of nature
is strongly reflected in all faces. Having passed a man on the bank of
the stream washing his linen - presumably his own - with bare arms,
sinewy and hairy like a gorilla's, I was again in the open country;
but instead of following donkey-paths and sheep-tracks I was upon the
dusty highroad. Well, even a, _route nationale_, however hot and
dusty, so that it be not too straight, has its advantages, which are
felt after you have been walking an uncertain number of miles over a
very rough country, trusting to luck to lead you where you wished to
go. The feeling that you may at length step out freely and not worry
yourself with a map and compass is a kind of pleasure which, like all
others, is only so by the force of contrast and the charm of variety.
I knew that I could now tramp along this road without troubling myself
about anything, and that I should reach Millau sooner or later. It was
really very hot - ideal sunstroke weather, verging on 90° in the shade;
but I had become hardened to it, and was as dry as a smoked herring.
For miles I saw no human being and heard no sound of life except the
shrilling of grasshoppers and the more strident song of the cicadas in
the trees. By-and-by houses showed themselves, and I came to the
village of St. Georges beside the bright little Cernon, but surrounded
by wasteful, desolate hills, one of which, shaped like a cone, reared
its yellow rocky summit far towards the blue solitude of the dazzling
sky. I passed by little gardens where great hollyhocks flamed in the
afternoon sunshine, then I met the Tarn again and reached Millau, a
weary and dusty wayfarer.

I stopped in Millau (sometimes spelt Milhau) more than a day, in order
to rest and to ramble - moderately. Although the town, with its 16,000
inhabitants, is the most populous in the department of the Aveyron, it
is so remote from all large centres and currents of human movement
that very little French is spoken there. And this French is about on a
par with the English of the Sheffield grinders. In the better-class
families an effort now is made to keep _patois_ out-of-doors for the
sake of the children; but there is scarcely a middle-aged native to
whom it is not the mother-tongue. The common dialect is not quite the
same throughout Guyenne and Languedoc; but the local variations are
much less marked than one would expect, considering that the _langue
d'oc_ has been virtually abandoned as a literary vehicle for
centuries. The word _oc_ (yes), which was once the most convenient
sound to distinguish the dialect from that of the northern half of
France, is not easy to recognise nowadays in the conversation of the
people. The _c_ in the word is not pronounced - perhaps it never
was - and the _o_ is usually joined to _bè_, which has the same meaning
as _bien_ in the French language. Thus we have the forms _obè_, _opè_,
and _apè_ according to the district, and all equivalent to 'yes.' All
these people can understand Spanish when spoken slowly. Many can catch
your meaning when you speak to them in French, but reply in _patois_.
I had grown accustomed, although not reconciled, to this manner of
conversing with peasants; but I was surprised to find on entering a
shop at Millau that neither the man nor his wife there could reply to
me in French.

This town lies in the bottom of a basin; some of the high hills,
especially those on the east, showing savage escarpments with towering
masses of yellow or reddish rock at the summits. The climate of the
valley is delightful in winter, but sultry and enervating in summer.
It is so protected from the winds that the mulberry flourishes there,
and countless almond-trees rise above the vines on the burning
hillsides.

Millau presents a good deal of interest to the archaeologist. Very
noteworthy is the ancient market-place, where the first and upper
stories project far over the paving and are supported by a colonnade.
Some of the columns, with elaborately carved Romanesque capitals, date
from the twelfth century, and look ready to fall into fragments. At
one end of the square is an immense modern crucifix - a sure sign that
the civic authorities do not yet share the views of the municipal
councillors of Paris in regard to religious emblems. Protestants,
however, are numerous at Millau as well as at St. Affrique, both towns
having been important centres of Calvinism at the time of the
Revocation of the Edict of Nantes; and after the forced emigration
many of the inhabitants must have strongly sympathized with their
persecuted neighbours, the Camisards. Nevertheless, the department of
the Aveyron, taken in its entirety, is now one of the most fervently
Catholic in France.

The church is Romanesque, with a marked Byzantine tendency. It has an
elegant apse, decorated in good taste; but the edifice having received
various patchings and decorations at the time of the Renaissance, the
uniformity of style has been spoilt. The most striking architectural
feature of the town is a high Gothic belfry of octagonal form, with a
massive square tower for its base.

In the Middle Ages the government of this town was vested in six
consuls, who received twenty gold florins a year as salary, and also a
new robe of red and black cloth with a hood. In 1341 they furnished
forty men-at-arms for the war against the English, but the place was
given up to Chandos in 1362. The rising of 1369 delivered the burghers
again from the British power, but for twenty-two years they were
continually fighting with the English companies.

