A Book of the Riviera/Chapter 10
The porphyry mountains—Geology and botany—The Suelteri—Charles V. sets fire to the forests—Revenge—The tower of Muy—The seven gentlemen—Attempt to shoot Charles—Failure—The Estérel formerly a haunt of brigands—Gaspard de Besse—Saussure and Millin—Agay—The Roman quarries—Cap Roux—La Sainte Baume—S. Honoratus—Various places of winter resort in the Estérel.
A TRAVELLER must be very blasé or very obtuse who is not spellbound by the exceptional beauty of the Estérel. This mountain mass, like the Chaine des Maures, is an interruption of the continuity of the limestone of the coast. It consists of a tremendous upheaval of red porphyry. Unlike the Maures, with its schists and granite, the porphyry assumes the boldest and most fantastic shapes, and the gorgeousness of its colouring defies description. These flame-red crags shooting out of a sea the colour of a peacock's neck, or out of dense woods of pine, afford pictures where form and colouring are alike of sovereign beauty. It is a region unique in Europe, extending something like twelve English miles from east to west, and as much from north to south. The medium height of its summits is 1,500 to 1,800 feet, so that the elevation is not great, but it is cleft by valleys that abound in scenes of the finest order of picturesqueness. Here and there the granite and gneiss appear; elsewhere serpentine,
trap, basalt, and blue quartzite porphyry. Beside this is the new red sandstone and the Bunter sandstone. Variety of soil gives variety of vegetation; plantations of mimosa, not over a quarter of a century old, thrive on the primitive rocks, and are mixed with cork trees, umbrella pines, oaks, bushes of cistus, laurestinas, myrtle, rosemary, heath, broom, and in the spring gleam the white spears of the asphodel. It is a district in which geologist, botanist, and artist will revel alike.
"The group of the Estérel," says Lenthéric, "differs in form, in colour, in origin, from all the littoral mountains of the Provengal coast. It is entirely composed of primitive eruptive rocks; its highest summits may not reach above 1’800 feet; but all its ridges are pointed, and of a redness of fire. The crests of the mountains are bald and savage. The cliffs are abrupt, torn into projecting and retreating angles, and form on the sea-face an inaccessible fortification, defended by an archipelago of islets and reefs of almost polished porphyry, over which the waves have broken during many centuries without having been able to produce upon them any appreciable marks of geological erosion. The outline, the denticulation, the anfractuosities of the shore, the fiords and the rocky caverns into which the sea plunges, are little different to-day from what they were at the opening of historic times, even, one may say, at the beginning of our own geologic period."
This wild and wondrous region was occupied by a Ligurian tribe of Suelteri, who have left their name, much corrupted, to the district. The Romans found it difficult to conquer them, but they carried the Aurelian Road along the coast, where runs now the New Corniche Way.
When Charles V. penetrated into Provence, with intention to annex it, and Francis I. retreated before him, he was so harassed by the natives of the
Estérel swooping down on his convoys and capturing them, or cutting to pieces detached regiments, that he set the forests on fire, and for a week or ten days flames raged about the ruddy cliffs, making them look as if they had been heated red hot, and either burning the gallant defenders or driving them in desperation to break forth from this vast raging kiln to fall on the pikes of his men-at-arms.
Men, women, children, cattle, all perished in this horrible pyre; and when the conflagration died out for lack of fuel, nothing was left but the ashes of the burnt forest, mixed with the calcined bones of those who had perished in it, above which stood the gaunt red spires of rock, like petrified flames. Such conduct provoked reprisals, and not a soldier of the invaders was spared who fell into the hands of the exasperated Provençals.
At the little village of Le Muy stood, and stands still, a solitary tower by the side of the road, along which the Emperor was marching. It was old and in decay, a ruin in the midst of ruins; and so little did it excite suspicion that the Imperialists did not trouble to examine it.
But five gentlemen, witnesses of the atrocities committed by Charles V., bound themselves to revenge them. Accompanied by fifteen soldiers and about thirty peasants well armed, all as devoted and intrepid as themselves, they shut themselves into the old tower. There each planted his arquebus in a loophole or a crack in the walls, resolved to shoot down the Emperor as he passed. Clouds of dust announced the approach of the hostile army. None of the devoted men knew Charles by sight, but they hoped to recognize him by the superior splendour of his armour, and the state that surrounded him. But one of the first to go by, in gorgeous panoply, was the Spaniard Garcia Luzzio, mounted on a noble courser, and accompanied by picked soldiers. Thinking that this must be the Emperor, the Provençal gentlemen poured upon the Spaniard a hail of bullets, and he fell from his horse, dead.
