Provencal Cities

The main road from Arles to Salon runs almost dead straight for four-fifths of its length, which is forty kilometres, across the level desert called the Crau. On each side of the road a cultivated strip is planted with great hedges and living palisades of tall cypresses, protecting vineyards and almond orchards from the wind. Away to the north are les Baux, Paradou, and Eyguieres. To the south there is the stony plain, the greater part of it as lonely as the Camargue itself. Once away from the road you might walk for miles and see nothing but a few widely separated stock-farms, almost as remote and self-contained as medieval manors.

But at the eastern end of the Crau is the big Etang de Berre, a lagoon some sixty square miles in extent; and round the shores of this are aerodromes, a motor-track, and several considerable towns and villages. Martigues (since every country has its Venice) is the Venice of Provence. It is a favourite resort of the Aixois and Marseillais in summer. Rognac, Marignan, Istres, Miramas, and the town of Berre itself, are all more or less commercially important, though not especially attractive to the traveller. Salon is a busy trading-centre, where they make soap and olive-oil. It is a pleasant enough town, nothing very much, with a fourteenth-century cathedral, in which is the tomb of Nostradamus. This is a district of almond and olive orchards, and of charming place-names: Lambesc, Celony, St Cannat, Pelissanne, Valmousse, are a few which have a delicate and clinging sweetness on the tongue.

It is my fate to travel always on a particularly gorgeous day. I was going to Aix, advancing from the windswept valley of the Rhone towards the lush heart of Provence. Beyond Salon the sun shines on a landscape increasingly rich and green, despite an increase in altitude; for as the country changes, so the road mounts, since Aix-en-Provence is seven hundred feet above sea-level, and the Crau perhaps a dozen at the most. At St Cannat we join one of the great routes from Paris to the Cote d’Azur. If one is making the whole journey by road, it is about here that one inevitably says: “This is the real south!” The last stretch is a long downhill run into Aix, which is situated in a little basin, more or less sheltered on three sides.

It was very hot, so hot that I almost took the African porter who advanced to take my luggage for a native. I felt a peculiar excitement and pleasure at finding myself at last in this town of which I had heard so much, the birth-place of Cezanne, and the place I had chosen to be my headquarters in Provence. I looked about me and was de-lighted with my choice. I had hoped Aix would be small and sunny (it was a little larger than I thought), but I had not expected it would be so beautiful, the streets were dignified and charming, and there was an air of simple and unexacting gaiety abroad. And it was so warm! “You have a sheltered climate here?” I said.

“Very mild. We have no winter. Practically no winter at all.”

I was delighted. That evening I wrote home saying that Aix had the warmest climate of any place I had hit upon since leaving Roussillon.

Within a few days the weather had completely changed. An icy wind swept down from the Alps, the sky turned from a lovely luminous blue to a uniform pale steely grey, the cold became intense. One day a little snow fell. “What about your sheltered climate now?” I asked. “I have left the spring behind me in Roussillon, I come to your beautiful Provence, and I am frozen.”

“It is very unusual,” they said. “Very strange. All through the winter it has not been as cold as this. But it will not last.”

Throughout the ensuing week, during which I shivered whenever I went abroad, I had at least the consolation that I was better off than I should have been in England. The dry cold which thus swoops down with an eagle’s talons from the mountains is as different from the clammy chill of our rheumatic winter as the clear hot brilliance of the Provencal sunshine is from the sticky heat of an English summer. Not that there are no days of frosty, dry, exhilarating cold in England, country days for which the heart longs in the February fogs of London; but for the last few years, at any rate, they have been sufficiently rare to be remarkable. I cannot say that the mistral is exhilarating: its cold is too piercing, the effect it produces is that one’s internal sources of warmth have ceased to function. But at least it is dry, the air is clear, and though the sky is grey, it is a reasonably high one. Life is not menaced by that imminent leaden shroud, which, in an English winter, oppresses the soul with a Boeotian sluggishness. And on these grey days the Provencal scene, a pattern of rich red earth, the various greens of the bright grass, pines, and cypresses, the budding trees and vines, the pink and ochre of a wall, the slaty blue or sandy warmth of a bare rock-face, the shine on water, the weathered turquoise or peacock or soft grey of shutters —all this takes on a peculiar beauty, so that, if your eyes are not so streaming with the cold that you cannot see it, you are sure to be delighted. Every local colour, no longer exposed to the disintegrating effect of bright sunshine in clear air, burns, as it were, with a light more essentially its own, so that the effect is that of a subdued and muffled richness, very impressive, as when great power, warmth, or passion is held in check.

