Ruins

Every traveler in France is familiar, or ought to be familiar, with the useful institution called the Syndicat d’Initiative. There is one in every considerable town, and in almost every place, however small, with any claim to rank as a resort. It is an association of business men and tradesmen, who combine to provide an office where the tourist or commercial traveler can get free information about hotels and transport. It is a good scheme, and a typically French one, in that it depends on local enterprise, though there exists in Paris a federation of Syndicats d’Initiative, to which those of most of the big tourist centers are affiliated. It must be borne in mind that tourist in this connection means French tourist. It would be foolish to expect that there would be anybody in these places who could speak English. Every schoolboy knows that practically nobody in France speaks English, except the very smart, who use our language as a kind of fashionable slang, and a few waiters on the Riviera, who are probably Swiss or Italians.

The fact that the Syndicat is a local institution makes for a tremendous and stimulating variety in the kind of information obtainable and the manner of its presentation. At some places they overwhelm you with a shower of pamphlets, time-tables, and verbal advice, and will even venture on the expression of an individual opinion respecting the suitability of this hotel or the merits of that beauty spot. At others every item must be dragged from the close grasp of your interlocutor with as much difficulty as if it were a ha’penny.

If the Syndicat d’Initiative is the first place one visits on arrival in a town, as it sometimes inevitably is, one is apt to deduce the character of the inhabitants from the quality of the welcome one gets there. This is a mistake; for the individual who attends to you may not be at all typical. Who knows what considerations may have contributed to the choice of this or that incumbent? France, like China, is a civilized country, where there is none of this damned merit about an appointment of this kind. In England the ostensible grounds of choice for such a job, at least, would be good appearance, charm of manner, tact, patience, intelligence, and industry. The Borough Surveyor’s daughter’s school-friend would get the job in any case, of course; but it would always be because she was supposed to possess these qualities. In France they arrange these matters differently. Let us imagine that M. Cadenet, the prosperous commercant, meets his friend M. Dupont, the notaire, over a picon-citron at their favourite cafe of the Orient. M. Cadenet goes well? Not badly; but his secretary has just committed the most unimaginable stupidity. She is the bane of his existence, she has no tact, she is of an excessive ugliness, she offends his customers, she is extremely slow and disagreeable. Then why not fire her? suggests M. Dupont. Impossible! She is M. Cadenet’s wife’s sister-in-law’s cousin. But if a place could be found for her. . . . It is impossible, obviously, that his good friend might know of anything? That is not so easy! M. Dupont reflects for a moment. He enumerates the woman’s qualities. She is stupid, she has no tact, she is excessively ugly, she offends people, she is slow, she is disagreeable. Why not the Post Office? M. Cadenet is offended. He is not entirely without ideas, he, Cadenet. It was the first thing he thought of. It would be just the thing, that shows itself. But there are no vacancies. It is necessary to think again. M. Dupont thinks. Slow, stupid, disagreeable. . But of course! The Syndicat! The post is vacant, M. Cadenet is one of the principal subscribers. . . . The thing is as good as done; and in a few days it is done, and M. Cadenet gets himself a new secretary, smart, younger, and in every way more agreeable.

But it is not always like this. As often as not the person in charge of the Information Bureau is charming, helpful, and may even be efficient. Sometimes it is one of those capable, good-looking, well-dressed, thoroughly feminine young women, who, whether as wife, mistress, or organizer, inevitably commands success—a type peculiarly French, I was going to say, but perhaps one must include America. Sometimes, in the larger places, it is the normal sort of business man, with a sweetly pretty and entirely ineffective young thing as his assistant, to flatter the commercial travellers with a look. And sometimes it is a terrible old man, who envelops the inquirer in a reeking cloud of garlic, and punctuates his sentences by hawking and spitting into an enamel basin.

