Winter Quarters

There are three ways from Toulon to Hyeres by road, and two by train. The best of both go through le Pradet and Carqueiranne. The road and the little narrow-gauge Ligne du Sud are practically contiguous. For part of their length they run inland, through a countryside which (when I went that way) appeared to me the richest and hottest looking I had seen since leaving Roussillon, and to reproduce most nearly the character of the sunny vineyards between Perpignan and le Boulou. I was glad to see again the deep red earth, the vines. In the furrows were planted broad beans and potatoes, the deeper, bluer green of their foliage looking cool and sober beside the fresh and eager green of the young vine leaves. In several places all three of these were growing in one field. Every little domaine along this road has its avenue of palm trees running between house and gate. The whole scene is one of rich exuberance, an almost tropical luxuriance. At Carqueiranne, where the road turns down towards the sea, and is soon followed by the railway, the intense marine blue adds another colour to this gorgeous landscape of glowing green and terra-cotta. A single pink house, with a clump of pines beside it, stands out against the sea with staggering effect.

The little strip between this point and the neck of the isthmus of Giens may be reckoned the most southerly habitable stretch of coast in France, excepting only the less easily accessible Cote Vermeille, Cap Sicie, and the Presqu’ile de Giens itself. The climate is very dry and sunny; the pine trees along the shore, and the close proximity of vast pine forests, extending over hundreds of square miles, are supposed to make it also very healthy. It is a favourite site for rest homes and sanatoria, which belong to municipal and charitable corporations in various parts of France. Along here is a place with a name like a trumpet-blast: l’Almanarre de Pomponiana. Pomponiana was a Gallo-Roman city, of which only a few ruins and the glory of its name remain. Of its original character or importance history has preserved no record.

Here one must again turn inland; for Hyeres, though it is certainly on the Cote d’Azur, is three miles from the sea. This place came as a complete surprise to me. Considering that it is the oldest, and by reputation the most English, of winter resorts in France, it was not unreasonable of me, I think, to expect that it would reflect a little of the joyless and unbeautiful solidity, the Sabbath, roast-meat calm, the red-brick and laurelled smugness, of an English seaside town in its selectest and most residential quarter. All Gallic exuberance and artistic nonsense would be banished, I was certain, from this haven of successful commerce and superannuated militarism. The streets would echo with cries of “Damme!” and “By Gad, sir!” The meridional sun would flash back from a thousand monocles. The illustrated week-lies, fried sole, Kipling, and roast beef (overdone) would be the only fare.

I must admit that Hyeres is not like this at all. To begin with, its streets are full of ordinary French people, amongst whom the presence of an occasional tall, bronzed Englishman, carrying yesterday’s Times and a malacca walking-stick, operates agreeably to raise the average of male beauty, if not of intelligence. The architecture of the winter town is French, with the addition of that cosmopolitan touch which is common to every pleasure resort in the world, whether it be on the -Cote d’Azur, Lake Como, or the Bosphorus; and which expresses itself in white paint, window-boxes, and an air of expecting that every man will wear white trousers. The approach to it is by wide avenues, in which an amusing effect has been achieved by the alternation of palms and planes. Behind this civilized and not disagreeable stucco is a city of narrow, terraced streets, extending, up a steep slope like an Italian village, or one of the little hill-towns of the Pyrenees. The whole is magnificently situated on this seaward slope, with wooded hills to left and right, and in front the blue bay, into which extends the peninsula of Giens, closing, with the Iles d’Hyeres, the Stoechades, the Golden Isles of the past, the seaward view.

