Herbert Adams Gibbons.

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American money may be responsible for the château garden, but the
villas of Théoule are all French. Modern French artistic genius runs
to painting and clothes. There is none left for building or
house-furnishing. French taste, as expressed in homes, inside and
outside, is as bad as Prussian. We may admire mildly the monotonous
symmetry of post-Haussmann Paris. When we get to the suburbs and to
the provincial towns and to summer and winter resorts, we have to
confess that architecture is a lost art in France. In America,
especially in our cities, we have regrettable traces of
mid-Victorianism, and we have to contend with Irish politicians and
German contractors. In the suburbs, and in the country, however, where
Americans build their own homes, we have become accustomed to ideas of
beauty that make the results of the last sixty years of European growth
painful to us. Our taste in line, color, decoration, and interior
furnishing is at hopeless variance with that of twentieth-century
Europe. We admire and we buy in Europe that which our European
ancestors created. Our admiration - and our buying - is confined
strictly to Europe of the past. Present-day Europe displays German
_Schmuck_ from one end to the other, and France is no exception.

On the walk to school you soon get beyond the château and the villas.
But even on the promontory there is more than the dodging of
automobiles to remind one that this is the twentieth century. The
Corniche de l'Estérel has been singled out by the moving-picture men
for playing out-of-door scenarios. When the sun is shining, a day
rarely passes without film-making. The man with a camera has the
rising road and bends around which the action can enter into the scene,
the forest up and the forest down, the Mediterranean and mountain and
island and Cannes backgrounds. Automobile hold-ups with pistols
barking, the man and the maid in the woods and on the terrace, the
villain assaulting and the hero rescuing the defenseless woman, the
heroine jumping from a rock into the sea, and clinging to an upturned
boat - these are commonplace events on the Corniche de l'Estérel.

The world of cinemas and motors does not rise early. On the morning
walk, children and squirrels and birds were all one met. Children go
slowly, and squirrels and birds belong to nature. There was always
time to breathe in the forest and the sea and to look across to the
mountains. When _cartables_ and _goûters_ were handed over at the
school gate, parental responsibility ceased for three hours. One had
the choice of going on around the point towards Trayas or down to the

The people of Théoule say that Corsica, sixty miles away, can be seen
from the Esquillon. All one has to do is to keep going day after day
until "atmospheric conditions are favorable." The Touring-Club de
France has built a Belvedere at the extremity of the Esquillon. Arrows
on a dial indicate the direction of important places from Leghorn to
Marseilles. The Apennines behind Florence, as well as Corsica, are
marked as within the range of visibility. The Apennines had not been
seen for years, but Corsica was liable to appear at any time. The
first day the Artist went with me to the Esquillon, an Oldest
Inhabitant said that we had a Corsica day. A milkwoman _en route_
reported Corsica in sight, and told us to hurry. Towards nine o'clock
the sun raises a mist from the sea, she explained. In the belvedere we
found a girl without a guide book who had evidently come over from
Trayas. She was crouched down to dial level, and her eyes were
following the Corsica arrow. She did not look up or move when we
entered. Minutes passed. There was no offer to give us a chance. We
coughed and shuffled, and the Artist sang "The Little Gray Home in the
West." I informed the Artist - in French - that a specialist had once
remarked upon my hyperopic powers, and that if Corsica were really in
sight I could not fail to see it.

Not until she had to shake the cramp out of her back did the girl
straighten up.

"Corsica is invisible today," she announced.

"Yes," I answered sadly. "Ten minutes ago the mist began to come up.
You know, sun upon the water - "

A look in her eyes made me hesitate. "And all that sort of thing," I
ended lamely.

"Nonsense," she said briskly. She surveyed the Artist from mustache to
cane point and turned back to me. "You, at least," she declared, "are
American, but of the unpractical sort. And you are as unresourceful as
you are ungallant, Monsieur. How do I know? Well, you were
complaining about my monopolizing the dial. There is a map on the
tiles under your feet, and a compass dangles uselessly from your
watch-chain. I wonder, too, if you _are_ hyperopic. You know which is
the Carlton Hôtel over there in Cannes. Tell me how many windows there
are across a floor."

The atmosphere was wonderfully clear, and the Carlton stood out
plainly. But I failed the test.

The girl laughed. I did not mind that. When the Artist started in, I
turned on him savagely.

"Well, you count the Carlton windows," I said.

"No specialist ever told me I was hyperopic," he came back.

I had to save the day by answering that I was glad to be myopic just
now. Who wanted to see Corsica any longer? The girl knew interesting
upper paths on the western side of the promontory. She had as much
time as we, or rather, I must say regretfully, she and the Artist had
more time than I. For eleven o'clock came quickly, and I hurried off
to fulfill my parental duty. The Artist told me afterwards that there
was a fine _cuisine_ at the Trayas restaurant.