I was anxious to visit the Abbey of Montmajour and les Baux from Arles on the same day, returning to Arles in the evening. The distance is not great, and the first lies on the route to the second. Transport should be easy. On inquiry I found that there was an excursion arranged by the Syndicat d’Initiative which covered the route I wanted. But I do not care for organized excursions; was there not a regular bus service to which I could fit my programme? Nothing going to les Baux, I was told cheerfully. A taxi, then, or a carriage? The price would be prohibitive, said my informant, naming a figure which justified him. Well, but there was a village called Paradou, on the road past Montmajour to Salon by way of Eyguieres; it must be an easy walk from there to les Baux, and surely there was some conveyance that went along that road? It was at least three miles, said the official, with a start of horror. I said I thought I could walk that distance, and he produced a time-table, which had to be checked by reference to another because it was found to be out of date, though the second appeared to me to be older and more dilapidated than the first. I found that the best thing I could do would be to walk the two or three miles to Montmajour in the morning, look at the abbey, and catch a bus on at midday to a point on the hither side of Paradou, where the road diverged to les Baux, whence I must walk again. In the evening I should have to walk back to Paradou in order to catch a bus that would bring me the whole way back to Arles. In this way I should have nine or ten miles of walking to do, but within wide limits my time would be my own.

The walk to Montmajour was delightful. The guardian of the ruined abbey was a jolly, good-humoured, and intelligent fellow, with a feeling for the romantic and historical associations of his charge. He roared out in the deserted church to demonstrate its extraordinary resonance. The effect was magnificent, awe-inspiring, thrilling. What a place to sing in! I said. Did he sing? He was a big, powerfully built man, unusually tall for a Frenchman, with tremendously wide shoulders. As a young man he used to sing, he said, but lately his throat had failed him. But in any case the church was not a place in which one could sing a modern song, there was too much resonance, so much that the sound of one note would be obliterated by the reverberations of the last. It was a place for chant or plainsong. He intoned a single note. It was like an organ, the sound rose and seemed to swell after he had finished, it filled the whole place, it came back from the walls enriched with innumerable overtones, it slowly faded and one heard it last as it clung like a wisp of vapour to the vaulted ceiling. One had the feeling that the sound was something created for eternity, that it had not died but escaped into the upper air and was on its way to Heaven. That is how the men who sang here in the Middle Ages must have felt. One had some conception of the extraordinary richness the old church music must have taken on in such surroundings.

Montmajour is a fortress of religion. It is a place where one has a real sense of the monks celebrating mass with sword in hand. They defended the sanctuary against marauding knights and rulers, they even fought against the monks of a rival order. The subterranean chapel that they used in times of stress was so arranged that the celebrant at the altar had the widest possible view of the surrounding country through an opening in the hillside. If he spotted an approaching enemy, the service was abandoned, the monks mounted the horses stabled in this very crypt, and rode out to give battle. They were men of different breed from their successors. Their life was rude and uncomfortable, but it had grandeur. Grandeur they probably valued above material comfort; and I am not sure but they were right. In the most imposing medieval building, lay or religious, there is nothing approaching what we understand to-day by comfort. In our sense that quality is largely a modern invention. The men of the Renaissance aimed at sumptuousness, their great-grandchildren at elegance; it was not until the nineteenth century that the provision of sheer bodily ease became a professed motive of the furnisher; and not until the twentieth that it became supreme, eclipsing the creation of harmonious and beautiful surroundings. For my part I like to stand, sit upright, or lie down, and I have no use for easy chairs in which one sinks in quaggy softness like a man drowned in a quicksand. Still, one may be thankful for running water and a fire. It must have been horribly cold in winter in a medieval monastery, with only one room besides the kitchen in which a fire was allowed, and where all study must be done in the open cloister. One wonders how the human frame could have endured the long services at night in the unheated church, from which one emerges at the end of twenty minutes on a warm day feeling frozen. But habit will explain much; for the rest, the place is cold now with the long centuries of desertion and neglect, so who can wonder if it strikes a little chillier than you’d think natural? Montmajour is thirteen hundred years old. Once there were a thousand monks here; today, sheep are penned in the refectory, and pigeons roost in the tower, just as the lizards scuttle over the masonry of Aigues-Mortes.

