Part 1 out of 4
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THE ROOF OF FRANCE
THE CAUSSES OF THE LOZERE
To M. SADI CARNOT.
THIS VOLUME, THE THIRD OF MY PUBLISHED TRAVELS IN FRANCE, IS
INSCRIBED WITH ALL RESPECT TO HER HONOURED PRESIDENT.
_MY FIRST JOURNEY IN SEARCH OF THE CAUSSES_.
I. FROM LE PUY TO MENDE
III. A GLIMPSE OF THE CAUSSES
IV. ON THE TOP OF THE ROOF
V. RODEZ AND AURILLAC
VI. THE LAND OF THE BURON
_MY SECOND JOURNEY IN SEARCH OF THE CAUSSES._
I. THROUGH THE MORVAN
II. THROUGH THE MORVAN (_continued_)
III. FROM LYONS TO AVIGNON BY THE RHONE
IV. AVIGNON AND ORANGE
V. LE VIGAN
VI. NANT (AVEYRON)
VII. MILLAU (AVEYRON)
VIII. FROM MENDE TO ST. ENIMIE
IX. ST. ENIMIE
X. THE CANON OF THE TARN
XI. SHOOTING THE RAPIDS
XII. LE ROZIER
XIV. MONTPELLIER-LE-VIEUX (_continued_)
XV. LE ROZIER TO MILLAU AND RODEZ
XVI. RODEZ, VIC-SUR-CERE REVISITED.--A BREAKFAST ON THE BANKS OF THE
It is upon this occasion my rare and happy privilege to introduce the
reader to something absolutely new. How many English-speaking tourists
have found their way to the Roof of France--in other words, the ancient
Gevaudan, the romantic department of the Lozere? How many English--or
for the matter of that French travellers either--have so much as heard
of the Causses, [Footnote: From calx, lime] those lofty tablelands of
limestone, groups of a veritable archipelago, once an integral whole,
now cleft asunder, forming the most picturesque gorges and magnificent
defiles; offering contrasts of scenery as striking as they are sublime,
and a phenomenon unique in geological history? On the plateau of the
typical Causse, wide in extent as Dartmoor, lofty as Helvellyn, we
realize all the sombreness and solitude of the Russian steppe. These
stony wastes, aridity itself, yet a carpet of wild-flowers in spring,
are sparsely peopled by a race having a peculiar language, a
characteristic physique, and primitive customs. Here are laboriously
cultivated oats, rye, potatoes--not a blade of wheat, not an apple-tree
is to be discerned; no spring or rivulet freshens the parched soil. The
length and severity of the winter are betokened by the trees and poles
seen at intervals on either side of the road. But for such precautions,
even the native wayfarer would be lost when six feet of snow cover the
ground. Winter lasts eight months, and the short summer is tropical.
But descend these grandiose passes, dividing one limestone promontory
from another--go down into the valleys, each watered by lovely rivers,
and we are, as if by magic, transported into the South! The peach, the
almond, the grape ripen out of doors; all is smilingness, fertility,
and grace. The scenery of the Causses may be described as a series of
exhilarating surprises, whilst many minor attractions contribute to the
The affability, dignity, and uprightness of these mountaineers, their
freedom from vulgarity, subservience, or habits of extortion, their
splendid physique and great personal beauty, form novel experiences of
travel. The general character of the people--here I do not allude to
the 'Caussenard,' or dweller on the Causse alone, but to the Lozerien
as a type--may be gathered from one isolated fact. The summer sessions
of 1888 were what is called _assizes blanches_, there being not a
single cause to try. Such an occurrence is not unusual in this
The Lozere, hitherto the Cinderella, poorest of the poor of French
provinces, is destined to become one of the richest. Not only the
Causses, but the Canon du Tarn, may be regarded in the light of a
discovery by the tourist world. A few years ago the famous geographer,
Joanne, was silent on both. Chance-wise, members of the French Alpine
Club lighted upon this stupendous defile between the Causse de
Sauveterre and the Causse Mejean; their glorious find became noised
abroad, and now the Tarn is as a Pactolus flowing over golden sands--a
mine of wealth to the simple country folk around. The river, springing
from a cleft in the Lozere chain, winding its impetuous way, enriched
by many a mountain torrent, through the Aveyron, Tarn, and Garonne,
finally disemboguing into the Garonne, has lavished all its witchery on
its native place.
Every inch of the way between the little towns of St. Enimie and Le
Rozier is enchanted ground by virtue of unrivalled scenery. In time the
influx of tourists must make the river-side population rich. The sandy
bed of the Tarn must attain the preciousness of a building site near
Paris. This materialistic view of the question affords mixed feelings.
I have in mind the frugality of these country folks, their
laboriousness, their simple, upright, sturdy ways. I can but wish them
well, even at the price of terrible disenchantment. Instead of rustic
hostelries at St. Enimie, gigantic hotels after the manner of Swiss
tourist barracks; the solitude of the Causses broken by enthusiastic
tittle-tattle; tourist-laden flotillas bearing the ensign of Cook or
Gaze skimming the glassy waters of the majestically environed Tarn!
On the threshold of the Lozere, just outside the limits of the
department, lies another newly-discovered marvel, more striking,
stranger than the scenery of the Causses--as beautiful, though in quite
another way, as the Canon or Gorge of the Tarn. This is the fantastic,
the unique, the eerie Cite du Diable, or Montpellier-le-Vieux, with its
citadel, ramparts, watch-towers, amphitheatres, streets, arcades,
terraces--a vast metropolis in the wilderness, a Babylon untenanted
from the beginning, a Nineveh fashioned only by the great builder
Nature. Little wonder that the peasants formerly spoke of the dolomite
city, when forced to speak at all, with bated breath, and gave it so
ill-omened a name. The once uncanny, misprized, even accursed city,
since surnamed Montpellier-le-Vieux, from a fancied resemblance to
Montpellier, is now very differently regarded by its humble owners.
Literally discovered in 1882, its first explorers being two members of
the French Alpine Club, the Cite du Diable is already bringing in a
revenue. French tourists, who first came by twos and threes, may now be
counted by the hundred a month during the holiday season. Alert to the
unmistakable rat-tat-tat of Dame Fortune at their front-doors, the good
folks are preparing for the welcome invasions to come. The auberge is
being transformed into an inn, roads are improving, a regular service
of guides has been organized, and all charges for guides, carriages,
and mules have been regulated by tariff. It is hardly possible to
exaggerate the weird fascination and eldritch charm of this once
dreaded, ill-omened place. Only one pen--that, alas! at rest for ever--
could have done justice to such a theme. In the hands of the great
Sand, Montpellier-le-Vieux might have afforded us a chef d'oeuvre to set
beside 'La Ville Noire' or the adorable 'Jeanne.'