Until this time I had been travelling; now I had in some sort arrived. I had come to a place at which I was to live and work for some weeks at least, from which I was to set forth with the intention of returning. In these circumstances one’s mind resists the influx of new impressions, just as a man who lives in sight of the Eiffel Tower does not bother to go up it, because he is too busy being where he is, and because there will be time for that to-morrow. I was engaged in sending out a tentative and provisional root or two, constructing a deliberate illusion of settled permanence from the materials of routine and a few familiar faces, as a traveller camping in the desert pins up photographs and has his meals at the same time every day. The end of a journey, even an impermanent and, as it were, unstable end, is the beginning of its digestion, when one takes in no more material, or as little as one may, but sets oneself to cope with what one has received, to arrange, sort, chew, and masticate, or for the gratification of a chance and wayward fancy to pursue a fugitive fragment of experience. Thus, while I live and move among the aqueous, lapidary, arboreal, and human beauties of Aix-en-Provence, which are not inconsiderable, not even the last, I assure you, if your taste does not exclude the speaking bosom and the out-thrust behind, I roam at large over the whole territory of my previous journeying, which presents itself as a series of snapshots or cameos. I am drinking a liqueur de Canigou in the little Casino of Amelie-les-Bains. In the room be-hind me a bored sous-officier from the Military Hospital dances with a dark girl, while another looks on, jealous and impatient. I contrast the patron of the Aixois cafe, where I consume my daily aperitif, who would be charming if he did not spend all his hours poring over figures in a ledger, with another I remember, a big jolly-looking fellow, who passes his days in fishing, while his wife sits in the cafe knitting and bowing to entrant or departing customers. At dusk he comes home, carrying a rod of enormous length, which he steers with careful slowness through the doorway. If he has caught nothing, there’s tomorrow; if it’s a fish he has, his wife will cook it and he’ll eat it for his supper. What a fine life that would be! The immediately present claims me with the passage of something peculiarly Aixois; but at the next moment I am off again, the sun is hot on my back and I am playing ducks and drakes on the Pyrenean shore. Or I am walking to St-Andre-de-Sorede in the brilliant sun-shine with a companion who tells me a story. “Just before the War I met a friend who was a Socialist. He told me there would be no war. He laughed at the idea of it. `The Socialists will never march, in every country they will re-fuse to fight; and they are very powerful, without them there can be no war. There will be no war, my friend. After that I do not see my friend for some time, you understand. My country is invaded, the Germans cut down my fruit trees, the Australian soldiers drink up all my wine, and finally my house is shelled. When it is all over I meet my friend by chance one day in the street. We greet each other. I re-mind him of our conversation; and he weeps, for the Socialists have not refused to fight, and his only son is killed.” Again, I am eating bouillabaisse catalane at an hotel on the Cote-Vermeille. A man at the next table leans towards me. “You do not eat this at Folkesstonn, Lyons Cafe, Piccadilly Street.” We have a conversation, and he convinces me, by irresistible arguments which I have forgotten, that war will have broken out all over Europe by the summer.

It was symptomatic of my new status that I chose to make my first expedition on a public holiday. I wanted to see l’Estaque, the place on the bay just west of Marseille, which Cezanne painted. I had to go first to Marseille, descending in a quarter which consists entirely of one vast slaughter-house. On the way there was a minor traffic jam, in which a bus, a tram, and a couple of motor cars were involved. A little goodwill, a little of the spirit of give and take, could have resolved the muddle in a minute; in the absence of that spirit it took ten. An experience of this kind makes one realize why war is probably inevitable in Europe. A selfishness so unenlighted that it will not suffer a trifling present disadvantage for the sake of a deferred benefit is the supreme enemy to peace. It is a pity the Frenchman who is civilized enough to scorn the adolescent bellicosity of his neighbours, should display a spirit no less truculent as soon as he is asked to give an inch or a farthing. Small minds sort ill with great traditions. What is peculiarly unfortunate is that this cheeseparing mentality, whose origin in French history it is not difficult to trace, is some-thing other nations find it particularly hard to tolerate. It must never be forgotten that nationalism is to a great extent a new and artificially fostered element in European politics. But still, it does seem as if Nature took a hand by afflicting peoples living on opposite sides of an apparently arbitrary boundary with a particular intolerance of each other’s faults. The Frenchman regards Teutonic bluster as absurd, and the German finds Gallic narrowness contemptible. As for the Englishman, he is damned on all hands and all counts; for having once been labelled as a hypocrite, he is equally condemned for his virtues and his vices.