My bus was not yet due. I decided to walk on and let it overtake me. There was a bus about noon, was there not? I asked the guardian at parting. He said he thought there was, he fancied he had sometimes seen it pass. I was now in a somewhat wild and desolate region to the north of the pebbly desert called the Crau.

In the Dark Ages the site of a monastery was chosen with an eye to strategy; and Montmajour was once a rocky islet among marshes. Now it is surrounded by good, well-drained fields. But as one leaves Arles further behind, these fields become more and more frequently interspersed with areas of barren heath. The neighbourhood is thinly populated. It is a mile or so from one house to the next.

I sat down by the roadside for ten minutes. A column of soldiers, out on a route march, I suppose, went by me—brown and black and white men mingled casually together in the way which seems so strange to us. The time when the . bus was due arrived, but not the bus itself. I walked on, thinking it must be late in starting, but would surely catch up with me before long. When I had walked for half an hour more, and still it had not come, I began to wonder what the devil could have happened. Was it possible that the bus went by another road? I did not see how there could be another road, but I had no large-scale map with me to enable me to be absolutely certain. If the bus was not coming, every mile I went on meant another mile to walk back—so much fruitless expenditure of energy, if I was not to reach my objective. And I did not see how I could possibly walk the whole way to les Baux in the time at my disposal, and back to Paradou in time to catch the evening bus. However, I was hungry: I decided to eat my picnic lunch by the roadside, and debate my course of action in the process.

I ate in a dark green field, sitting on a large stone which may, for all I know, have been a prehistoric sacrificial altar. While I was lunching a bus went by, going in the other direction. That settled the question of my being on the right road. ‘What had happened to my bus was just a mystery. I reckoned that I was now about five or six miles from Arles, while some two miles ahead of me lay the village of Fontvieille. These distances were only approximate, because I only knew them as the crow flies, and the road, unlike most French roads, winds a good deal. I wonder if it was originally laid down while the district was still marshy, in which case the necessity for traversing only solid ground would explain its snaky progress, following no visible contour?

In the end it was thirst that decided me to press on to Fontvieille; for to-day I had brought no wine with me, and by the time I had finished eating I was in the mood to think a couple of miles’ walking, and possibly the same distance back, a small price to pay for a glass of beer. I went on. Fontvieille emerged from the landscape as an avenue, a group of houses, a number of little windmills. One of them was that in which Alphonse Daudet wrote his Lettres de Mon Moulin. It is now a Daudet museum. The village was charming. I found the cafe which was the appointed stopping-place of my bus service, ordered a drink, and asked them what the devil had become of their confounded bus.

The two countrywomen who ran the place were sympathetic but amused. The only bus in the direction I wanted had gone at six o’clock that morning; the bus I had expected to catch ran only on Thursdays and fete days. Oh, my goodness, I said, ordering some more beer, there was a little single-track railway which went to Paradou, were there ever any trains on that? Well, very seldom, they said, and never at this time of the day. Good heavens, was there no way of getting to les Baux?

Well, why not walk? said the younger of the women. But could I do it in the time? I said. But certainly; it was not so far as I supposed. It was not necessary to go right into Paradou. One turned off to the left at such-and-such a spot, and the distance was thus much less than I had reckoned it. The woman became enthusiastic, and gave me a long confusing description of the route. I begged her pardon. She repeated her instructions, leaving me still a little bewildered, but resolute. I established, beyond the possibility of misunderstanding, the time of the evening bus from Paradou, and we parted with a lot of goodwill and friendliness.