The evening before I left Millau I strolled into the little square
where the great crucifix stands. I found it densely crowded. Three or
four hundred men were there, each wearing a blouse and carrying a
sickle with a bit of osier laid upon the sharp edge of the blade along
its whole length, and firmly tied. All these harvesters were waiting
to be hired for the following week. They belonged to a class much less
numerous in France than in England - the agricultural labourers who
have no direct interest in the soil that they help to cultivate and
the crops that they help to gather in. I have often met them on the
dusty roads, frequently walking with bare feet, carrying the
implements of their husbandry and a little bundle of clothes. It must
be very hard to ask for work from farm to farm. I can enter fully into
the attachment of the French peasant to his bit of land, which,
although it may yield him little more than his black bread, cannot be
taken from him so long as he can manage to live by the sweat of his
brow. Many of these peasant proprietors can barely keep body and soul
together; but when they lie down upon their wretched beds at night,
they feel thankful that the roof that covers them and the soil that
supports them are their own. The wind may howl about the eaves, and
the snow may drift against the wall, but they know that the one will
calm down, and that the other will melt, and that life will go on as
before - hard, back-breaking, grudging even the dark bread, but secure
and independent. Waiting to be hired by another man, almost like a
beast of burden - what a trial is here for pride! Happily for the human
race, pride, although it springs naturally in the breast of man, only
becomes luxuriant with cultivation. The poor labourer does not feel it
unless his instinctive sense of justice has been outraged.




THE BLACK CAUSSE.


One cannot be sure of the weather even in the South of France, where
the skies are supposed, by those who do not know them, to be
perpetually blue. The 'South of France' itself is a very deceptive
term. The climate on one side of a range of mountains or high hills
may be altogether different from that on the other. In Upper Languedoc
and Guyenne the climate is regulated by three principal factors: the
elevation of the soil, the influence of the Mediterranean, and the
influence of the Atlantic. On the northern side of the Cevennes, the
currents from the ocean, together with the altitude, do much to keep
the air moist and comparatively cool in summer; whereas on the other
side of the chain, where the Mediterranean influence - in a large
measure African - is paramount, the climate is dry and torrid during
the hot months. A liability to sudden changes goes with the advantages
of the more favoured region. This was enforced upon me at Millau.

At seven o'clock the sky, lately of such a fiery blue, was of a most
mournful smokiness, and the rain fell in a drenching spray. It was
mountain weather, and I blamed the Cevennes for it. But I was in the
South, and at a season when bad weather is seldom in earnest, so I did
not despair of a change when the sun rose higher. It came, in fact, at
about eight o'clock, when, a breeze springing up, the clouds, after a
short struggle, were swept away. The market-women spread out upon the
pavement their tomatoes, their purple _aubergines_, their peaches, and
green almonds; the harvesters, long hesitating, went out into the
fields to reap; and I, leaving the Tarn, took my way up the valley of
the gleaming Dourbie. Millau was soon nearly hidden in its basin, but
above it, on the sides of the surrounding hills, scattered amongst the
sickly vines, or the vigorous young plants which promised in a few
years to make the stony soil flow once more with purple juice, were
the small white houses of the wine-growers. Where I could, I walked in
the shade of walnut and mulberry trees, for the heat was great, and
the rain that had fallen rose like steam in the sun-blaze from the
herbage and the golden stubble. In this low valley all corn except
maize had been gathered in, and Nature was resting, after her labour,
with the smile of maternity on her face. Nevertheless, this stillness
of the summer's fulfilment, this pause in the energy of production, is
saddening to the wayfarer, to whom the vernal splendour of the year
and the time of blossoming seem like the gifts of yesterday. The
serenity of the burnished plains now prompts him upward, where he
hopes to overtake the tarrying spring upon the cool and grassy
mountains. Although the mountains towards which I was now bearing were
the melancholy and arid Cevennes, I wished the distance less that lay
between me and their barren flanks, where the breeze would be scented
with the bloom of lavender. There were flowers along the wayside here,
but they were the same that I had been seeing for many a league, and
they reminded me too forcibly of the rapid flight of the summer days
by their haste - their unnecessary haste, as I thought - in passing from
the flower to the seed. A sprig of lithosperm stood like a little tree
laden with Dead Sea fruit, for the naked seeds clung hard and flinty
where the flowers had been. The glaucium, although still blooming, had
put forth horns nine inches long, and the wild barley, so lately
green, was now a brown fringe along the dusty road. And thus all these
familiar forms of vegetable life, which we notice in our wanderings,
but never understand, come and go, perish and rise again - so quickly,
too, that we have no time to listen to what they say; we only feel
that the song which they sing along the waysides of the world is ever
joyous and ever sad.

In the lower part of this valley were scattered farmhouses, which
looked like small rural churches, for their high rectangular dovecots
at one end had much the air of towers with broach spires. Throughout
Guyenne one is amazed at the apparently extravagant scale on which
accommodation has been provided for pigeon-rearing. There are plenty
of pigeons in the country, but the size of their houses is usually out
of all proportion to the number of lodgers, and dovecots without
tenants are almost as frequently seen as those that are tenanted. They
are seldom of modern construction; many are centuries old. All this
points to the conclusion that people of former times laid much greater
store by pigeon-flesh than their descendants do. It may have been that
other animal food was relatively more expensive than at the present
day.

