Aigues-Mortes, France

The bus moved over a wide plain, under a grey lid of sky, like a dish-cover, tilted slightly so that a gleam of brightness showed underneath its southern rim. A few miles out from Nimes the driver stopped for no apparent reason, got down from his seat, and began to fiddle with the engine. After a few minutes he grunted, climbed in again, and we moved off. The bus now began to run very badly, the engine constantly missing on one cylinder. Soon we stopped again. Again the driver got out, and this time, determined to do the thing thoroughly, exchanged his leather jerkin for an old jacket. After this I was not surprised to find, when we started again, that the engine was missing on two cylinders. On our stopping a third time the driver effected so extensive a repair that from this point the bus would hardly go at all. We crawled slowly through a flat, stony landscape, passing occasional vineyards and olive orchards. It began to rain. Away to the right, on the horizon, was a range of low hills. We jolted lamely into a place called Aimargues, and pulled up at a garage, where a consultation was held over the engine, attended by the driver, the entire staff of the garage, and a number of passers-by, including a man in uniform who looked like an Inspector of Weights and Measures. The driver looked resigned, his advisers pessimistic: gloom settled on the gathering. Presently we were asked to get out, and await a bus belonging to another service which was due to catch us up shortly.

The rain had stopped, but we stepped out into puddles. The rival bus arrived, we took our seats in it, hoping that all would now be well. The driver of the new bus descended and joined the now despairing group about the bonnet of the first. We lost interest in the affair, we washed our hands of it, we transferred our attention to our neighbours’ conversation or our surroundings, gazing out through the windows at the little grey town with the detached and eternal patience of a fish in an aquarium. After three or four years someone came and told us to get back into the original bus. The driver climbed into his seat, he raced his engine, the pace of life accelerated, and had soon reached the normal.

A little further on we ran out from under the grey rim of cloud. The sky was clear but not yet sunny. And now time moved even a little faster than the normal: that sense of anticipation was in the air which we feel when we are going towards the end of a peninsula, or to a place from which one must return by the same road. It is the sense that one is advancing to a terminus, that something final is at last to be revealed. The massive tower we passed was the Tour Carbonniere, an outpost of the citadel. A mile or two further on the road swung sharply to the right and skirted the ramparts of the walled town. It was necessary to descend at the corner in order to enter the town by the gateway which is its only connection with the outer world.

More than three thousand people live within the walls of Aigues-Mortes. Some cater for the summer tourist, some are employed in the local salt works, some are tillers of the surrounding soil. Rents must surely be low in this desolate and remote situation, unprotected either from the freezing gales of winter or the grilling rays of the meridional sun in summer. Between the town and the sea lie great pools and lagoons of brackish and stagnant water, infinitely gloomy and forbidding in appearance, from which the place derives its sinister, unchancy name. Grey heaps of dirty-looking salt, extracted from these lagoons, adorn this landscape; if that can be called a landscape which consists almost entirely of water. In the Middle Ages there was water, or at least marshland, on the northern side as well. Aigues-Mortes was a sort of isthmus; a narrow strip of land, no wider than the present road, and indeed identifiable with it, connected it with the mainland at the point guarded by the Tour Carbonniere. Saint Louis, who used Aigues-Mortes as a base for his crusades, must have chosen the site for the security it afforded against sudden attack while his forces were disorganized at the moment of embarkation. For it was against jealous or perhaps revengeful neighbours and vassals that the elaborate defences of Aigues-Mortes were constructed, not against Saracenic invasion from the sea.

Aigues-Mortes is a sort of Carcassonne, shorn of some of its most romantic features and set on level ground in-stead of on a hill. From the point of view of the military architect, its fortifications are the better, in that they date from a single epoch, instead of representing the adaptation and continual modification of an existing plan. For though Saint Louis designed the Tour de Constance in the first place as an independent stronghold, the scheme of surrounding the whole town by the existing ramparts was apparently conceived soon afterwards, and carried into execution by his son.