Beyond the village the landscape becomes increasingly rocky, wild, and desolate. In the days when security against surprise attack meant life, such scenery had more to recommend it to the settler than it has today; and this inhospitable and stony desert, difficult of access through the marshes once surrounding it, abounds in traces of prehistoric settlement. There were many dragons and such-like creatures in this neighbourhood once upon a time. The effigy of a tarasque is an important property in every local carnival. The great arch-tarasque, the biggest of the lot presumably, was the one slain by St Martha, and which gave its name to Tarascon. In these days no one is content with likely explanations of these legends, and I have heard the wildest and most fantastic hypotheses put forward to ex-plain away an ordinary fire-breathing monster which has done no one any harm for centuries. I could believe in all the dragons, tarasques, and flying pigs in the world sooner than in the theories of most folk investigators. Martha has been identified with the wife of a Roman general, and the tarasque with the invading host he conquered. No one can say why this well-remembered historical event should have been commemorated in so absurdly roundabout and allusive a fashion. Why on earth should it be so? For myself, I am content with a very simple explanation of such things. In short, I believe that legends about monsters, except those absolutely invented by priests, poets, or romancers, pre-serve the memory of actual monsters. One must allow a little for exaggeration. If a child told me there was a lion in the garden, I should expect to find, let us say, an unusually large pussy-cat, but not an income-tax inspector or an invading army. Similarly, it appears to me natural that people should call a pleiosaurus, or even an alligator, a fire-breathing monster, and entirely improbable that they should be so perversely elaborate as to use that symbol for a human enemy. In the vicinity of lakes and marshes, there are invariably legends about creatures that came out of them and gobbled up the inhabitants. Could anything be more natural or more probable? The tarasque was a tarasque, and someone killed it. St Martha is pretty clearly a priestly substitution, for the story probably goes back to the Stone Age. In the neighbourhood of an Indian village there occasion-ally emerges a man-eating tiger, which periodically carries off a human victim. The destruction of this beast is considered worthy of commemoration in local song and story. In a few thousand years they will be saying that of course there never were such things as tigers (though they’ll have the bones of Felis tigris in their museums) , and that the tale is obviously a legend, in which the tiger stands for the British Raj, and the slayer of it for the Constitution, or perhaps for Gandhi.

There are Roman remains here as well as prehistoric ones. The Romans probably quarried stone in the neighbourhood as their descendants do, and the soldiers of Marius went by on their way to defeat the barbarian host on the other side of Aix. I left the road to come upon the Altar of the Shell. At a place where the rocky ground falls vertically away in a sort of cliff, about ten feet high, there has been carved in the bare face of the rock an altar in the form of a scallop shell, which one associates with Botticelli rather than the table, done with marvellous delicacy and grace, with two niches and a ledge below, and marks that look like the re-mains of an inscription. One sees this beautifully executed thing, with its airy and fragile associations, with a strange emotion, finding it in these grim and desolate surroundings. God, one thinks, how little one knows about one’s fellow-beings! What were the motives of the men who made this, what did they believe and think, what were they like, who were they? Beyond the vague attribution Gallo-Roman, no one can say much in answer to these questions.

I had no difficulty in finding the place where I had to turn off for les Baux. The road had been mounting steadily for a long time, and now it led more steeply upward, towards the craggy grey hills I had had in view since the morning. These were the Alpilles, a detached offshoot of the Alps, of no great height, but exceedingly bare, rocky, and precipitous. The way led upwards through a valley which narrowed rapidly ahead of me. The stony hills rose steeply on both sides, practically without vegetation of any kind. I was approaching the Val d’Enfer, the scenery of which is supposed to have suggested to Dante the decor of his Inferno. In the Middle Ages the scene must have been even more desolate and forbidding than it is now, for the fruit and almond trees with which the valley is planted are the product of comparatively recent industry; and formerly these quiet orchards must have presented the same appearance of tortured fantasy as the writhing crags above. No village was visible. At last, far ahead of me and high up on the face of the precipitous right-hand cliff, I caught sight of something that suggested windows. It seemed impossible that any kind of human habitation could exist up there, or that any living creature but an eagle should dwell amongst those incredible-looking pinnacles of rock. But as I drew nearer I saw that this was indeed the place I had come to visit. Its reputation had not belied it. I passed underneath it, and there was the place above my head, perched on a height which actually overhung the road. The combined imagination of Monk, Lewis, Beckford, Horace Walpole, Sir Walter Scott, and Wagner could not conceive a more extravagantly romantic situation.