Fresh and interesting as is a sojourn on the Roof of France, a name in
verity accorded to the Lozere, I have not restricted myself within such
limits. The climbing up and the getting down offer many a racy and
novel experience. I have given not only the middle of my journey, but
the beginning and the end. Those of my country-folk who have traversed
the picturesque little land of the French Morran, who have steamed from
Lyons to Avignon, made their way by road through the Gard and the
Aveyron, and sojourned in the cheese-making region of the Cantal--I
fancy their number is not legion--may pass over my chapters thus
headed. Had I one object in view only, to sell my book, I must have
reversed the usual order of things, and put the latter half in place of
the first. I prefer the more methodical plan, and comfort myself with
the reflection that France, excepting Brittany, Normandy, the Pyrenees,
the Riviera and the Hotel du Jura, Dijon, is really much less familiar
to English travellers than Nijni-Novgorod or Jerusalem. I no more
encountered anyone British born during my two journeys in the Lozere
than I did a beggar. This privileged corner of the earth enjoys an
absolute immunity from excursionists and mendicants. Strong
enthusiasts, lovers of France, moved to tread in my footsteps, will
hardly accuse me of exaggerating either the scenery, the good qualities
and good looks of the people, or the flawless charm of Lozerien travel.
In years to come I may here be found too eulogistic of all classes with
whom I came in contact, who shall say? A long period of increasing
prosperity, a perpetually swelling stream of holiday-makers, may by
degrees change, and perhaps ultimately pervert, the character of the
peasants, so glowingly delineated in the following pages. Let us hope
that such a contingency is at least very far off, and that many another
may bring home the same cordial recollections of the boatmen of the
Tarn, the aubergistes and voituriers of the Causses, the peasant owners
of the Cite du Diable. I need hardly add that I give a mere record of
travel. The geology of the strange district visited, its rich and
varied flora, its wealth of prehistoric remains, are only touched upon.
For further information the reader is referred to other writers. On the
subject of agriculture I have occasionally dwelt at more length, being
somewhat of a farmeress, as Arthur Young styles it, and having now
studied a considerable portion of France from an agricultural point of
view. The noble dictum of 'that wise and honest traveller'--thus aptly
does our great critic describe the Suffolk squire--'the magic of
property turns sands to gold,' will be here as amply illustrated as in
my works on Eastern and Western France.
One word more. No one must undertake a journey in the Lozere with a
scantily-furnished purse. A well-known artist lately contributed a
paper to the _Pall Mall Gazette_ in which he set forth--in the
strangest English surely ever penned by man, woman, or child--the
facilities and delights of cycling in France on seven francs a day. Why
anyone in his sober senses should dream of travelling abroad on seven
francs a day passes my comprehension. Money means to the traveller not
only health, enjoyment, comfort, but knowledge. Why should we expect,
moreover, to be wholesomely housed and fed in a foreign country upon a
sum altogether inadequate to the tourist's needs at home? The little
wayside inns in out-of-the-way places mentioned by me were indeed very
cheap, but taking into account horses, carriages and guides, the
exploration of the Causses, the Canon du Tarn and Montpellier-le-Vieux
will certainly cost twenty-five francs per diem, this outlay being
slightly reduced in the case of two or more persons. Of course, when
not absolutely making excursions, when settling down for days or weeks
in some rural retreat, expenses will be moderate enough as far as inns
are concerned. But carriage-hire is costly all the world over, and the
inquiring traveller must have his carriage. There will also be a daily
call upon his purse in the matter of pourboire to guides and
conductors. A pound a day is by no means too liberal an allowance for
the wise bent upon having the best, of everything. Those content to put
up with the worst may exist upon the half.
THE ROOF OF FRANCE
_MY FIRST JOURNEY IN SEARCH OF THE CAUSSES._
FROM LE PUY TO MENDE.
The traveller in France will not unseldom liken his fortunes to those
of Saul the son of Kish, who, setting forth in search of his father's
asses, found a kingdom; or, to use a homelier parable, will compare his
case to that of the donkey between two equally-tempting bundles of hay.
Such, at least, was my luck when starting for my annual French tour in
1887. I had made up my mind to see something of the Lozere and the
Cantal, settling down in two charming spots respectively situated in
these departments, when, fortunately for myself, I was tempted
elsewhere. Instead of rusticating for a few weeks in the country nooks
alluded to, there observing leisurely the condition of the peasants and
of agriculture generally, I took a contrary direction, thus ultimately
becoming acquainted with one of the most romantic and least-known
regions of Central France.
'Since you intend to visit the Lozere' wrote a correspondent to me,
'why not explore the Causses? The scenery is, I believe, very
remarkable, and the geology deeply interesting.'
The Causses? the Causses? I had travelled east, west, north, south on
French soil for upwards of thirteen years, yet the very name was new to
me. Having once heard of the Causses, it was, of course, quite certain
that I should hear of them twice.
Meeting by chance a fellow-countryman at Dijon, as enthusiastic a lover
of French scenery as myself, and comparing our experiences, he suddenly
'But the Causses? Have you seen the wonderful Causses of the Lozere?'
It was a curious and highly-characteristic fact that both my informants
should be English, thus bearing out the assertion of an old French
writer, author of the first real tourist's guide for his own country,
that we are 'le peuple le plus curieux de l'Europe'; he adds, 'le plus
observateur,' perhaps a compliment rather paid to Arthur Young than to
the English as a nation. The work I refer to ('Itineraire descriptif de
la France,' by Vaysse de Villiers, 1816) was evidently written under
the inspiration of our great agriculturist.
From French friends and acquaintances I could learn absolutely nothing
of the Causses. The region was a _terra incognita_ to one and all.
I might every whit as well have asked my way to Swift's Liliputia or
Cloud Cuckoo Town, and the Island of Cheese of his precursor, the witty
Lucian. People _had_ heard of l'Ecosse; oh yes! but why an
Englishwoman should seek information about Scotland in the heart of
France, they could not quite make out.
There was nothing for me to do but trust to happy chance and the guide-
book, and set out; and as a stray swallow is the precursor of myriads,
so no sooner had I got an inkling of one marvel than I was destined to
hear of half a dozen.
Wonderful the scenery of the Causses, still more wonderful the canon or
gorge of the Tarn and the dolomite city of Montpellier-le-Vieux, so I
There were difficulties in the way of seeing all these. I had been
unexpectedly detained at Dijon. It was the second week in September,
and the Roof of France--in other words, the department of the Lozere--
is ofttimes covered with snow before that month is out. My travelling
companion was a young French lady, permitted by her parents to travel
with me, and for whose health, comfort and safety I felt responsible.
It seemed doubtful whether this year at least I should be able to
realize my new-formed project, and penetrate into the solitudes of the
Causses. However, I determined to try.
My journey begins at the ancient town of Le Puy, former capital of the
Vivarais, chef-lieu of the department of the Haute Loire, and, it is
unnecessary to say, one of the most curious towns in the world. We had
journeyed thither by way of St. Etienne, and were bound for Mende, the
little mountain-girt bishopric and capital of the Lozere.
We had to be up betimes, as our train for Langogne, corresponding with
the Mende diligence, started at five in the morning. It might have been
midnight when we quitted the Hotel Gamier--would that I could say a
single word in its favour!--so blue black the frosty heavens, so
brilliant the stars, the keen September air biting sharply.
More fortunate than a friend whose pocket was lately picked of twenty-
five pounds at the railway-station here, I waited whilst the terribly
slow business of ticket-taking and registration was got over, thankful
enough that I had breakfasted overnight--that is to say, had made tea
at three o'clock in the morning. Not a cup of milk, not a crust of
bread, would that inhospitable inn offer its over-charged guests before
setting out. As I have nothing but praise to bestow upon the hostelries
of the Lozere and the Cantal, I must give vent to a well-deserved
By slow degrees the perfect day dawned, a glorious sun rising in a
cloudless sky. We now discovered that our travelling companions were
two sisters--the one, an admirable specimen of the belle villageoise,
in her charming lace coiffe; the other, equally good-looking, but as
much vulgarized by her Parisian costume as Lamartine's sea-heroine,
Graziella, when she had exchanged her contadine's dress for modern
millinery. These pretty and becoming head-dresses of Auvergne, made
often of the richest lace and ribbon, may now be described as
survivals, the bonnet, as well as the chimney-pot hat, making the round
of the civilized world.