I had heard some ill reports of the Hyerois climate. “Moi, je deteste Hyeres!” was a remark I had heard uttered with extraordinary vehemence in February, in the Pyrenees, by someone who had tried it in a former year. And I have known English people to express a similar opinion. Judging by its luxuriant tropical vegetation you would think the town enjoyed perpetual summer; but I believe it is true that Hyeres is not entirely protected from the mistral, and that it sometimes rains there. One can understand the irritation of an invalid unexpectedly exposed to the Siberian chill of the Provencal wind. But I have noticed that people inured to rain, fog, sleet, and every kind of climatic nastiness in their own country become strangely pernickety about the weather as soon as they reach another, and grumble furiously if a single cloud appears in a foreign sky or if it is too cold for them to bathe on Christmas Day. The climate of the south of France is on the whole so extraordinarily delightful that it is not only ungrateful but absurd to complain because there is one bad month in twelve, or even one imperfect day in seven. Least of all are we, inhabiting a country where what is called good weather consists in the intermission of actual rigour, and where, if we ever do have a summer, the inefficiency of those who administer our water supplies has taught us to call it a drought, and think it an affliction—least of all are we in a position to be finical. As a matter of geography and logic, it is a little absurd to expect to escape the winter entirely without crossing the equator. Even in Egypt there is a rainy season. There are places, even in France, where, if you are lucky, you may find that the inclement season lasts but a couple of months, and amounts to scarcely more than the intermission of actual heat; but I have already hinted that they are to be found in certain sheltered inland valleys rather than on the Cote d’Azur, or in Provence at all; and it may be that Hyeres is not one of them. Should you none the less decide to winter at Hyeres (and you might do worse), you will do well to turn philosopher and regard a little rain and wind, should you encounter them, as the price you must inevitably pay for the golf-course and Casino, and the wine-dark sea, and the approval of your Aunt Sophonisba, who regards a season there as practically equivalent to presentation at Court or an invitation to the Royal Garden Party.

During my short stay, at least, which was in early spring, the weather was all any one could wish, except that it was apt to grow a little chilly after sunset. On my arrival a big fair was due to start in a few days. Much of its paraphernalia was already in the town. A huge pantechnicon was stranded, like a wounded mammoth, with its back axle lodged on a kerbstone’s edge and its wheels spinning vainly an inch above the ground. A large and miscellaneous market was in progress. All, or nearly all, was bustle and confusion. Hyeres completely contradicted all my preconceptions. People were selling a great deal of china bric-a-brac, a man was making out of tin the sort of things one is annoyed to find one has forgotten how to make out of an old newspaper. I looked at a church or two. I walked through a lot of narrow streets, I passed through the remains of an ancient gateway, I climbed a thousand steps and emerged on a sort of terrace where some young men were playing boule. Boule is the great game of these parts, the principal recreation of young and old alike. It is the ancestor, or perhaps the cousin merely, of what we call bowls, and is played with balls of metal, or of wood studded with nails, pretty heavy, which are thrown through the air back-handed, which gives them a little backspin, the idea being that they shall fall fairly near the jack and pull up quickly right beside it. There is another shot, of which the purpose is to knock the opponent’s ball away, and then the wood (as we should call it) is usually thrown with an over-arm motion, to land full-pitch on its objective. Any approximately level surface of beaten earth serves for a boulodrome; but for an important match at Aix I have seen lists erected in the Place Richelme, behind the Post Office. We are supposed to be a nation of sportsmen, in which everybody except me (though I love any kind of game) is fully aware of the difference between the Arsenal and the St Leger; but can you imagine the traffic in any of our cities being diverted for a game of bowls?

I ascended by way of more steep-pitched streets, and more steps, further up the little mountain behind the town. Up here are remains of the medieval castle of Hyeres, and a bird sanctuary. I looked at the view, I rested, I returned to the terrace in front of the church of St Paul. The boulistes had departed. It was the hour of sunset. The town immediately below me was already in shadow. The green of the neighbouring wooded hills was turning to a rosy mauve. In front of me was Hyeres-Plage, to the left of it the Old Salt Marshes, and the little port where St Louis landed on his return from the first of his crusades. The sea, confined by peninsula and island so that it looked like a lake, was very blue, and the intervening plain was still in bright sunshine. But as I watched the shadow began to move across it, the colour of the hills grew darker, the day lingered for a moment on the hilltops, and was finally extinguished.

On the following day I visited the Presqu’ile de Giens. The isthmus which connects the cape with the mainland is perhaps three-quarters of a mile wide; but not more than about a furlong’s width of this is solid land. The rest consists of a shallow lagoon, divided by a narrow reef of sand from the waters of the bay. At its northern end are the New Salt Marshes, where many thousands of tons of salt are produced annually by flooding shallow pans and allowing the water to evaporate in the sun. On the other side of the isthmus is the summer beach of Hyeres-Plage, with a race course to the south of it.