The view over the harbour, as one comes down the hill into the vast maritime city of Marseille, is strange, impressive, even a little terrifying. A light mist hung over the sea on that day; out of it, with a vagueness in which there was something eerie, loomed the bare, gaunt, rocky forms of crags and islands, pale whitish-grey. Were the mariners who settled here in the beginning of recorded time reminded of their own Levantine and Aegean shores? There is an immemorial mystery and strangeness about this landscape, and an air of ancient evil, fortified by the nasty spiritual emanation of a large city. Marseille is a disgusting place. I am prepared to admit that it has some fine streets, such as the Prado, and that the railway station is magnificently situated; nevertheless the total impression the place makes on me is that one feels on turning up a stone and discovering some obscene and multitudinous form of life. Perfection demands a scientific or aesthetic curiosity, but Nature enforces loathing. The famous Cannebiere is just a wide street, not for a moment to be compared with a score of others in the capitals of Europe. But granting that architecturally Marseille is well enough in parts, the appearance of its inhabitants is still a sufficient condemnation of the city. Nowhere have I seen so many degenerate, predatory, evil faces. The average citizen of this, the second city of France, looks as if he had been schooled from his earliest year in every kind of vice and cunning. I am aware that this is a libel on the many amiable and worthy Marseillais who must obviously exist, and some of whom I have met away from their native city. But a terrible expression of depravity and craftiness, a cold eye, and a bitter mouth, make up the characteristic Marseillais physiognomy. Practically any Marseillais could step straight into a good job playing gangster parts in Hollywood. You cannot live in close proximity with the scum and dregs of half a world, I suppose, without acquiring something of a tough and knowledgeable look; and I doubt if Port Said, Alexandria, and Aden have much to teach Marseille in respect of human depravity.

The squalor and degradation of the old streets round the Vieux Port surpass belief. I am told by those who know the East that this quarter of Marseille is hard to match in the cities of the Orient and the Levant that they have visited. These narrow, stinking alleys, the blowsy, middle-aged prostitutes who stand at almost every door and window, seeking to entice the few furtive, sad-eyed passers-by into their unimaginable dens, are quite enough to dispel any lingering illusions one may have respecting the attractive picturesqueness of ungilded vice. To the East you must go for a parallel to these scenes; and in the East you might imagine yourself already; for so far as the amorphous, shifting male population of this quarter is concerned, the odds are that on any given day you may see as many Asiatics and Africans as Europeans. The Old Harbour itself, with its variety of shipping, and the scraps of every language you hear on its quays, is quite amusing. A troupe of tumblers—children dressed in dirty, tattered circus finery, a rough-looking father or proprietor in charge—was performing here. The youngest of the girls can scarcely have been more than five or six years old. Weeks afterwards I saw this troupe again in a back street of Aix.

L’Estaque is not much more attractive than Marseille, of which it is an outer suburb. It is a combination of Margate and (let us say) Erith; but it lies on the verge of open country. It is the last of a string of linked townships ex-tending westwards from Marseille along the shore of the Rade de l’Estaque. Immediately to the west of the town are cliffs. Supposing I had walked the whole way from the Spanish border along the coast, these cliffs—the seaward face of the Chaine de l’Estaque—would have been the first I should have seen since leaving Collioure, more than two hundred miles away.