From Le Puy to Langogne, via Langeac, we traversed a region familiar to
many a tourist as he has journeyed from Clermont-Ferrand to Nimes. The
shifting scenes of gorge and ravine are truly of Alpine grandeur,
whilst the railway is one of those triumphs of engineering skill to
which Alpine travellers are also accustomed.
One remark only I make by the way. The sarcasms levelled against the
system of peasant proprietorship, that would be cruel were they not
silly, are here silenced for once and for all. Nothing can be more
self-evident than the beneficial result of small holdings to the State,
wholly setting aside the superiority of the peasant-owner's position,
moral, social and material, to that of the English farm labourer. Even
a prejudiced observer must surely be touched by the indomitable
perseverance, the passionate love of the soil, evinced by the small
cultivators in the valley of the Allier, and, indeed, witnessed
throughout every stage of our day's journey.
Wherever exists a patch of cultivable soil, we see crops of rye,
buckwheat and potatoes, some of these plots being only a few yards
square, and to all appearances inaccessible. In many places earth has
been carried by the basketful to narrow, lofty ledges of rock, an
astounding instance of toil, hopefulness and patience. No matter the
barrenness of the spot, no matter its isolation or the difficulty of
approach, wherever root or seed will grow, there the French peasant
owner plies hoe and spade, and gradually causes the wilderness to
blossom as the rose.
So true it is, as Arthur Young wrote a hundred years ago, 'Give a man
secure possession of a black rock, and he will turn it into a garden.'
A considerable proportion of the land hereabouts has been quite
recently laid under cultivation, and on every side we see bits of waste
being ploughed up.
At Langeac, a little junction between Le Puy and St. Georges d'Aurac,
we had a halt of over two hours, easily spent amid charming scenery.
The air is sweet and fresh, everyone is busy in the fields, and as we
saunter here and there, people look up from their work to greet us with
a smile of contentment and bonhomie. It is a scene of peace and homely
prosperity. A short railway jaunt to Langogne; a bustling breakfast at
the little restaurant; then begins the final packing of the diligence.
The crazy old berline looks as full as it can be before our four boxes
and numerous small packages are taken from the railway van, and the
group of bag and basket laden folks standing round, priests, nuns, and
commis-voyageurs, evidently waiting for a place. Surely room can never
be found for all these! Just then a French tourist came up and accosted
us, smiling ruefully.
'Ah!' he said, shaking his head with affected malice, 'just like you
English--you have secured the best places.'
True enough, the English when they travel are as the wise virgins, and
secure the best places. The French are as the foolish virgins, and
trust ofttimes to chance.
I had, of course, telegraphed from Le Puy the day before for two seats
in the coupe. Our interlocutor, an army surgeon, making a holiday trip
with his wife, was obliged to relinquish the third good place to
madame, placing himself beside the driver on the banquette. The little
disappointment over, we became the best of friends, a highly desirable
contingency in such terribly close quarters.
Once securely packed, we stood no more chance of being unpacked than
potted anchovies on their way from Nantes to Southampton. There we
were, and there perforce we must remain till we reached our
destination. To move a finger, to stir an inch, was out of the
question. Nothing short of physical torture for the space of six hours
seemed in store for us--for the three occupants of that narrow coupe,
like fashionable ladies of old,
'Close mewed in their sedans for fear of air.'
We could at least enjoy the selfish satisfaction of faring better than
our neighbours. The unlucky occupants inside were as short of elbow-
room as ourselves, and had not the enjoyment of the view; the
passengers of the banquette were literally perched on a knife-board,
whilst one old man, a cheery old fellow, supernumerary of the service,
hung mid-air on one side of the vehicle, literally sitting on nothing.
Like the Indian jugglers and the Light Princess of George Macdonald's
wonderful fairy-tale, he had found means to set at nought the law of
There he hung, and as the sturdy horses set off at a fast trot, and we
were whirled round one sharp corner after another, I at first expected
to see him lose balance and fall with terrible risk to life and limb.
But we soon discovered that he had mastered the accomplishment of
sitting on air, and was as safe on his invisible seat as we on our hard
benches; old as he was, he seemed to glory in the exploit--exploit, it
must be allowed, of the first water.
Once fairly off, our own bodily discomforts were entirely forgotten, so
splendid the sunshine, so exhilarating the air, so romantic the
scenery. The forty miles' drive passed like a dream.
Our companion, like her husband, was full of health, spirits and
information. She could see nothing of the military surgeon but a pair
of neat, well-polished boots, as he sat aloft beside the driver; every
now and then she craned forward her neck with wifely solicitude and
interrogated the boots:
'Well, love, how do you get on?'
And the boots would make affectionate reply:
'As well as possible, my angel--and you?'
'We couldn't be better off,' answered the enthusiastic little lady
cheerily. Nor in one sense could we; earth could hardly show fairer or
more striking scenes than these highlands of the Lozere.
The first part of our way lay amid wild mountain passes, deep ravines,
dusky with pine and fir, lofty granite peaks shining like blocks of
diamond against an amethyst heaven. Alternating with such scenes of
savage magnificence are idyllic pictures, verdant dells and glades,
rivers bordered by alder-trees wending even course through emerald
pastures, or making cascade after cascade over a rocky bed. On little
lawny spaces about the sharp spurs of the Alps, we see cattle browsing,
high above, as if in cloudland. Excepting an occasional cantonnier at
work by the roadside, or a peasant woman minding her cows, the region
is utterly deserted. Tiny hamlets lie half hidden in the folds of the
hills or skirting the edges of the lower mountain slopes; none border
During the long winter these fine roads, winding between steep
precipices and abrupt rocks, are abandoned on account of the snow. The
diligence ceases to run, and letters and newspapers are distributed
occasionally by experienced horsemen familiar with the country and able
to trust to short cuts.
What the icy blasts of January are like on these stupendous heights we
can well conceive. At one point of our journey we reach an altitude
above the sea equal to that of the Puy de Dome. This is the lofty
plateau of granitic formation called Le Palais du Roi, a portion of the
Margeride chain, and as the old writer before mentioned writes, 'la
partie la plus neigeuse de la route'--the snowiest bit of the road. On
this superb September day, although winter might be at hand, the
temperature was of an English July. As we travelled on, amid scenes of
truly Alpine grandeur and loveliness, the thought arose to my mind, how
little even the much-travelled English dream of the wealth of scenery
in France! Our cumbersome old diligence carried only French passengers.
Nowhere else in Europe does the English tourist find himself more
isolated from the common-place of travel.
Many of the landscapes now passed recall scenes in Algeria, especially
as we get within sight of the purple, porphyritic chain of the Lozere.