Such an unexpected assault staggered the soldiers of Luzzio for a moment. But they speedily rallied and rushed to the tower bravely to revenge the death of their leader. The Provençals replied by a fresh discharge, which overthrew several of the soldiers. Knowing that they must expect death, they were resolved to sell their lives dearly; and they were able to kill a number of their assailants when they came on, without order and discipline.
To sacrifice as few as possible, the officers ordered the soldiers to withdraw and await the commands of the Emperor. Charles V. came up and had cannon levelled at the tower, and the gallant defenders either perished in its ruins, or fell into the hands of the Imperialists, who hung them from the trees round about.
In time the Estérel was again clothed in forest, and then became the haunt of all the outlaws and gaol-birds who had broken loose. These were organised into a body by one Gaspard de Besse, the Robin Hood of the district. He with his band became the terror of Provence, waylaying merchants on the high roads, and retreating to various caves still shown in several places, after having plundered unfortunate travellers. When pursuit was hottest, he escaped to the Estérel. Several murders that he had committed were the occasion of a price being put on his head, and he was eventually captured and broken on the wheel at Aix in 1776. He is the hero of a charming story by Mme. Charles Reybaud, published in 1859, but now out of print and very scarce. A drama called L’Auberge des Adrets had its scene laid in the Esterel, in 1823.
In 1787 the celebrated Saussure visited the Estérel as geologist and botanist; but his enthusiasm for the semi-tropical flora he met with in his excursions was somewhat tempered by uneasiness about his safety. He says:—
"The main road is entirely exposed, and is dominated by salient rocks, on which the brigands plant their sentinels. They suffer travellers to advance to some open space between these points of vantage. Then, from their ambushes in the woods, they swoop down on them and plunder them, whilst the sentinels keep a good look-out, lest the guards should come and surprise them. In the event of any of these appearing, a whistle suffices to warn the robbers, and they dive out of sight into the forest. It is absolutely impossible to reach them. Not only is the undergrowth very dense, but it is encumbered with huge blocks of stone. There are neither by-roads nor paths; and unless one knows the intricacies of the woods as well as do the brigands themselves, no one can penetrate into them, except very slowly. The forest extends to the sea, and the whole district, entirely uncultivated, is a place of refuge for the convicts who have escaped from the galleys of Toulon, the nursery of all the robbers of the country."
Millin, who wrote in 1807, says:—
"In general it is not possible to rely on the peasants in this region. If you ask of them your way, they will either not answer you at all or will misdirect you. Be careful that nothing is wrong with your equipages, and your harness; for no assistance is to be met with there. If they see that you are in difficulties, they laugh; if that you are in danger, they pass by on the other side of the way. Should a parched traveller venture to pluck a bunch of grapes, it is well for him if this slight indiscretion does not bring on him blows of a cudgel, a stone, or a shot from the gun of the owner. The cries of the peasants are those of the tiger, and like the tiger is their vivacity and their fury. Quarrels lead to insults, and insults are met with a blow of a stick, a stone, or the stab of a knife, often enough mortal in its effects. He who has committed such a crime thinks nothing of its consequences, save how they may affect himself. He abandons his victim, or else puts him out of the way of deposing against him. He runs away. Watching for his prey either in the ravines of Ollioules or in the depths of the forests of the Estérel, he waylays the traveller. He begins as a robber, and speedily becomes an assassin by trade. This is how the brigands are recruited who infest the roads of Provence."
The Estérel can be visited from Cannes or S. Raphael, but the real centre for excursions is Agay, an ideal nook for a winter resort. The Mornes Rougés, a hemicycle of heights, curves about the harbour, and cuts off every huffle of the Mistral. The Cap Dramont intercepts the winds from the west. It possesses good hotels, and if a visitor for the winter could tear himself away from the gaieties of Cannes, he would spend a month here with perfect comfort, in a warmer climate, and with any number of delightful excursions to be made from it. Agay and Anthéor are two settlements
Now all that is of the past. The French Tourists' Club has made paths and roads in all directions, and the Estérel may be traversed even more safely than Regent Street.
The Estérel, From Cannes
dropped on the way down to the sea, point out the fact that the working of these quarries must have been abandoned abruptly. There were workshops hard by, and numerous remains of pottery and tools have been picked up. One of the quarries was utilised for columns, another for blocks and facing-slabs.