About one hundred and fifty people live today in this fantastically located place, which was one of the mightiest strongholds of the Middle Ages, and the seat of one of its most turbulent and puissant families. The lords of les Baux claimed descent from Baltasar, one of the three wise kings who came out of the East to pay homage to the infant Christ at Bethlehem. In the course of their stormy history, they formed alliances with almost every princely family in Europe. From the end of the eighth century, when we first hear of them, they ruled les Baux for more than six hundred years, the inheritance passing without interruption in the male line.

The earliest barons whose existence is recorded have outlandish, sturdy names—Pons, Liebulf. At the beginning of the eleventh century the current lord, Hugues, was Seigneur des Baux, de Montpaon et de Meyragues. A century later Raymond des Baux married Stephanette, a daughter of Gilbert, Count of Provence. Her sister, Douce, was married to Raymond de Berenger, Count of Barcelona.

These marriages were the beginning of a long struggle for Provence between the families of les Baux and Barcelona. Technically the Count of Provence was a vassal of the King of Arles; and Raymond des Baux, by doing homage to the Emperor Conrad III, succeeded in obtaining that monarch’s recognition of his right to the whole territory, in despite of the better claim of Douce’s son, who had inherited the title. At one time Raymond des Baux held seventy-nine towns, castles, estates, and fortresses; but on the whole the Count of Barcelona (taking up his nephew’s cause) appears to have got the better of the struggle, though it was not until he hit on the brilliant plan of hoisting the usurper with a second shot from his own mortar, by marrying the young man to the niece of the Emperor Barbarossa, Conrad’s successor, that he finally defeated his rival. In the meantime, Raymond des Baux had died. His son Hugues retired disgusted, handing his inheritance over to his brother Bertrand. Bertrand became Prince of Orange by his marriage with a lady called Tiburge, and acquired the privilege of marching through the country with flags flying. This, however, did not preserve him from being murdered. His son, another Hugues, made a good marriage, too: in this way he became Viscount of Marseille. What’s more, the city of Arles had now become a republic, and Hugues was one of its consuls. Being short of money he sold the Etang de Vaccares, in the Camargue, which was his property, to that city. The city probably did not want it, and had no use for it; but what is the good of being a consul if you can’t get something out of it? Ask any municipal official. Barral, his son, went one better, for instead of being a consul of the republic he was Podestat. When the independence of the city was threatened, however, he prudently retired and became Podestat of Avignon instead. His successor, Raymond, made a wise submission to the increasingly mighty family of Anjou, and secured the office of Grand Seneschal of Provence. From that time there was peace for the best part of a century, until another lord of les Baux upheld the ancestral reputation of having quarrelled with all the best families in Europe, by becoming involved in the complicated squabbles of the rulers of Hungary, Tarenturn, and the Eastern Empire. He actually succeeded in marrying his son to the Empress of Constantinople. But any hope that the descendants of Liebulf and Pons might one day occupy all that was left of the throne of the Caesars vanished when the unfortunate aspirant was murdered in his wife’s presence and with her full approval, and his body thrown out of the window by the imperial hand.