We gaze on undulations of delicate violet and gray, as in Kabylia,
whilst deep down below lie oases of valley and pasture, the dazzling
golden green contrasting, with the aerial hues of distant mountain and
Nothing under heaven could be more beautiful than the shifting lights
and shadows on the remoter hills, or the crimson and rosy flush of
sunset on the nearer rocks; at our feet we see well-watered dales and
luxuriant meadows, whilst on the higher ground, here as in the valley
of the Allier, we have proofs of the astounding, the unimaginable
patience and laboriousness of peasant owners.
In many places rings of land have been cleared round huge blocks of
granite, the smaller stones, wrenched up, forming a fence or border,
whilst between the immovable, columnar masses of rock, potatoes, rye,
or other hardy crops, have been planted. Not an inch of available soil
is wasted. These scenes of mingled sternness and grace are not marred
by any eyesore: no hideous chimney of factory with its column of black
smoke, as in the delicious valleys of the Jura; no roar of millwheel or
of steam-engine breaks the silence of forest depths. The very genius of
solitude, the very spirit of beauty, broods over the woods and
mountains of the Lozere. The atmospheric effects are very varied and
lovely, owing to the purity of the air. As evening approaches, the vast
porphyry range before us is a cloud of purple and ruddy gold against
the sky. And what a sky! That warm, ambered glow recalls Sorrento. By
the time we wind down into the valley of the Lot night has overtaken
us. We dash into the little city too hungry and too tired, it must be
confessed, to think of anything else but of beds and dinner; both of
which, and of excellent quality, awaited us at the old-fashioned Hotel
Mende was the last but one of French bishoprics and chef-lieux to be
connected with the great highroads of railway.
That tardy piece of justice only remained due to St. Claude in the Jura
when, owing to the Republic, Mende obtained its first iron road. Much
time and fatigue will henceforth be spared the traveller by these new
lines of railway, now spreading like a network over every part of
France; yet who can but regret the supersession of the diligence--that
antiquated vehicle recalling the good old days of travel, when folks
journeyed at a jog-trot pace, seeing not only places, but people, and
being brought into contact with wholly new ideas and modes of life?
The benefits of the railway in the Lozere and the Jura are incalculable
from an economic point of view, to say nothing of the convenience and
comfort thereby placed within reach of all classes. It is an English
habit to rail at the lavish expenditure of the French Government.
Cavillers of this kind wholly lose sight of the tremendous strides made
during the last fifteen years in the matter of communication. Surely
money thus laid out is a justifiable expenditure on the part of any
I lately revisited the Vendee after twelve years' absence. I found the
country absolutely transformed--new lines of railway intersecting every
part, increased commercial activity in the towns, improved agriculture
in rural districts, schools opened, buildings of public utility erected
on all sides-evidences of an almost incredible progress. In Anjou the
same rapid advance, social, intellectual, material, strikes the
traveller whose first acquaintance with that province was made, say,
fifteen years ago. Take Segre by way of example; compare its condition
in 1888 with the state of things before the Franco-Prussian War. And
this little town is one instance out of hundreds.
It was high time that something should be done for Mende. No town ever
suffered more from wolves and wolf-like enemies in human shape. Down
almost to our own day the depredations of wolves were frightful. The
old French traveller before cited, writing in 1816, speaks of the large
number of children annually devoured by these animals in the Lozere.
The notorious 'Bete du Gevaudan,' at an earlier period, was the terror
of the country. It is an exciting narrative, that of the gigantic four-
footed demon of mischief, how, after proving the scourge of the country
for years, desolating home after home, in all devouring no less than a
hundred old men, women, and children, he was at last caught in 1767 by
a brave monster-destroying baron, the Hercules and the Perseus of local
story. The ravages of wild beasts were a trifle compared to the
enormities committed by human foes.
It is not my intention to do more than touch upon the religious wars of
the Cevennes. Those blood-stained chronicles have been given again and
again elsewhere. No one, however, can make a sojourn at Mende without
recalling the atrocities perpetrated in the name of religion, and
compared to which the excesses of the Jacquerie and the Terror sink
into insignificance. If any of my readers doubt this, let them turn to
the impartial pages of the eminent French historian, the late M. Henri
Martin; or, to take a shorter road to conviction, get up the history of
the Gevaudan, or of this same little town of Mende.
On a smaller scale, the horrors of the siege of Magdeburgh were here
repeated, the Tilly of the campaign being the Calvinist leader Merle.
Devastated in turn by Catholic and Protestant, Royalist and Huguenot,
Mende was taken by assault on Christmas Day, 1579, and during three
days given up to fire, pillage, and slaughter. A general massacre took
place; the cathedral was fired and partially destroyed, the bells,
thirteen in number--one of these called the 'Nonpareil,' and reputed
the most sonorous in Christendom--being melted down for cannon. All
that fiendish cruelty and the demon of destruction could do was done.
In vain Henry of Navarre tried to put down atrocities committed in his
name. A second time Merle possessed himself of Mende, only consenting
to go forth on payment of a large sum in gold.
The history of Mende is the history of Marvejols, of one town after
another visited by the traveller in the Cevennes; and in the wake of
the burnings, pillagings and massacres of that horrible period follows
the more horrible period still of the guerilla warfare of the
Camisards, quelled by means of the rack, the stake, and the wheel.
The Revolution, be it ever remembered, abolished all these; torture
ended with the Ancien Regime; and, although M. Taine seems of opinion
that the new state of things could have been brought about by a few
gentlemen quietly discussing affairs in dress-coats and white gloves,
we read of no great social upheaval being thus bloodlessly effected. At
such times a spirit of lawlessness and vengeance will break loose
beyond the power of leaders to hold in check.
The approach to Mende is very fine, and the little city is most
romantically placed; above gray spires, slated roofs and verdant
valley, framing it in on all sides, rise bare, brown and purple
The cathedral presents an incongruity. Its twin-towers, each crowned
with a spire, recall two roses on a single stem, the one full-blown,
beautiful, a floral paragon, the other withered, dwarfed, abortive.
The first towers over its brother by a third, and is a lovely specimen
of Gothic architecture in the period of later efflorescence. The second
is altogether unbeautiful, and we wonder why such a work should ever
have been undertaken at all. Far better to have left the cathedral one-
towered, as those of Sens and Auxerre.
The town itself would be pleasant enough if its aediles were more alive
to the importance of sanitation. It never seems to occur to the
authorities in these regions to have the streets scoured and swept.
Just outside Mende is a delicious little mountain-path, commanding a
wondrous panorama: although this walk to the hermitage of St. Privat is
evidently the holiday-stroll of the inhabitants, accumulations of filth
lie on either side. [Footnote: The same remark might be made by a
Frenchman of the lanes near Hastings!] No one takes any notice. As
Mende has without doubt an important future before it, let us hope that
these drawbacks will not afflict travellers in years to come. The
little capital of the Lozere must by virtue of position become a
tourist centre; surely the townsfolk will at last wake up to the
importance of making their streets clean and wholesome.