The waterfront was lined with tawdry restaurants, all announcing Specialite de Bouillabaisse. These were stalls piled high with mussels, clovisses, sea-urchins like dyed teazles, and the knobby oysters that, wherever they may come from, are conventionally called Portuguese or d’Arcachon. Immediately beyond the point where these ingenuous invitations ceased, a large factory discharged its nasty excrement across the roadway. Over a considerable area the hillside, the beach, the public road itself, were devastated by the outfall of its evil sludge. This is a strange world: society regards as infamous the conduct of an honest bawdy house, but has no word of censure to apply to those who, with far less excuse of poverty or temptation, traffic in matters involving such an outrage against public decency as this. It is true their trade provides employment; but so does the other; and a man who, for his living, is content to dabble in such nastiness, should at least be compelled to do it out of sight. No doubt activities like this perform a necessary function; but so do others, which we should think it very strange if they were permitted to discharge it on the common highway. For my part, I would extend exactly the same treatment to all trades which constitute an offence against nature, and against men’s senses, as to harlotry: the State should tolerate them both as necessary evils, but as for those who conducted them, they should be execrated by the general opinion of society.

A more fantastically inept choice of place and time for an expedition such as mine (my plans included lunch in the open air) could hardly be imagined. The world was on holiday. L’Estaque was crowded with the outpourings of Marseille; and the cliff-road to the west of it was only saved from the same fate by the Gallic disinclination to venture out of sight of a restaurant at this time of the day, and the almost entire absence of any spot along its course at which any one could wish to loiter. A party comprising several men and women and a monkey on a string had taken possession of the most attractive site for a picnic—a piece of waste ground underneath a railway arch, in sight of the dirty beach—and had already lighted a fire preparatory to cooking a meal of some six or seven courses. The only other possible place I could discover, apart from the road itself, was a patch of terrain militaire, surrounding a heavily protected fort, and covered with barbed wire and notice-boards which threatened arrest, proces verbal, imprisonment, and death at dawn, to anybody who so much as glanced in that direction. How far these penalties might be increased in the case of a foreigner, an obvious spy, a man in possession of a note-book, I did not dare to think. However, one must eat. In the end I trusted to the probability that the fort might be left ungarrisoned, or the vigilance of its guardians relaxed, at such a season, and to the disarming nature of the activity in which I was proposing to engage. I entered on the forbidden territory, and consumed my sandwiches perched on a rock above the water, with a cannon pointing out to sea beside my ear.

It is easier to find scenes such as Cezanne painted in Aix than at l’Estaque. He worked a great deal in the country round Tholonet, a region dominated by the strange, mysteriously coloured mountain of Ste-Victoire, and one which I was to explore more thoroughly a little later. But the out-skirts of the town itself are full of notable Cezannes, especially roads bounded on one or both sides by high, subtly coloured walls, receding into the distance in a manner which puts a peculiar emphasis on the element of perspective in the field of vision, such as he was fond of including in his landscapes. I imagine that Cezanne was fascinated by these walls, and that it was partly from this obsession that he derived his determination to evolve a method of creating pictorial space which should be clear, logical, and independent of the misty evasions of aerial perspective. The clear light of Provence, in which nothing is dimmed by distance (one might almost say) until it is out of sight, would call for such a method, were it only as an instrument of literal expression; and in this respect Cezanne is the most realistic of painters. Having walked out on the road to Tholonet, one is amazed by the faithfulness and poignancy with which such a picture as the Paysage Rocheux in the Tate Gallery calls up the local scene.

By ancient tradition, Aix is the cultural capital of southern France. It possesses one of the largest picture galleries in the provinces. Cezannes are expensive; but it was until recently a reproach to the town that it did not possess a single work by its most distinguished native, universally acknowledged to be the greatest painter of modern times —and, indeed, if one were to judge by the influence exerted on other artists, the greatest of all time—except a careful and characterless pencil-drawing done when he was a student at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. A distinguished English collector has lately offered the town a water-colour, which was on view, but not yet hung, when last I visited the gallery.

