French Landscape With Fishes

Gastronomically the Mediterranean fishes cannot be compared with those of the Atlantic. Where the Mediterranean product has an Atlantic counterpart, the occidental fish is generally superior, a rich relation, running less to skin and bone. The Mediterranean whiting alone is better favoured than its ocean cousin; but that is a poor beast at the best. The Loup de mer, the pageot, and a few more, variously called in different regions, stand out from a mass of tough or spiny creatures, worthy to be noticed only because of the challenge they extend to that culinary skill which makes some people say, I think mistakenly, that they would rather eat fish in the south of France than anywhere.

But for what they lack in tenderness and flavour, these fruits of the inner sea may be conceded to atone in variety and strangeness of appearance. Standing on the fringe of this vast lake of brine, which, though it is tideless, swells and diminishes before one’s eyes, and whose even glassy surface is on a sudden agitated without apparent local cause, so that one is tempted to suppose the passing of a ship a hundred miles from shore may be the cause of the mysterious whirls and eddies at one’s feet; and staring down into the green depths of a rock-pool, fringed with seaweed, one may see a hundred different kinds of shellfish, and of sea-urchin and anemone, coloured like the draught-excluders, sawdust sausages, that old men sell from barrows on fine days in the London suburbs. In the Channel I have seen more brilliant creatures of this breed, but nowhere such variety. And these are nothing to the monsters that swim in deeper waters, further from the shore. Look for the first time at the stock of a fishmonger in the south of France, and you will see things that have previously occurred to you only in your dreams.

At Banyuls there is an aquarium where, in glass tanks and in stone basins on the floor, the creatures that inhabit the local waters are displayed. Conger eels contemplate infinity with their heads through drain pipes and the necks of shattered amphorae, beside streaked and spotted catfish, whose caricatural resemblance to their terrestrial prototypes brings one to the borders of a nightmare world in which the species and the elements would be insanely mixed. There are huge starfish, scarlet, deep purple, pale puce; a dark crimson anemone like a cactus-dahlia; octopuses at which one stares in fascinated horror. What is it about these creatures that revolts us? That which is formless and has life repels us, says the keeper, who is a philosopher: perhaps some remnant of an antique fear, left over from a savage world filled with unknown protean objects, stirs within us when we behold the writhing anchored poulpe. In motion he becomes a different creature, harmless and mildly engaging in appearance: one detects a faint resemblance to a pygmy hippopotamus. Is there any danger from these beasts when one is bathing? Not in the open sea, unless one drowns oneself in panic, says the keeper. Among rocks, where the brute can get a hold, and will pull you under if he can, a big one might give you an awkward moment. With an adroit movement, he plunges a hand into the basin beside us, and brings out a struggling mass of tripe like flesh and searching tentacles. By pressing this nerve you can paralyse him, he says, paddling in the loathsome mess with determined fingers, turning the unhappy monster very nearly inside out for my enlightenment. He puts him back in the pool: the offended creature, blushing a deep crimson with mortification, rushes madly across the basin and dashes his head against the side.

Banyuls is the centre of a delimited wine-producing area: i.e. only those wines made from grapes grown on specified vineyards in the neighbourhood are entitled to the name. The ordinary table wines of the locality are often very good; at their best they are excellent, much better than many a wine considered worthy of a label and a cork elsewhere, and for which you must pay several shillings. Banyuls, the local aperitif, is a pleasant sweetish drink; when kept some time it mellows, changes colour, and is then called Rancio. For the rest, Banyuls is a fishing port, and a seaside resort of some small reputation, with one or two biggish hotels which cater to the summer visitor. The climate is mild; lemons ripen in profusion in the gardens of its cottages and villas.