The ancient line of les Baux came to an end in the person of the Lady Alix, who inherited a diminished estate towards the end of the fourteenth century. At her death in 1426 les Baux passed to the house of Anjou. Louis d’Anjou caused an inventory of the property to be prepared: the tapestries and Eastern rugs, the plate of gold and silver, the tuns of wine and stores of grain, the herds of cattle and of sheep, the oaken chests containing robes of silk and velvet, cloth of gold, and vair, were numbered for his benefit. His successor, good, kind, amiable, romantically minded Rene, did his best to revive the ancient glories of the place; and Jeanne de Laval, his second wife, had there her Petit Trianon, and held her Court of Love. But Rene’s interest in the place was that of an antiquarian, a connoisseur. The Middle Ages were over. Rene was a man of the Renaissance. He was the friend of the troubadours, and proud to be called a troubadour himself; but in his day the troubadours were no longer rude minstrels, they were poets. Once in the old days a certain Guilhelm de Cabertan had done homage first to Berengere des Baux, and in the second place to Tricline de Carbonelle. The husband of the latter lady killed him, and served his wife with a dish, it is said, made from his heart. One cannot imagine that happening on one of the occasions when King Rene’s polished court had come up from Aix for a taste of country pleasures and antique simplicity.

In 1481 les Baux was annexed to France. The barony was bestowed later on the Montmorency family, under whom the captaincy or stewardship of the town became hereditary in the family of Manville. The last Seigneur and Baron of les Baux was Antoine de Villeneuve, who in the time of Louis XIII had the ill-luck to espouse the cause of the Duc d’Orleans. Louis sent an emissary to dispossess him, but the inhabitants refused him admission, and carried their resistance to the point of bloodshed. The king, on Riche-lieu’s advice, seized on the excuse to destroy a stronghold which had been a centre of disturbance for the best part of a thousand years; and in 1633 the castle of the lords of les Baux was virtually razed to the ‘ground. A few years later Louis made a treaty by which the property, erected into a marquisate, passed to the Prince of Monaco. The Grimaldi family built a small chateau, and held the place for a hundred and fifty years; but they lost it at the time of the Revolution, which is a great pity, for what a Monte Carlo it would have made!

There is little of the ancient grandeur left: a few charming Renaissance houses, once occupied by the Manvilles and the Porcelets; the little church, restored in 1903 at the joint expense of the State and the Prince de Manville-Bianchi, still the owner of the land in the valley below; the little pavilion which is one of four that stood at the corners of the reputed garden of Queen Jeanne; the ruins of the castle Richelieu did not quite destroy, hung dizzily at the top of towering cliffs, and partly hewn out of the solid rock. The rest is gone: the knights, the warfare, the hunting of stag and wild boar, the games of backgammon and chess; the prayers, the tapestries, the jugglers and musicians, the troubadours and the ladies at whose feet they laid their hearts—Rexende, Adalazie, Mabelle, Clarette, Yolande, Douce, Isabelle, Cecile, Stephanette, Alaette, Elys, Melissent, Hugonne.

It was dark when I reached Paradou. I found the village cafe, and, waiting for the bus, sat on a wooden bench at a trestle table, in a room not at all unlike the taproom of an English country inn, except that there was no dart-board on the wall, and that instead of draught beer I drank cherry brandy. Two jolly, smiling young countrywomen were in charge, and chatted to me and to a couple of rustics who came in for their evening drink. Did I speak Provencal? they asked. Not a word, said I, though I could make a shift to read it. But did they? I asked them, for I had imagined that Provencal was a self-conscious literary revival of the poet Mistral, a dead language so far as these days were concerned. But of course! they said; in the country every-body spoke Provencal. They used French only in speaking to strangers, and in towns. And did I like their beautiful Provence? I liked it very well indeed. But I should see it in a few weeks’ time, in the spring, in the real spring, when it would be hot. There was a terrific hooting outside the door. That was my bus. I jogged back to Arles in the company of some soldiers returning from musketry practice or manoeuvres. When I reached the hotel a profusion of dishes was being carried through the hall to the dining-room. “I have saved something good for you,” said the patronne. I was tired, I had walked quite a long way, perhaps more than twenty miles. But O my pagan gods, how good life is when you have had the fresh air and the sunshine all day on your face, and you have seen strange things, and you are hungry, and the smell of food is in your nostrils!