Aix is a town of lovely architecture, fountains, and statues, plane trees, and magnificent front doors. I doubt if there are more fountains anywhere than there are at Aix. There is a fountain or a statue at almost every corner. They range from the sublime to the comic; but nearly all of them are beautiful. I must except the monumental work which portrays the hero Mirabeau surrounded by a horde of writhing, unclothed females, and wearing an expression of dogged discomfort very natural in the circumstances. It is not beautiful, but it is very funny. The humour of the Fontaine des Precheurs, on the other hand, with its fantastically simpering lions, one cannot believe is not an intentional accessory to elegance. There are too many of these pleasant ornaments for all of them to be described. One, in an inconspicuous position, bears a plaque commemorating Cezanne. There are three in the main promenade, the Cours Mira-beau, alone, of which one gushes forth hot water. In the Place-de-la-Rotonde is a colossal affair, a mammoth among fountains, best seen from the top of the Cours Mirabeau, a few hundred yards away; for from here it appears as a feature of one of the most perfect vistas it is possible to imagine, a white accent at the end of a shadowed tunnel of tall trees, and its effect is very fine.

Aix is the oldest Roman colony in Gaul; yet scarcely a trace remains of the Roman city. The chief glories of the town, apart from those described above, are the magnificent hotels of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the town houses of the Provencal nobility, who were not ashamed to regard this little provincial city as a metropolis. It is not difficult to conceive of Aix as a setting either for the glittering swagger we associate with the former century, or the urbane elegance of the latter. To imagine what the town looked like when it was the seat of good King Rene’s court, a court of poets, connoisseurs, and artists, in the fifteenth century, is harder. Rene’s palace was destroyed, by an unimaginable act of vandalism, in the eighteenth century. There remains the chateau at Tarascon, formerly a prison, but recently opened to the public, which is called his, and at which he stayed. But, as an indication of his personal taste, that building, merely adapted to his use, could hardly compare with the palace he caused to be designed expressly for the reception of his royal person, when he made up his mind to end his days here, in the land of poetry and sunshine he had come to love so well, preferring it to his northern capital.

It was not until 1470, when he was a man of over sixty, that Rene came to take up his residence permanently in the south. He was born at his father’s seat of Angers on the 16th January 1409. His mother was a daughter of the King of Aragon; she had been married to his father, Louis d’Anjou, in the cathedral of St-Trophime at Arles nine years before; and it is said that she was very beautiful. Rene was a younger son; but in 1434 his brother died, and Rene, who at twelve had been married to Isabelle de Lorraine, and was already Duke of Lorraine and of Bar, became Duke of Anjou, Count of Provence, and king of the two Sicilies. The immediate effect of his accession was merely to increase the cost of his ransom; for he was at that time held prisoner by the Duke of Burgundy. However, three years later the business was arranged, and Rene took up his inheritance in person. In 1447 he journeyed to Provence in state. He sailed with his train and a vast quantity of household chattels up the Loire to Roanne, whence he travelled overland to Lyon, and thence again by water to Tarascon. It is said that bridges were pulled down to allow the ducal barges to go by, and rebuilt when they had passed.

Isabelle his queen died in the middle of the century; and soon afterwards he remarried, choosing Jeanne de Laval to be the partner of his quiet days. In 1466 he added that of King of Aragon to his other titles. Coming four years later to live at Aix, he enjoyed ten years of partial retirement, during which he patronized the arts, sang songs, drew, and painted, extended hospitality to poets and musicians, and restored old churches, before he died in 1480.

Many princes have been called Great, but it was reserved to him to be called Good, so that indeed one scarcely ever thinks of his name without the epithet. His portrait shows him as an old man, with a smooth, pious face, and a troubled, kindly mouth. Two books with annotations in his handwriting—the Missel du Roy Rene, and the Book of Hours of his mother, Queen Yolande-remain to us, as well as his prayer-book, illuminated by himself. It was his daughter Margaret who, as wife and widow of King Henry VI, was the troubled lady of the Wars of the Roses: she whom Shakespeare calls “Margaret, daughter to Reigner,” in King Henry VI and the succeeding plays. Rene himself speaks in the first of these. “Drive them from Orleans,” he says to the Pucelle, “and be immortaliz’d.” As a young man he fought gallantly in the cause of right and weakness; as a monarch he was perhaps the first in Europe to regard peace as more honourable than warfare. He was the first man of a new age. He ruled for nearly fifty years over a vast and scattered domain, without loss of power or prestige, except in the most distant and least accessible of his possessions. His long life and peaceful death appear to point to a reversal of the sombre destiny of kings. But the balance was redressed by his descendants, among whom are counted Marie Antoinette, the Emperor Franz Josef of Austria, and the unhappy Maximilian of Mexico.