To obtain the prettiest view of this charming, albeit tatterdemalion,
little city, we follow a walk bordered with venerable willows to the
railway station. Here is seen a belt of beautifully kept vegetable
gardens and orchards, all fresh and green as if just washed by April
showers. These are the property of peasant-owners, who dispose of their
crops here and at Langogne. As yet the good townsfolk are hardly alive
to the benefits of a railway. One of our drivers complained that it
ruined the trades alike of carriage proprietor, conductor, and carter;
another averred that the local manufacture of woollen goods, formerly
of considerable account, was at a standstill owing to the importations
of cheaper cloths. These grumblers will doubtless erelong take a
different tone, as the glorious scenery of the Lozere becomes more
widely known and Mende is made the tourists' headquarters. Our hotel,
situated in the middle of the town, offers good beds, good food, dirty
floors, charges low enough to please Mr. Joseph Pennell, and a total
absence of anything in the shape of modern ideas. The people are
charming, and the house is a mousy, ratty, ramshackle place hundreds of
It may be as well to mention that folk assured me I was the first
English-speaking lady ever seen at Mende. A short time before no little
excitement had been created by the appearance of six young Englishmen
in knickerbockers, footing it with knapsack on shoulder. But lady-
tourists from the other side of La Manche? Never! Be this as it may, it
is as well for my country-women, if any follow me hither, to avoid
insular eccentricities of dress. The best plan, before exploring wholly
remote regions of France, is to buy the neatest possible head-gear and
travelling-costume in Paris. Without meaning to be impertinent,
bystanders will stand agape at the sight of any strangers, English or
French. Even my young French companion was stared at, just because she
was not a native of the place. Very obligingly, she offered to fetch my
letters from the poste restante, and look out for photographs. As she
had spent some time in England and acquired certain habits of
independence, I accepted. But not twice!
The poor girl found so many eyes following her, that she took refuge in
the cathedral. As there chanced to be an abbe in the confessional
handy, she very sensibly seized the opportunity by the forelock, and
performed the duty of confession. But I did not permit her to roam
about alone after that.
Meantime, the medecin militaire and his wife had set out for the
Causses and the Canon du Tarn, and their enthusiasm but served to
heighten my own. That shooting of the rapids, too, I now heard of for
the first time, lent a spice of exhilarating hazard and adventure to
the excursion. They were going to shoot the rapids of the Tarn. Why
should I not follow their example?
Sorely tempted as I was to carry out the same programme, once more I
hesitated. I could obtain very little precise information as to the
real difficulties, if any, that beset the way, but everyone agreed that
it was not at all a commonplace journey--in other words, not a very
easy one. The long drive across the solitary Causse to St. Eminie or
Florac, the four relays of boatmen necessary for the descent of the
Tarn, the doubtfulness of the accommodation at the different halting-
places--all these details had to be considered. Touring it through the
Causses seemed, indeed, beset with difficulties. You have not only to
take food with you for horse and man, but water also--ay, and make sure
that your driver, besides being trustworthiness and sobriety itself,
carries a revolver in his pocket. The Caussenards, or dwellers on these
steppes, are said to be harmless enough, but suspicious-looking tramps
from a distance, who always go in pairs, may sometimes be met. Wayside
inns there are none, and as relays are therefore unattainable, the
traveller must quit civilization as soon as dawn breaks, and contrive
to reach it before overtaken by nightfall. Lastly, during the brief
summer, the heat is torrid, and if you start on your travels towards
its close, say the middle or end of September, today's scorching sun
may be followed by tomorrow's snowstorm. And to be caught in a
snowstorm on the Causses would be an Alpine adventure with no chance of
a rescuing St. Bernard.
Had I been alone I might have ventured, but, as before-mentioned, my
companion was a young French lady confided to my care by her parents.
On the whole, therefore, and with keenest regret, I felt it more
prudent to defer the undertaking, for undertaking it undoubtedly was,
till another year. Next summer, I said to myself, as soon as the snows
were melted, I would again climb the Roof of France. And delightful as
was the society of a bright, amiable, ready-witted girl, I would
instead find a travelling companion of maturer years, and responsible
for her own safety.
There was one compensation within reach. If we could not enter the land
of Canaan, we could at least behold it from Mount Pisgah. So I engaged
a carriage with sturdy horses and a trustworthy driver, and we set off
for the plateau rising over against Mende in a south-easterly
direction, the veritable threshold of the Causses.
A GLIMPSE OF THE CAUSSES.
The drive from Mende to the plateau of Sauveterre is a curious
experience. Here the Virgilian and Dantesque schemes are reversed:
Pluto's dread domain, the horrible Inferno, lies above; deep down below
are the Fields of the Blest and the celestial Paradise.
Dazzlingly bright the verdure, fertile and sunny the valleys we now
leave behind--arid and desolate beyond the power of words to express
the tableland reached so laboriously.
Between these two extremes, Elysium and Tartarus, we pass shifting,
panoramic scenes of wondrous beauty, stage upon stage of pastoral
charm, picture after picture of idyllic sweetness and grace. Long we
can glance behind us and see the little gray town, its spires outlined
in steely gray against the embracing hills, its gardens and orchards
bright as emerald--towering above all, the bare, purple, wide-
The weather is superlative, and the clear, gemlike lines of sky and
foliage are as brilliantly contrasted as in an Algerian spring.
All this time we seemed to be climbing a mountain; we are, in reality,
ascending the steep, wooded sides or walls of the Causse de Mende,
prototype on a smaller scale of the rest--a vast mass of limestone, its
summit a wilderness, its shelving sides a marvel of luxuriant
Every step has to be made at a snail's pace, the precipitous slopes
close under our horses' hoofs being frightful to contemplate. This
drive is an excellent preparation for an exploration of the Lozere. We
are always, metaphorically, going up or coming down in a balloon.
After two hours' climb, the features of the landscape change. One by
one are left behind meandering river, chestnut and acacia groves,
meadows fragrant with newly-mown hay, grazing cattle, and cheerful
We now behold a scene grandiose indeed as a panorama, but unspeakably
wild and dreary.
Here and there are patches of potatoes, buckwheat and rye, the yellow
and green breaking the gray surface of the rocky waste; not a
habitation, not a living creature, is in sight. Before us and around
stretch desert upon desert of bare limestone, the nearer undulations
cold and slaty in tone, the remoter taking the loveliest, warmest dyes
--gold brown, deep orange, just tinted with crimson, reddish purple and
pale rose. We are on the threshold of the true Caussien region.
Sterility of soil, a Siberian climate, geographical isolation, here
reach their climax, whilst at the base of these lofty calcareous
tablelands lie sequestered valleys fertile fields and flowery gardens,
oases of the Lozerien Sahara.
Above, not a rill, not a beck, refreshes the spongy, crumbling earth;
we must travel far, penetrate the openings just indicated by the dark-
blue shadows in the distance, and descend the lofty walls of the
Causses to find silvery cascades, impetuous rivers, and fountains
gushing from mossy clefts. The showers of spring, the torrential rains
of autumn, the snows of winter, have filtered to a depth of several
We are not within sight of the grand Causse Mejean, nor of the Black
Causse, or Causse Noir, and only on the threshold of Sauveterre, yet
some idea may be gathered here of what M. E. Reclus calls a 'Jurassic
archipelago,' once a vast Jurassic island. Imagine, then, a group of
promontories, their area equal to that of Salisbury Plain, Dartmoor and
Exmoor combined, with the varying altitudes of the loftiest Devonshire
tor and Cumberland hill.
Such a comparison may convey some feeble notion of the three Causses
just named, two of which belong to the Lozere. The Causse Noir is
partly in the Aveyron. Their extraordinary conformation must be seen
and studied by all who would familiarize themselves with this
No solitude can be more complete than these wastes, except when a
leaden sky replaces the warm sunshine of to-day, and a deep,
impenetrable mantle of snow covers the plateau from end to end. Then
the little life that animates it is hushed, and none from the outer
world penetrates the fastnesses of the Causses.