Between here and Port-Vendres the road winds like a serpent. In the town itself it negotiates a number of corners, which one would think no vehicle could get round with-out being hinged in the middle. Coming round one of these one day in a bus, I heard a fearful grinding sound behind. I thought at first that the differential had proved unequal to its task; but we continued on our way, so evidently it was nothing serious; I think one of the wheels had come off. Port-Vendres is a real port, with a deep-water harbour, capable of taking vessels of ten thousand tons or so. It is the point of departure for the quickest crossing to the French colonies. The quay to which the trans-Mediterranean passenger boats come is at the extreme landward end of the harbour. The boats enter under their own power, pointing straight towards the quay, and are brought round broadside to it by tugs, with only a yard or two each end to spare feat comparable to riding a trick bicycle, but performed quite casually and as a matter of routine. It was at Port-Vendres that I beheld the spectacle of the British colonial classes, stranded here by an accident to their vessel, keeping a stiff upper lip in face of their distresses and of the potations they had consumed to celebrate their providential escape from death by water. “The women were splendid,” I was told. The sight of the little French port littered with golf clubs and dressing-cases, and with individuals wearing that expression of bewildered superiority which the sahib who is not quite pukka assumes in the presence of the benighted foreigner, was very curious and novel.

The views to be obtained from the hills behind this strip of coast are in the highest degree magnificent. The favourite expedition from Port-Vendres or Collioure, a gentle stroll among vineyards and through plantations of cork trees and chestnuts, is to the hermitage of Notre-Dame-de-Consolation. “Is there really a hermit?” I asked before I went that way for the first time. “Undoubtedly there is a hermit,” I was told. “What’s more, he is a Spaniard.” The hermitage is charming, both in itself and as to situation. There is a chapel, its walls hung with votive offerings: ships in full sail, pictures, pieces of embroidery, executed by pious amateur hands. Could any offering be more appropriate and charming? There are stained-glass windows, coloured like jujubes. But the hermit, I find, has a wife and daughter, and makes an excellent living in the summer, letting cells to visitors.

My eyes were turned higher, towards the rocky summit of the local mountain, the Pic-de-Taillefer, crowned by a tower, the Tour-de-Madeloch, of which no one knows the origin. Some say the Romans built it, some the Moors, and its use is variously said to have been that of a lighthouse, a watch-tower against pirates, and part of a system of frontier defense. From Collioure, on a warm day in March, I climbed to this strange spot. A road of sorts, constructed in the nineteenth century for military purposes, goes as far as the deserted fort and barracks only a few hundred feet from the summit. Such erections, testifying to the extraordinary and one would think fantastically unnecessary lengths that men inspired by fear will go to in order to protect themselves, are to be found all over these hills which look so completely inaccessible and rugged from below. A little goodwill and common sense, and all such absurdities could be done away with! The labour, and the expenditure of public money, involved in the construction of this road and these buildings, perched on a bare ledge of rock, must have been colossal. Now, only fifty years after their erection, the barracks are crumbling into ruin, and have been purchased for a song by a local speculator, who hopes to sell them to some rich eccentric, and meanwhile makes something from the shooting rights.

Perhaps if I were a millionaire I might buy them. Then lorries laden with materials for their repair, and later with rich furniture and carpets, would climb with enormous difficulty from Collioure or Port-Vendres, exotic trees and shrubs would be planted on the terrace, a guardian would be employed for the purpose of behaving insolently to trippers; and on one night of my life, for the sheer pleasure of indulging such a costly whim, I would entertain there, on the morrow abandoning the place for ever. Such a gesture would be worthy of a Beckford. Nevertheless, I think I could find some better way of spending my money, even if I were a millionaire. Yet follies of a comparable kind are not unknown in the neighbourhood. Some wealthy person has bought the old Fort Sainte-Elme, which Vauban built for Louis XIV, and spent a considerable sum repairing it, merely for the pleasure of occupying it for a few days every summer. The fort stands on a hill near Collioure, and must be one of the most conspicuous private residences in the world, for you can see it twenty miles away. I wonder if the postman calls there when the owner is in residence, and whether, if one sent him a registered letter, it would be delivered to him personally, as the law in France requires?