I did think of my compass one day: for I had sore need of it. But, as
generally happens in such cases, I was not wearing it. Between Théoule
and La Napoule, the nearest town on the way to Cannes, a tempting
forest road leads back into the valley. A sign states that a curious
view of a mountain peak, named after Marcus Aurelius, could be had by
following the road for half a dozen kilometers. It was one of the
things tourists did when they were visiting the Corniche for a day.
Consequently, when one was staying on the Corniche, it was always an
excursion of the morrow. During the Artist's first week, we were
walking over to Mandelieu to take the tram to Cannes one morning, and
suddenly decided that the last thing in the world for sensible folks to
do was to go to Cannes on a day when the country was calling
insistently. We turned in at the sign. After we had seen the view, we
thought that it would be possible to take a short cut back to Théoule.
The wall of the valley that shut us off from the sea must certainly be
the big hill just behind the Villa Étoile. If, instead of retracing
our steps towards La Napoule, we kept ahead, and remembered to take the
left at every cross path, we would come out at the place where the
Corniche road made its big bend before mounting to the promontory. It
was all so simple that it could not be otherwise. We were sure of the
direction, and fairly sure of the distance, since we had left the motor
road between Théoule and La Napoule.

There was an hour and a half before lunch. A lumber road followed the
brook, and the brook skirted the hill beyond which was Théoule and the
Villa Étoile. It was a day to swear by, and April flowers were in full
bloom. It was delightful until we had to confess that the hill showed
no signs of coming down to a valley on the left. Finally, at a point
where a path went up abruptly from the stream, we decided that it would
be best to cut over the summit of the hill and not wait until the
Corniche road appeared before us. In this way we would avoid the walk
back from the hotel to our villa, and come out in our own garden. But
on the Riviera nature has shown no care in placing her hills where they
ought to be and in symmetrizing and limiting them. They go on
indefinitely. So did we, until we came to feel that we would be like
the soldiers of Xenophon once we spied the sea. But the cry "Thalassa"
was denied us. Eventually we turned back, and tried keeping the hill
on the right. This was as perplexing as keeping it on the left had
been. A pair of famished explorers, hungry enough to eat canned
tuna-fish and crackers with relish, reached a little town inland from
Mandelieu about seven o'clock that night with no clear knowledge of
from where or how they had come.

Between the town of Théoule and the belvedere of the Esquillon, down
along the water's edge, one never tires of exploring the caves. Paths
lead through the pines and around the cliffs. The Artist was attracted
to the caves by the hope of finding vantage points from which to sketch
Grasse and Cannes and Antibes and the Alps and the castle on
Saint-Honorat. But he soon came to love the copper rocks, which pine
needles had dyed, and deserted black and white for colors. When the
climate got him, he was not loath to join in my hunt for octopi. The
inhabitants tell thrilling stories of the monsters that lurk under the
rocks at the Pointe de l'Esquillon and forage right up to the town.
One is warned to be on his guard against long tentacles reaching out
swiftly and silently. One is told that slipping might mean more than a
ducking. Owners of villas on the rocks make light of octopi stories,
and as local boomers are trying to make Théoule a summer resort, it is
explained that the octopi never come near the beach. Even if they did,
they would not be dangerous there. How could they get a hold on the
sand with some tentacles while others were grabbing you?

I have never wanted to see anything quite so badly as I wanted to see
an octopus at Théoule. Octopus hunting surpasses gathering four-leaf
clovers and fishing as an occupation in which hope eternal plays the
principle role. I gradually abandoned other pursuits, and sat smoking
on rocks by the half day, excusing indolence on the ground of the
thrilling story I was going to get. I learned over again painfully the
boyhood way of drinking from a brook, and lay face downward on island
stones. With the enthusiastic help of my children, I made a dummy
stuffed with pine cones, and let him float at the end of a rope. Never
a tentacle, let alone octopus, appeared. I had to rest content with
Victor Hugo's stirring picture in "The Toilers of the Sea."

A plotting wife encouraged the octopus hunts by taking part in them,
and expressing frequently her belief in the imminent appearance of the
octopi. She declared that sooner or later my reward would come. She
threw off the mask on the first day of May, when she thought it was
time to return to work. She announced to the Artist and me that the
octopi had gone over to the African coast to keep cool until next
winter, and that we had better all go to Paris to do the same. We were
ready. Théoule was still lovely, and the terrace breakfasts had lost
none of their charm. But one does not linger indefinitely on the
Riviera unless _dolce far niente_ has become the principal thing in


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Online LibraryHerbert Adams GibbonsRiviera towns → online text (page 10 of 10)