We drive on for a mile or two till we reach the summit of the plateau.
Here, at a height of 2,952 feet above the sea-level, is a ruined
chateau turned into a farmhouse, where we rest our horses a little and
prepare to make tea. The farmer's wife and two children come out to
chat with our driver and look at us, evidently welcoming such a
distraction. And no wonder! I brought out our bonbon box--one must
never take a drive in France unprovided with sweetmeats--and tried to
tame the children; but they clung to mother's skirts, and only
consented to have the bonbons popped into their mouths, with faces
shyly hidden in her apron.
'Would you like a cup of tea?' I asked.
But madame shook her head, giggling, and I do not suppose ever heard of
such an infusion in her life.
Meantime, tea-making on that breezy eminence was no easy matter. The
little flames of my spirit-lamp were blown hither and thither--anywhere
but in the right direction. At last our excellent driver, resourceful
as a true son of Gaul is bound to be, lifted up the tiny machine, all
afire as it was, and thrust it into that convenient box behind the
caleche all travellers know of. The good man burnt his fingers, but had
the satisfaction of making the water boil, and there for the first
time, without doubt, tea was made after the English fashion. No place
could be better adapted for a holiday resort. In summer these sweeps
are one gorgeous mosaic of wild-flowers, and the short stunted grass
shoots up, making verdure everywhere.
As I sipped tea, squatted gipsy-wise on the ground, the thought
occurred to my mind what a delightful, a unique villegiatura this spot
might make. A clean, comfortable inn on the site of the ruined chateau,
a sympathetic companion, a trusty guide, plenty of tea and one book--
the book absolutely necessary to existence--perhaps mine would be
Spinoza's Ethics or Schiller's 'Letters on the AEsthetic Education of
Mankind'--under these conditions, months would glide by like an hour in
such eerie, poetic, inspiring solitudes.
The existence of a chateau on the borders of a veritable desert need
not surprise us. The entire department of the Lozere was devastated by
religious and seigneurial wars, and although the Causses themselves
were not invaded, offering as they did no temptation to the thirsters
after blood and spoil, the feudal freebooters had their strongholds
The treeless condition of the Lozere chain and other once well-wooded
regions was thus brought about. The Government is replanting many bare
mountain-sides here, as in the Hautes Alpes, in order to improve the
soil and climate. The barrenness of the Causses arises, as will be
seen, from natural causes.
Even in autumn--at least, on such a day as this--with these wild scenes
is mingled much fairy charm and loveliness. Just as the distant scenery
is made up of sharp contrasts--on the lofty plateaux, weird solitude
and desolation; below, almost a southern luxuriance--so every square
yard of rocky waste shows fragrant plant and sweet flower. We have only
to stretch out our hands as we lie to gather half a dozen spikes of
lavender, wild thyme, rosemary, Deptford pink, melilot, blue pimpernel,
and white scabious. But the afternoon is wearing on. We must collect
our tea-things, give the children a farewell sweetmeat, cast a last
look round, and depart.
It cost me many a pang to turn my back upon that farmhouse, boundary-
mark between savagery and civilization, romance and the terre-a-terre
of daily existence.
Yonder diverging roads both led to fairy land and worlds of marvel--the
one to Florac, so majestically placed under the colossal shadow of the
Causse Mejean and above the lovely valley of the Jonte; the other
across the steppe of Sauveterre and by the strange dwellings of the
Caussenards to the picturesque little town of St. Eminie, the rapids of
the Tarn, and the dolomite city.
There was, however, the consolatory hope of seeing all the following
year. Who could tell? Perhaps that very day twelve months later I might
delight the children with my bonbon box, and a second time make tea on
their breezy playground. At any rate, I entertained the project, and
'Should life be dull and spirits low,
'Twill soothe us in our sorrow,
That earth has something yet to show,
The bonny holms of Yarrow.'
We are overtaken by two pedestrians only on our way home--ill-looking
fellows enough, strangers in these parts, our driver assured us. 'No
Caussenards, they,' he said. 'The Caussenard is harmless enough, only a
We get magnificent views of Mende and the Valley of the Lot--some
slight recompense for having had to retrace our footsteps--and what was
equally valuable, much useful information.
'Is the land cut up into small parcels here?' I asked.
We were just then on the outskirts of the town, and he pointed with his
whip to a large, well-built farmhouse, with solid, walled-in buildings.
'Most of the land round about Mende is farmed by the monsieur who lives
there,' he replied. 'There he is, true enough, with his wife and
Just then we passed a hooded carriage, in which were seated father,
mother, two little ones, and nursemaid, all taking a holiday jaunt, the
day being Sunday.
'That is the owner of the farm,' he went on: 'several hundred acres--I
can't say how many--but it is stocked with two hundred sheep, ten oxen,
besides cows and pigs. There you have an idea of the size,'
'Are there no small farms here, then?'
'There are all sorts: little farms, big ones, and betwixt and between,'
he replied. 'Everybody has his little bit' (Tout le monde a son petit
lot); 'but the land immediately round the town is farmed by the
neighbour you saw in the caleche.'
'Is he a peasant?' I asked.
'A peasant if you like. He is a cultivator' (Un paysan si vous voulez.
C'est un cultivateur), was the answer.
When a French peasant becomes what in rustic phraseology is called a
substantial man, owning or hiring a considerable extent of land, he
ceases to be called 'paysan,' and is designated 'cultivateur.' The very
word 'peasant,' as I have shown elsewhere, will, in process of time,
become a survival, so steady and sure is the social upheaval of rural
France. The most eminent Frenchmen of the day, witness the late Paul
Bert, are often peasant-born; and hardly a village throughout the
country but sends some promising son of the soil to Paris, destined for
one of the learned professions. I know of a village baker's son near
Dijon now studying for the Bar--one instance out of many. In one of her
clever novelettes, 'Un Gascon,' Madame Th. Bentzon gives us for hero
the village doctor, son of a peasant. The portrait of this young man,
devoted to duty, high-minded, self-sacrificing, is no mere ideal, as
experience proves. But if readers, compelled to make the acquaintance
of French peasants on paper, will accept Zola and certain English
writers as a guide to his moral and material condition, they will be
landed on some conclusions strangely at variance with experience.
[Footnote: I may add that I have received appreciative testimony from
various French journals--_L'Economiste_, and others--also from no
less an authority than M. Henri Baudrillart, of the Institut, of my
studies of the French peasant, notably the contribution to the
_Fortnightly Review_, August, 1887, in which I have summed up the
experiences of twelve years' French residence and travel.]
ON THE TOP OF THE ROOF.