From the empty barracks one must do the last stage, to the foot of the Tour-de-Madeloch, by a rough goat track, with a sheer drop of several hundred on one side, on the other a steep slope. It is a pity the illusion of having made a difficult and dangerous ascent is mitigated by the knowledge that one has done nothing of the kind. The view from the summit is superb. The whole of the Cote-Vermeille is in sight, with the exception of Cerbere, which is hidden by its cliffs. Beyond Argeles-Plage, a summer bathing resort with a sandy beach, the coastline is visible as far as Agde, eighty miles away. There is a single steamer to be seen, alone on this vast blue expanse of sea: it is the packet boat, bound from Oran for Port-Vendres. It enters the harbour, slowing, tugs rush from each side to meet it, like minute black busy insects. One senses from up here, a mile inland, and two thousand feet above, a little of the ant-like commotion which accompanies this arrival. To the south is Spain, so near one could almost throw a stone across the frontier. Beyond a range of low hills is a grey smudge of plain, there are more hills at its further edge, and beyond those, in the extreme distance, the jagged ridge of the Sierras. On the other side, the plain of Roussillon extends to the Corbieres, above which rises the strange, plateau-like form of the Montagne-Noire; the road from Perpignan to Elne, and beyond it to Argeles, is a straight line ruled across this flat expanse. And behind one, as one looks out to sea with Banyuls as one’s footstool, the whole mass of the Pyrenees extends in an unbroken line to the Atlantic.

In the hill country of Roussillon, in the border country, there are regions where a man may walk all day among heather and cork trees, with the drenching scent of the broom in his nostrils, and a light wind in his face, and see no human being but a goatherd whistling in his flock at evening. Purple muscari and the papery cistus bloom in the pale groves of chene-liege. You may eat your bread and meat, a delicious homemade sausage or a slice of pate, and goats milk cheese, the best of all for the open air, and drink your flask of wine, a little higher up, on a bank of rosemary and thyme, and hear from a hundred feet above the low thin sound, monotonous and sweet, of the belled unresting herd, whose scrambling hoofs precipitate an occasional miniature avalanche about your person, to remind you that there are precious few good situations in this world which do not carry with them the chance of receiving a knock on the head if your luck is out. From in front of you, and far below (for you are sconced on a narrow ledge, a terrace of the mountainside), there may sound a deeper tintinnabulation, from a small valley that opens there, surprisingly lush and rich, through which a streamlet runs, whose source is a dark streak on the rock beside you; and where a patch of vivid green is spread between dark trees, you may pick out, as in one of those films of wild life in Africa, taken from the air, the minute sleek forms of grazing cows, as unexpected as giraffes, to complete a little Switzerland.

But it is a Switzerland with a difference. You do not find those endless vistas of snowy peaks you get in the Alps, unless you go very high, to Font-Romeu, for example, where they have skiing and tobogganing in winter, and the highest golf course in the world in summer, six thousand feet above sealevel, and from which comes an excellent strong liqueur, like a coarser Benedictine. You have instead a greater variety of scenery than the high Alps can offer plain and hillside, the middle slopes clothed with tree and herb and heather, the bare rock above. The lower slopes, below the springs, are usually laid out with vines, and often terraced to a considerable height, so that art helps nature, emphasizing the division of the planes as a modern painter does, the furrowed earth and the gnarled vines giving a fine effect of texture, like a skilful brush-stroke, in the early spring, before the leaf is out.