The Presqu’ile is about three and a half miles long, with an average width of something less than half a mile. You can walk for hours about its wooded and undulating surface, in a hot sun and a sturdy breeze, at this time of the year, without meeting anybody. Mesembryanthemum, many vetches, iris, and orchis, flower freely among its groves of pine and myrtle; but I did not see the wild gladioli which are common field flowers of the Provencal mainland. Butterflies, which must be of an exceptionally sturdy breed, ride out a sailor’s wind. In clearings of the woods, on which one comes suddenly, emerging from a green and scented glade, are sloping fields, where flowers are cultivated for the market. Flower-farming, with a little fishing, is the only industry of the peninsula. The coastline is indented with numerous rocky and secluded coves, where pine trees, growing to the water’s edge, extend upon a narrow strip of sand a needled shade. A road descends to one of these, a little larger than the rest. There is a small jetty here, and a pocket-handkerchief of beach, from which some people have been bathing, though the day is a little cold for it. There are boats and lobster-pots about. The western extremity of Porquerolles, a mile or so across from here, is called the Pointe du Grand Langoustier.

Giens itself is the only village on the peninsula. There is a hamlet called Madrague further west, and beyond that a naval signal station. There are also some scattered villas, and two small hotels (one closed) at la Tour Fondue, where one embarks for Porquerolles. The Ruined Tower itself belongs to the Government, and is hedged about with barbed wire and notices, as if it were extremely precious, as, for what it holds, it may be; but it is nothing much to look at. The wind has freshened a great deal since my arrival, the sea has become grey and choppy. The hotel looks attractive.

Half an hour ago, while standing in a field that sloped down to the lonely northern shore, I heard suddenly a strange deep drumming sound, a slow, thumping, relent-less beat that seemed to come at one moment from the earth itself, and at the next from the inside of my own head; and, looking out to sea, I saw the long, black, sinister form of a submarine crawl by at a short distance from the shore. Now a destroyer passes at a great pace through the narrow channel between Giens and Porquerolles, the water breaking across its bows, and some sea-planes fly overhead. They are returning from manoeuvres on the other side of the is-land. The wind blows harder than ever, I feel cold and go into the hotel to await the arrival of the boat from Porquerolles.

Two other people are doing the same thing, a young man and a girl. They have some luggage, and I think they are on their way to spend their honeymoon on the island: not at all a bad place for the purpose, and a still better purpose for the place: there is very little to do there in the usual sense, so you must find your own amusements in any case. We drink our bock or the au citron in a very un-Gallic room hung with brass warming-pans, like the lounge in the better and quieter sort of summer hotel in England. We strain our eyes by peering across the expanse of grey and heaving water that divides us from Porquerolles, but can-not see the boat, though it should be halfway over by now, and clearly visible. The bus arrives to meet it, but it is still not in sight. A light lorry drives up, stops, and a youth begins unloading parcels for dispatch to the island. He carries a bale done up in sacking down to the jetty and leaves it there while he goes back for another. While he is away the wind blows it over, and part of its contents is nearly tipped into the sea.

By now it is past the time fixed for the boat’s arrival. The drivers of the lorry and the bus are staring towards the island, looking for it. At last one of them sees it, and points. In another moment we can see it too—a minute vessel, rolling and pitching horribly in the rough sea. The girl who is probably on her honeymoon looks alarmed; her husband squeezes her hand and says something in a low voice. As the boat comes nearer we see that it is only a tiny motor-boat, no bigger than a Thames launch. Its engine cuts out, it drifts into the lee of the little jetty and stops. We go out into the cold wind and the bright sunshine. There is much unloading of parcels, the young man from the lorry bustles about with an air of great importance, a few passengers walk shakily along the jetty and come up the steps, looking green and chilly, and trying to smile. The young couple smile even more wanly as they wait at the top of the steps for them to pass. There is a feeling in the air that something has been accomplished, that the goods have been delivered and great dangers overcome; one would like to cheer some-one or something. I get into the bus and am driven back to Hyeres, feeling very glad that I am not on my way to Porquerolles.