The Cap Roux, which stands forth as an advanced sentinel, with feet in the sea, and starts up 1,360 feet, with its red needles shooting aloft from the water, and pierced below with caverns, is consecrated to the memory of S. Honoratus, whose cave, La Sainte Baume, is in the lurid cliff. Numerous pilgrims were wont to visit it at one time, but now it is hardly frequented at all, save by tourists. There is a fashion in saints; and poor old Honoratus is now shouldered into the background, and thrust into the shade. But he is not a man who should be forgotten. His is one of the most lovable characters in the calendar. His life was written by his kinsman and disciple, the great Hilary of Aries, and it may be thoroughly relied on. He is also spoken of with much love by another pupil, S. Eucherius of Lyons. But there exists another Life, which is a tissue of fables, and a late composition, utterly worthless, one "which," says Baronius, the Church historian, "cannot be read without disgust, except by those possessed of iron stomachs, and wits cankered with the rust of ignorance."
Honoratus was son of a Romano-Gaulish nobleman, living it is not certain where. When quite a young man he longed to embrace a solitary life, away from the distractions and pleasures of the corrupt society and the degenerate civilization of the time. His father, noticing the direction of the lad's mind, charged his eldest son, Venantius, a gay and impetuous youth, to turn him from this purpose; but on the contrary, it was he who gained his brother; and the two young men left their home and wandered to the East. There, overcome by the hardships of the journey, Venantius, who was delicate, succumbed, and Honoratus buried him. Then he set his face westward, and on reaching Provence made the acquaintance of Leontius, Bishop of Fréjus, and opened to him his heart. Leontius advised him to test the sincerity of his purpose, and recommended him to find some solitary nook in the Estérel where he might spend time in preparation and prayer. Then Honoratus, wandering among the forests and the flaming red rocks, lighted on a cave on Cap Roux and made that his place of retreat. Later, being resolute in purpose, he departed, and, accompanied by a few others of like mind, crossed over to the Isle of Lerins and made that his abode. By degrees a little community formed there about him. Honoratus, whose fine face, as Eucherius says, was radiant with a sweet and attractive majesty, received a multitude of disciples of all nations, who flocked to him; and the island became the great centre of learning and holiness for Gaul. He showed the utmost tenderness in the management of those who committed themselves to his guidance. He sought to penetrate to the depths of their hearts, to understand their troubles and difficulties. He neglected no effort to dispel every sadness, all painful recollection of the world. He watched their sleep, their health, their labours, that he might draw each to serve God according to the measure of his strength. Thus he inspired them with a love more than filial. "In him," they said, "we find not only a father, but an entire family, a country, the whole world." When he wrote to any of those who were absent, they were wont to say, on receiving a letter, written, according to the usage of the time, upon tablets of wax, "He has poured back honey into the wax, honey drawn from the inexhaustible sweetness of his heart."
The monks, who had sought happiness by renouncing secular life, protested that they had found it on the Isle of Lerins, under the guidance of Honoratus. But every now and then, overburdened with the care of a great community, Honoratus longed to be alone, to rest from these engrossing cares, and to spend his time in searching his own heart and communing with God.
He had a young kinsman, Hilary by name, of whom I have already spoken, living in the world. Honoratus sought him out in his old home and earnestly endeavoured to draw him to embrace the monastic life. But his persuasion failed. Hilary stubbornly refused. Before he left, Honoratus said, "Well, then, I will obtain from God what you now refuse me." And he retreated, either to his cave in the Estérel or to his island of Lerins, to pray for his relative. Three days after he was gone Hilary changed his mind. "On the one hand," he says, I thought I saw God calling me; on the other the world seducing me. How often did I embrace, and then reject, will and then not will, the same thing. But in the end, Jesus Christ triumphed in me." And going to the sea-coast he boated over to Lerins.
Honoratus was elected Bishop of Aries in 426, and died in the arms of Hilary, who succeeded him, in 429. Who thinks of this saintly old man when in the bustling rue S. Honore, in Paris, that is called after him?
There is no need for me to describe the marvels of rock scenery in Mal Infernet, the Ravin d'Uzel, the Rochers du Pigeonnier, or the many other sights of the Estérel, for there are two or three excellent little guide-books to this most fascinating region, easily obtainable at Cannes.
In addition to Agay, there are other comfortable places well furnished with hotels, where one may spend many pleasant days, as Théoule and Le Trayas. And as there is not only the New Corniche Road, but also the main line skirting the Estérel, it is easily accessible and easily abandoned should books run short and rain fall.
- La Provence Maritime, Paris, 1897.