In the folds of these hills there are villages which seem forgotten and asleep, each with good cottage architecture of the simple rustic sort, and a fine bold church or abbey. As you walk through the vineyards where the men are grubbing in the earth for weeds, or pick your way by stepping-stones across a stream in which the women stoop to wash their linen, they will greet you with a smile, and leave off their work to put you on your path if you have missed it. Among themselves the border folk speak Catalan, or a dialect which is Greek to anybody but an indigene. To a stranger they speak French; but it is French cut on a Spanish pattern, with twice the proper number of vowels, a trilled “r,” and a peculiar lilting intonation. Listening to a real Spaniard speaking French, it is almost impossible not to believe that he is being deliberately funny. But that is by the way, for the Roussillonais is not a real Spaniard, nor must you call him one, though he has a certain romantic orientation to that race. “He is a Spanish Catalan, a real Spanish Catalan!” my neighbour in a cafe assured me, pointing to his companion, a woodcutter from across the border, with a gesture of justifiable pride.Both men laughter was caused by the same emotion of embarrassed pleasure as attacks a girl of ten who has been asked to play the piano at a party. But the Roussillonais always laugh a good deal, especially the hill-folk. Happy Roussillonais, who can laugh when the rest of Europe laughs so little! Happy Roussillon, land of wine and sunshine and an antique simplicity! And happy border country! A Switzerland with better scenery, good architecture, and without the Swiss: could anything be more attractive?

On a day in early March, a day as hot, I swear, as many a good English one in summer, I went to see the church of Saint-Andre-de-Sorede, a few miles from Argeles. The latter is a little market town, a market village rather, which calls itself Argeles-sur-Mer because it is a couple of miles from the coast; it is its suburb, Argeles-Plage, which is on the sea. From the village I walked inland, beside vineyards where men were ploughing delicately between the rows of vines. Here one is at the extreme southern margin of the Roussillon plain; the mountains rose abruptly on my left hand from the dead level of the plain; ahead of me was Canigou. A fine walled garden, with a magnolia tree in bloom, adorned with purple crocuses, and golden lamps in the green night of the orange trees, peach and pear blossom, brought me into Saint-Andre. The church is set among a huddle of houses, as is not uncommon in these parts, where it is often a matter of difficulty to distinguish between sacred and profane masonry, and you may see washing hanging out of a window you’d otherwise have taken for part of the consecrated edifice. Saint-Andre-de-Sorede is of extreme antiquity: its fabric has been bleached by the best part of a thousand years of weathering to a pale negation of all colour, the carving on the lintel of the door is one of the earliest examples of Romanesque sculpture in the country, if it is not the oldest of them all. Before these laboriously graven celestial figures, so archaic and primitive in feeling, one has a vivid sense of the extraordinary extinction of the civilized arts involved in the Dark Ages. Most late Roman sculpture might have been done in the nineteenth century; one seems to hear the whistle of a steam engine outside the artist’s workshop; whereas this early Romanesque belongs to the first gropings after expression, unless you choose to think it could have been done within the last decade by some sophisticated fauve. But this distinction, of course, does not affect comparative aesthetic merit, and there is usually no doubt which is the sincerer work where a comparison between the two schools is involved.

The interior of the church is much lighter than is usual with these places, and much more to my taste, therefore. Perhaps it is some unsuspected racial instinct towards puritanism which makes me dislike the oppressive dim religiosity of so many Catholic churches, which offends one by a hint of priestly mumbo-jumbo on the one hand, and on the other, prevents one from seeing anything. As a place of worship I should prefer the hill-top to the catacomb. But I dare say this is merely an aesthetic preference, as indeed it must have been with many an iconoclastic puritan of the better sort, who disliked the gaudiness of over-decoration more than he did dogmas. And modern religious art, to be frank, is the worst in the world: what a relief, then, to find a church in which there is not very much of it—because the parish is a poor one, I suppose! There are remains of paintings on the walls, unfortunately much damaged by damp, though here and there intact. The altar of the chapel on the left has a carved and painted wooden retable, Spanish baroque in manner, but with a certain lightness and comparative restraint, enforced by the medium no doubt which makes it a much more pleasing thing than the usual sumptuous overweighted gilt affair. But the best thing in the church is the medieval font, elaborately decorated with monstrous faces, for it contrives to be at the same time plain and rich, and that is almost a lost combination, and sounds an impossible one until one remembers Dundee cake.