Hyeres had already some reputation as a resort at the end of the eighteenth century. Napoleon lived at No. 24 Place des Palmiers during the time that he held the post of Inspector of Fortifications, and returned to the town in the days of his greatness. But it was under the Second Empire that the place became the great winter resort of France, a place of gaiety and fashion. Fashion has practically deserted it, first for Cannes, more recently for St Moritz, Innsbruck, and Palm Beach. As for gaiety, I am not absolutely certain. Had I not had the ill-luck to miss a forthcoming show in which a variety of stimulating turns was promised, including Les 12 Nudyty’s Girls, I might have been able to give a confident opinion.

I am sorry to have missed that show. Miss London was, I think, the name of the principal female performer. There were many other Misses—Miss Dolly, Miss Ann, and, I believe, Miss Daisy. They were three of the nudyty’s girls, of course. Since all the best dance-troupes in Paris consist of English girls, it follows that every ambitious troupe in France must have what purports to be an English designation. The principle is the same as that by which all little milliners in England are called Madame Celeste or Madame Fifi, and all little tailors in France Smith, Jones, or The Fashion House. Besides, where anything theatrical is concerned, the glamour of Hollywood sex-appeal and honeydom is just as strong in France as it is in England. Les Vamps Girls d’Hollywood are no less popular in Perpignan than they are in Portsmouth. And English femininity makes in its own right a sort of perverse appeal to the Gallic taste, it seems. In France an immoderate regard for English usages and institutions is a characteristic of the upper classes; and it may be that a taste for English girls is something people affect as they affect a taste for caviare.

There is, of course, no handy and unobjectionable French equivalent for our word girls. It is one English word the French have adopted without misspelling; and there are not many. As a race, the French are next door to incapable of ever getting any foreign word right, as regards either spelling or pronunciation. Sublime in their complacency, they do not even try. The smartest bars in the cosmopolitan resorts announce Lunchs, Sandwichs, and BreakFast. One would have thought the example of their own language would have taught the French to be alert for irregularities; and that, just as every English schoolboy knows that the feminine of Parisien requires a supplementary “ne,” so every Frenchman would understand that the plural of sandwich requires the insertion of an “e.” But the fact is, that the Frenchman, in adopting a foreign word, makes not the slightest effort to spell, pronounce, or inflect it in accordance with the rules of the language from which it comes; for even in such an exterior matter as this he prefers French methods. Moreover, he frequently distorts the word absurdly from its original meaning, and betrays the strangest incomprehension of its character as noun, adjective, or ad-verb. In the use of the apostrophe on the revue-poster at Hyeres one can trace some faint effect of a disordered logic. But the most industrious research can discover no reason why tram should be improved into tramway (meaning the vehicle itself ), or shampoo into shampooing. Here for once, when it is not required, the Frenchman attempts to apply the grammar of a foreign tongue. Un tennis for a tennis-court, it is true, is an economy; and there is something pleasantly crisp about the announcement, Trois Ping Pongs, on the window of a cafe. But in the evolution of le smoking, le muttum chopp, and le footing there are stages which will always be deep mysteries to the Anglo-Saxon mind.

It is often said among themselves that the English are poor linguists. Excessive bashfulness is their great handicap; but once this is overcome they learn very readily, and will take much more trouble to speak a foreign language correctly than most races. Pride is the basic element of the English character; and the same pride that restrains the Englishman from beginning to learn a foreign tongue, in case he should speak it badly and be laughed at, will cause him to take pains to speak it well once he has committed himself to the task of learning it at all. For pride of this kind, which is not content with less than excellence, the Frenchman substitutes an arrogance that regards the complexities of a foreign tongue as unworthy of his attention. In this respect, as in many others, he is not ashamed of an insularity to which his Britannic neighbour, though inhabiting an island, is a stranger.

But apart from this aspect of the matter, the Frenchman has a natural incapacity where languages are concerned. It is significant that the speech of the least musical of the Romance peoples departs most from the common model. Of all the educable races that came into contact with the Roman civilization, the Gauls, it is obvious, must have had the greatest difficulty in learning Latin. Having practically no ear for music, the Frenchman does not really hear the sounds he is called upon to imitate; and so it is, that with the exception of the African pygmy (who cannot conceive of the existence of any words but the numbers one to four, and a few simple substantives), he is probably the worst linguist in the world.