Aigues-Mortes has not the beauty Carcassonne derives from its marvellous situation; it has fewer towers and less fantasy. Its defences are less extensive, but not less intricate. Intricacy, a taste for the deliberately tortuous, was the peculiar contribution to European art and thought of medieval man. He was probably the first man in the West to enjoy complication for its own sake, as a quality distinct from grandiosity or splendour. It was he, the barbarian from the north, who conferred on sport and religion their elaborate ritual, and invested life with a quality of make-believe which has clung to it ever since, obscuring its realities with its misty hocus-pocus of legend, superstition, and ill-considered chivalry. Fascism, the Boy Scout Movement, and the Oxford Group—one might trace them all to their origin in the cramped mind of a savage, rapt from his native heath or forest to be the incredulous heir of the Roman world. There is an atmosphere of hide-and-seek about all these portcullises, traps, galleries, devices for rolling cannon-balls downstairs, and so forth. The whole medieval world, with its elaborate codes of unreality, its bloodthirsty idealism, its exaggeration and fantasy, is the world of a dream; but of a dream from which, at the present moment, when Europe is industriously preparing to destroy itself for the sake of some-thing without any real existence, it appears that mankind has not yet awakened.

The Tour de Constance was built to withstand a siege. It is equipped with well and larders, and elaborate contrivances for enabling the defenders to continue their life on an upper story if the ground floor should be captured. The garrison could, I suppose, exist for weeks, or even months, shut up in this curious building, shaped like some strange gourd, with its seventeen-foot-thick walls and tiny windows. In the seventeenth century the tower was used as a prison for those unfortunates who had committed the vile offence of being Protestants. More than two hundred years earlier one of the other towers was the scene of a more drastic punishment. Rebels who had seized the fortress were overcome by the royal troops; they were massacred, and their bodies cheaply disposed of by being thrown into this tower and covered with a heap of salt—a commodity presumably as plentiful about here in those days as in these.

However, today, and for the present at any rate, such pleasantries are remote from Aigues-Mortes, having recoiled, perhaps, nearer to their source. I had the advantage of paying my visit out of season; for it is only in the summer that much tourist traffic comes this way. An agreeable tranquillity brooded over the deserted ramparts. In the after-noon the sun came out, the air grew warm. More than once a lizard darted into cover at my approach. The effect of the pale masonry, a light buff in colour, burning gently against the luminous blue of the Mediterranean sky, was very fine. One looks inwards from the ramparts over tiled roofs, bleached paler than those of Carcassonne, less various in colour and arrangement. Outwards, one sees form and pat-tern in what had been a meaningless expanse to landward. The canal which runs north-east in a straight line as far as vision stretches joins the Rhone at Beaucaire: it looks like a pale ribbon pinned across the landscape. There are other canals, which run to the sea, to Sete by way of the lagoons. One realizes that Aigues-Mortes is not a terminus, but a junction.

On the other side of Aigues-Mortes, between the lagoons and the sea, is le Grau-du-Roi. This, surely, one thinks, must be the very end of the world, a place inhabited by some strange race of misanthropes or anchorites. On the contrary, it is a summer resort of great popularity, despite the mosquitoes which, at that season, rise in millions from the adjacent waters. Concerning these creatures there are two schools of thought. Some people say that it is folly to sleep at le Grau without a mosquito-net; others, that while one cannot venture a yard outside the place without being appallingly bitten, the insects are, for some unaccountable reason, entirely unknown within the town itself. Le Grau certainly has the two principal requirements of a bathing resort—the sunshine and a beach. And if people will go to the Venetian Lido in the summer they will go anywhere. I am told one eats very well there, and that for those who ask for nothing but to be allowed to lie in the sun and bathe there are few better places. Its appeal to those who have a romantic fancy for places possessing the attraction of the ultimate is clear. For having reached le Grau you must either stay there, or turn and go back by the way you came. Beyond it there is nothing but the sea and Africa.