I walked the three or four miles back to Argeles with my back turned to the declining sun. The mountain behind me floated in the air like a pale unsubstantial cloud, regained its form, and turned to faint myosotis, then to a rosy lilac mauve. The wooded hills glowed green, the shadow of a midnight blue moved over them before one’s eyes. There still remained an hour and a half of daylight. The little station burned in the glory of the level sun. It was one of those late afternoons when the light seems palpable, a radiance in the air, a dusty golden bloom on house and hill and tree. The little square outside the station was planted with plane trees; it was beautiful. The waiting-room was filled with great flagons of wine, stitched up in hessian, the produce of a neighbouring domaine en route for Paris and the market. On the platform moved a throng of the local folk, not all of them good-looking, though many of them were, but most of them smiling, not a single face disfigured by that expression of apathetic incomprehension of life’s possibilities which brands the modern city-dweller, sold by his masters into the most dismal form of slavery the world has ever seen, since usually he has not even the hope of escape, or the self-acknowledged looking forward to death’s release, such as kept the spark of awareness flickering, how-ever feebly, in the galley-slave as he laboured at his oar.

A whistle sounded thinly in the distance, a porter rushed furiously out of the lair in which these fellows secrete themselves, and, tugging at a bell-rope stapled to the wall, set up a terrific clangour, of which no one took the slightest notice. At the last moment, just before the train came thumping into the station, those who had been parading up and down the permanent way, or found themselves on the wrong platform, unconcernedly moved to the proper place. It is always a source of wonder to me that people do not get cut down in their hundreds at these small French stations. Women struggle with perambulators in the path of approaching expresses, children run up and down the line while their parents conduct political arguments a yard from the buffers of an engine which is just about to start. But I like the determined refusal to be fussed by the pettifogging regulations and formalities modern life is hedged about with, which the Roussillonais displays. Unbefogged by up-to-date illusions about efficiency, derived with unimpeachable logic from entirely false premises concerning life and human nature, he refuses to take the machine with more seriousness than it merits, and regards it as something of a joke, which of course it is. It is better that somebody should be run over by a train occasionally than that we should all be slaves and cowards. And of course in practice peasants don’t get run over by trains, because it is only the man whose native senses have been atrophied by the habit of blind obedience to regulations, who can’t avoid such accidents for himself, without the necessity for warnings, bells, and printed notices.

Not one of the least displeasing results of an over-organized and mechanized existence such as ours of to-day, is the entire loss of the sense of proportion it entails where any kind of rule, formality, or regulation is concerned. In England, even, once famed for its contempt of these Teutonic follies, the sense of humour which used to keep us sane is being lost, and we all live in superstitious dread that disaster will overwhelm the State because someone has applied rule A instead of rule B to a given case. If disaster overwhelms the State it will be for a different reason. Any yachtsman will tell you that a craft will sail no worse for lack of a little paint, provided the structure be sound. At the same time, he will get the ship repainted when he can, for no one values a trim appearance more than he does. Similarly, I would not be thought to censure formality, which I regard as an essential element in life; but only a blind obedience to rules which are not founded upon a true understanding of human nature of the world, and which are always being changed. Today the ship of human endeavour is repainted every five minutes, while its essential structure, the core of human wisdom and experience, is allowed to fall into disuse and decay.

The French can hardly be accused of paying too little attention to formality; and indeed it is precisely because the Frenchman has always had a strong sense of tradition that he has until recently been proverbially a little distrustful of innovation in practice, and the finest theoretical re-former in the world. To-day, when racial character is in the melting-pot, this is probably no longer true of the French townsman, the industrial worker. It remains true of the peasant, who, because he has a certain inherited, instinctive wisdom which overrides the limitations of simplicity, and sees further than most people while he seems not to see so far, is apt to be a little disrespectful towards regulations and schedules, other than those of nature or his fathers. The fact is, in retaining his sense of proportion when confronted with what most people nowadays take with religious earnestness, the peasant generally, and the Roussillonais in particular, is a little old-fashioned. I think it was Sir Robert Peel who said he would not redress an anomaly that was not also a grievance; and as I am disposed to extend this principle to an archaism, I am occasionally inclined to regard that quality as an advantage.