But as I ascended the valley the breadth of cultivated land grew
narrower, and the habitations fewer. On either side the cliffs rose
higher, and the walls of Jurassic rock, above the brashy steeps, more
towering, precipitous, and fantastic. Where vegetable life could draw
sustenance from crumbling, stones stretched a veritable forest of box.
Now, in a narrow gorge, the Dourbie frolicked about the heaps of
pebbles it had thrown up in its winter fury. Strong wires, attached to
high rocks, crossed the gorge and the stream, and were made fast to
the side of the road. Bundles of newly-cut box at the lower end showed
the use to which these wires were put. Far aloft upon the heated rocks
women were cutting down the tough shrub for firewood or manure, for it
is put to both uses. It serves a very useful purpose when buried in
dense layers between the vine rows. When I looked aloft, and saw those
petticoated beings toiling in the terrible heat, I thought it a pity
that there was no society to protect women as well as horses from
being cruelly overworked. Let social reformers ponder this truth: The
more the man is encouraged to shirk work, the more the woman will have
to toil to make up for wasted time. As it is, women everywhere, except
perhaps in England, work harder than men, as far as I can speak from
observation.

I was on my way to Vieux Montpellier - the 'Devil's City' - and already
the scenery began to take the character to be expected of it in such a
neighbourhood. It seemed as though the demon builder of the fantastic
town, sporting with man's architectural ideals before his appearance
on the earth, had hewn the red and yellow rocks above the Dourbie into
the ironic semblance of feudal towers and heaven-pointing spires.

The highest limestone rocks in this region, those which rise from the
plateau or _causse_ and strike the imagination by the strangeness of
their forms, are dolomite; in the gorges they approach the character
of lias towards the base, and not unfrequently contain lumps of pure
silex embedded in their mass. The redness which they so often show,
and which, alternating with yellow, white, or gray, adds to the
grandeur of their rugged outlines, is due to the iron which the rock
contains.

A young gipsy-woman, carrying a child upon her shoulders, and holding
on to a dusky little leg on each side of her neck, followed in the
wake of an old caravan drawn by a mule of resigned countenance - a
beast that seemed to have made a vow never to hurry again, and to let
the flies do their worst. She vanished upon the winding road, and
presently I saw another wayfarer seated on the bank beside the stream,
binding up a bleeding foot under the trailing traveller's joy. Before
reaching the village of La Roque-Sainte-Marguerite, I passed a genuine
rock dwelling. A natural cavern, some twenty or thirty feet above the
level of the road, had been walled up to make a house. It had its door
and windows like any other dwelling, and some convenient crevice in
the rock had probably been used for a chimney.

Having taken an hour's rest and a light meal in the village, I
commenced the ascent towards the 'Devil's City.' A mule-path wound up
the steep side of the gorge, which had been partly reclaimed from the
desert by means of terraces where many almond-trees flourished, safe
from the north wind. Very scanty, however, was the vegetation that
grew upon this dry stony soil, burning in summer, and washed in winter
of its organic matter by the mountain rains. Tall woody spurges two
feet high or more, with tufts of dusty green leaves, managed to draw,
however, abundant moisture from the waste, as the milk that gushed
from the smallest wound attested. An everlasting pea, with very large
flowers of a deep rose-colour, also loved this arid steep. I was
wondering why I found no lavender, when I saw a gray-blue tuft above
me, and welcomed it like an old friend. The air was soon scented with
the plant, and for five days I was in the land of lavender. On nearing
the buttresses of the plateau the ground was less steep, and here I
came to pines, junipers, oaks, and the bird-cherry prunus. But the
tree which I was most pleased to find was a plum, with ripe fruit
about the size of a small greengage, but of a beautiful pale
rose-colour.

I am now upon the _causse_ and already see the castellated outworks
of the 'Devil's City.' The city itself lies in a hollow, and I have
not yet reached it. The mule-path fortunately leads in the right
direction. On my way multitudes of very dark, almost black,
butterflies flutter up from the short turf, which is flecked with
the gold of yellow everlastings. Here and there a solitary
round-headed allium nods from the top of its long leafless stem. I
walk over the shining dark leaves and the scarlet beads of the
bearberry, and am presently roaming in the fantastic streets of the
dolomitic city. To say streets is scarcely an exaggeration, for
these jutting rocks have in places almost the regularity of the
menhirs of Carnac. But the megalithic monuments of Brittany are like
arrow-heads compared to the stones of Montpellier-le-Vieux. In
placing these and in giving them that mimicry of familiar forms at
times so startling to human eyes, Nature has been the sole engineer
and artist. There is but one theory by which the working cause of
the existing phenomena can be brought to our understanding. It is
that these honeycombed and fantastically-shaped masses of dolomite
or magnesian limestone represent the skeletons of vaster rocks whose
less resisting parts were washed away by the wearing action of the
sea. Some are formed of blocks of varying size, lying one upon
another, with a pinnacle or dome at the summit; others show no trace
of stratification, but are integral rocks which in many cases appear
to have been cut away and fashioned to the mocking likeness of some
animal form by a demon statuary. Now it is a colossal owl, now a
frightful head that may be human or devilish, now some inanimate


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Online LibraryEdward Harrison BarkerWanderings by southern waters, eastern Aquitaine → online text (page 14 of 24)