The temperature of the Lozere is excessively variable. The traveller
must always be provided with winter wraps and the lightest summer
clothing. We had enjoyed almost tropic sunshine on the plateau of
Sauveterre. Next day (September 19th), when half-way to St. Flour, the
very blasts of Siberia seemed to overtake us. The weather was splendid
at starting, and for some hours we had a brisk air only, and unclouded
skies; but there were signs of a change, and I began to doubt whether I
should accomplish even my second programme. Having relinquished the
Causses, the rapids of the Tarn, and Montpellier-le-Vieux for this
year, I had hired a carriage, intending to drive straight across the
Lozere, sleeping at St. Chely, to St. Flour, chef-lieu of the Cantal,
thence making excursions to the two departments. I wanted especially to
see Condat-es-Feniers and La Chaldette, the two sweet spots already
alluded to. The hire of the carriage with two good horses was eighty
francs--forty for the two days' drive thither, and forty for the
It is a striking journey from Mende to St. Amans-la-Lozere, half-way
halting-place between Mende and St. Chely. The region traversed is very
solitary, the Causse itself hardly more so, and now, as yesterday, we
follow a road wonderfully cut round the mountain-sides. Here also we
find certain English notions concerning peasant property entirely
disproved. So far is French territory from being cut into minute
portions of land, that on this side of Mende farms are let, not by the
hectare, but by the tract, many tenant farmers being unable to tell you
of how many hectares their occupation consists. The extent of land is
reckoned not by acreage, but by the heads of cattle it will keep.
Much of the soil between Mende and St. Amans-la-Lozere is very stony
and unproductive; we heard even of a farm of several hundred acres let
at a rental of fifty pounds a year. And here, as in the valley of the
Allier, and on the road from Langogne to Mende, it is wonderful to see
the uncompromising devotion of the French peasant to Mother Earth--
neither stones, brushwood, nor morass daunting his energy. These tenant
farmers are almost invariably small freeholders also, but to read
certain English writers one might suppose that no such thing as a
tenant farm, much less one of a thousand acres, existed in France at
all, the entire superficies of the country, according to their account,
being cut up into minute patches, each by a process of subdivision,
growing smaller by degrees and beautifully less; in fact, the French
peasant owner of the future, according to these theorists, will possess
about as much of his native soil as can be got into a flower-pot, the
contents of the said flower-pot being mortgaged for a hundred times its
By the time we have driven for an hour and a half we obtain a most
beautiful view, looking back upon Mende, the gray and purple hills set
in a glowing semicircle round it, showing loveliest light and shadow.
The verdure of the valley is fresh as in May, and sweet scents of newly
mown hay, the autumn crop, reach us as we go. We look down on smooth,
lawn-like meadows, little rivers winding between alder-trees, tan-
coloured cows and orange-brown sheep browsing at their ease. The
contours of the pine and fir clad hills are bold and varied, whilst
deep gorges and ravines alternate with the more smiling aspects. Fruit-
trees and flowers are wholly absent from the sparsely scattered
villages, and there is little in the way of farming going on, only the
second hay-crops being turned, and the land ploughed for autumn sowing.
Buckwheat, rye, oats and hay form the chief crops. The road is set on
either side by young trees, service berry and mountain ash, or granite
pillars almost the height of a man. These columns, recalling Druidic
stones, are completely hidden by snow in winter.
Fortunately, in another year or two the Lozere will be traversed by
railway, and its comparative isolation during several months of the
year cease for once and for all.
Meantime we were anxiously looking out for St. Amans and our promised
breakfast, and here let me note a failing of the French rustic. His
notions of time and distance are often not in the very least to be
relied on. Thus, a countryman will tell you such and such a place lies
at a distance of 'une petite lieue,' and you will find you have to walk
or drive six miles instead of three. Again, a village conductor will
assure you that you will arrive at your destination 'dans une petite
demi-heure,' and you find on arriving that an hour and a half have
elapsed since putting the question. We were terribly tried by this
habit now. Our old driver--not the master, who had accompanied us to
the plateau, but his employe--seemed to have no more idea of the real
distance of St. Amans than of Spitzbergen. Again and again my young
companion put her head out of the window and cried: 'Well, driver, how
many kilometres _now_ to St. Amans?'
And the reply would be:
'Three more' or 'Two more--just two, mademoiselle.'
Whereas mademoiselle laughingly counted half a dozen by the milestones
between each inquiry. We had fondly looked forward to a fair inn and a
good meal at noon--it was nearly two o'clock when our driver
triumphantly deposited us before the dirtiest, most repulsive-looking
hostelry it was ever my fate to enter.
In the kitchen, with walls blackened by smoke, hens and chickens
disported at will; the uneven, floor was innocent of broom or
scrubbing-brush as the road; in the salle-a-manger, gendarmes,
soldiers, carters, and gamekeepers were smoking, drinking and
discussing at the tops of their voices.
The old man whispered a word in the ear of the patrone--a veritable hag
to look at--and she immediately begged us to walk upstairs.
'You will find no elegance, but comfort here' ('Vous ne trouvez pas le
luxe, mais le confortable ici),' she said.
Then, with evident pride, she threw open the door of what was evidently
the public bedchamber of the inn.
Let not the reader take alarm. In these out-of-the-way places such
accommodation is often all that is offered the traveller, namely, a
spacious room, set round with four posters, each well curtained, so as
to form a tiny room in itself. As women never, or very rarely, travel
in such regions, the chief patrons being commis-voyageurs and soldiers,
the inconvenience is not great. The bedding looked good and clean, and
the room was airy.
We opened the window. Madame complacently spread a snowy cloth, then,
with the airy aplomb of a head waiter of some famous restaurant, say,
the Chapeau Rouge at Bordeaux, asked:
'And what would these ladies like for breakfast?'
There seemed cruel, double-edged irony in the question. What could we
expect in such a place but just something to stay the cravings of
hunger: that something rendered uneatable by the terribly dirty--no,
let me say, smoke-dried--look of the speaker, who seemed to be cook and
waitress in one?
'Suppose we have an omelette?' suggested my young friend.
An omelette cooked by those hands! The very notion took away my
appetite; however, there were new-laid eggs, and no matter the unwashed
condition of the cook, the inside of a boiled egg may always be eaten
with impunity. We could have anything we chose by waiting a little, our
hostess said--mutton cutlets, roast chicken, partridges, fish,
vegetables; the resources of that rustic larder seemed inexhaustible.
Then she had choice wine, Burgundy and Bordeaux, besides liqueurs, in
We had no time or inclination for a feast, but made an excellent meal--
what with the eggs and a tiny leg of cold-boiled mutton, I do honestly
believe the very best I ever tasted in my life.
The mountain-fed mutton of these regions is renowned, and the country
folk boil it with just a slice of garlic by way of a flavour.
This dingy little wayside hostelry could really offer a first-rate
ordinary, and, on principles not to be controverted, guests here pay,
not according to what they order, but the quantity they eat. Would that
all restaurant-keepers were equally conscientious!
When we went downstairs and asked for the reckoning, the old woman, who
was all obligingness and good-nature, charming, indeed, but for her
neglected personal appearance, replied:
'I must first see how much you have eaten, of course.'
And true enough we were charged so much per item. Here let me give the
traveller a hint: never venture in out of-the-way parts of France
without a well-filled muffineer and pepper-box; but for our dry clean
pepper and salt brought from England, even the eggs would have been
swallowed with a painful effort.
In the large kitchen I took note of extensive preparations going on for
dinner, huge caldrons bubbling above the wood fire; heaps of
vegetables, leeks, onions, garlic predominating, prepared for the pot,
with ample provision in the shape of flesh and fowl.
At St. Amans the sun shone warm and bright, and the blue sky was of
extraordinary depth and softness. I was reminded of Italy. As we
sauntered about the long straggling village, a scene of indescribable
contentment and repose met our eyes. We are in one of the poorest
departments of France, but no signs of want or vagrancy are seen. The
villagers, all neatly and suitably dressed, were getting in their hay
or minding their flocks and herds, with that look of cheerful
independence imparted by the responsibilities of property. Many greeted
us in the friendliest manner, but as we could not understand their
patois, a chat was impossible. They laughed, nodded, and passed on.
No sooner were we fairly on our way to St. Chely than the weather
changed. The heavens clouded over, and the air blew keenly. We got out
our wraps one by one, wanting more. If the scenery is less wildly
beautiful here than between Mende and St. Amans, it is none the less
charming, were we only warm enough to enjoy it. The pastoralness of
many a landscape is Alpine, with brilliant stretches of turf, scattered
chalets, groups of haymakers, herds and flocks browsing about the
rocks. Enormous blocks of granite are seen everywhere superimposed
after the manner of dolmens, and everywhere the peasant's spade and hoe
is gradually redeeming the waste. It is nightfall when we reach St.
Chely d'Apcher, reputed the coldest spot in France, and certainly well
worthy of its reputation.
It stands on an elevation of 980 metres--_i.e._, over 3,000 feet
above the sea-level. If the Lozere is aptly termed the Roof of France,
then St. Chely may be regarded as its Chimney top. Summer here lasts
only two months. No wonder that the searching wind seemed as if it
would blow not merely the clothes off our shoulders, but the flesh off
our bones. Yet the people of the inn smiled and said: 'Wait here
another month, and you will find out what WE call cold.'
The little Hotel Bardol wore a look of cheerfulness and welcome,
nevertheless. There were white and pink oleanders before the door,
geraniums in the window, testifying to the fact that winter this year,
at all events, had not yet begun. Men and maids bustled about intent on
our comfort. Soon the big logs crackled on the hearth; with curtains
drawn, tea and a good fire, the discomforts of the last hour or two
were soon forgotten. Needless, perhaps, to say that we found in this
small old-fashioned inn beds of first-rate quality, a good dinner, and
really fine old Bordeaux.
St. Chely will necessarily become a junction town of considerable
importance when the new line of railway, by way of St. Flour, is
completed to Neussargues. As the proprietor of the Hotel Bardol seems
fully alive to the requirements of tourists and the progress of ideas,
future visitors will doubtless find many improvements--well-appointed
rooms, bells, and other comforts. I hope myself to pay this obliging
host another visit ere long.
The rain poured down all night, and next morning it was evident that
the projected journey by road to St. Flour must be given up. A long
day's drive across country in the teeth of biting wind and downpour was
not to be thought of, though both my young friend and myself had set
our minds upon seeing the wonderful Pont de Garabit, a tour de force of
engineering, worthy to be set beside the Eiffel Tower, and an
achievement of the same genius. But we were now within reach of the
railway. At the cost of a great disappointment and a forfeiture of
sixty francs, I determined to send the carriage back to Mende, and
reach the Cantal by way of Rodez, in the Aveyron. The Pont de Garabit,
like the Causses, all well, should be seen another year.
Never shall I forget the amazement of my host.
'To make a round-about journey like that by rail, when you have your
own carriage and horses!' he cried. 'Are you mad? Are you a
millionaire,' his face said, 'to pay eighty francs for one day's drive?
And the weather--the rain? you have glass windows; you can shut
yourselves in; you won't take any harm.'
Say what I would, I could not convince him that it was wiser to forfeit
sixty francs than drive across the Lozere in a storm of wind and rain,
with the thermometer rapidly falling to freezing-point.
RODEZ AND AURILLAC.
To travel from St. Chely d'Apcher to Rodez is like descending a snow-
capped Alpine peak for the flowery, sunbright valley below. Instead of
the stern grandeur of the Lozere, frowning peaks, sombre pine-forests,
vast stony deserts and wintry blasts, we glide swiftly into a balmy
region of golden vineyards, rich chestnut woods, softly murmuring
streams, and the temperature of July. The transformation is magical. It
is like closing a volume of Ossian and opening the pages of Theocritus.
We had spent our morning indoors at St. Chely, cloaked and shawled over
a blazing wood fire, quitting at one o'clock p.m. ice-cold rain, biting
winds, and a gloomy sky. By sundown we had reached the chef-lieu of the
Aveyron; we were in the South indeed! The scenery during the latter
part of the way is beautiful and exhilarating, every feature showing
the ripest, most brilliant tints--hills clothed with the yellowing
chestnut, soil of deep purplish red, the bright gold foliage of the
vine, and between spring-like greenery and azure sky, close to the
railway, the crystal-clear Aveyron.
And here all is new and fresh; no familiar tourist element enters into
the day's experience. As our train stops at one picturesque village
after another, we see young soldiers, reservistes, alight, returning
home after the twenty-eight days' service, nuns, cures, village folks,
family groups, not an English traveller but myself.
Rodez is superbly situated on a lofty, sunny plateau, surrounded by
hills and far mountain chains; but between these and the city, which is
almost encircled by the Aveyron, lies a broad belt of fertile country,
the soil of a deep claret colour.
Just as Venice should be approached by sea at dawn, so all travellers
should reach Rodez at sunset.
Never shall I forget the first enchanting view of its glorious
cathedral that September afternoon, the three-storied tower of
Flamboyant Gothic dominating the vast landscape, the rich red stone
flushed to a warmer dye, the noble masonry of the whole glowing with
the lustre and solidity of copper against the clear heavens.
This lofty, triple-terraced tower is called the marvel of Southern
France, and no wonder. The cathedral of Antwerp itself is not more
captivatingly lightsome and lovely. High above the ancient city, with
its encompassing river and wide-stretched plain, confronting the far-
off mountains, almost on a level with their summits, visible from afar
as a lighthouse in mid-ocean, rises this belfry of Rodez.
Certain places, as well as certain individualities, exercise
extraordinary fascination. The old capital of Rouergne, and later of
the Comte of Rodez, is one. Many and many a French city I have visited
of far greater architectural and historic importance; Poitiers among
these--Troyes is another; yet I should never go out of my way to
revisit Poitiers or Troyes, whilst certain other towns in France I
visit regularly once a year. They are like old friends, and every visit
makes them more precious. I determined to revisit Rodez during the
following summer. The cathedral is rich within and without. Its rood-
loft, carved stalls, altar screen, and monuments require a chapter to
themselves. Let us hope that some future traveller, more learned than
myself in such matters, will give us their history in detail. The town,
too, possesses some fine remains of Renaissance architecture, and the
views from the ancient ramparts are magnificent.
But the memory I carry away is of that lovely three-storied tower, the
whole carved delicately as lace-work; the colour, deep terra-cotta;
above it a warm southern sky.
Such a sight is worth a long journey, and the discomforts of a dingy
hotel, dirty floors, foul-smelling passages, broken chairs, scant
toilet appliances, as usual, in part compensated by excellent beds,
good food, good wine, and very moderate charges. The oddest part of
these experiences is that the dirtier the inn the better the fare.
Wherever we found a little smartness and tidiness, there we were sure
to find also a decided falling-off in the cuisine.
Perhaps herein is to be found the true philosophical cause of our own
poor cookery. English cooks and housewives are ready to go mad on the
subject of scouring pots and pans, but pay scant heed to what goes
into, much less what comes out of them. In France the quality of the
dinner is the first question of national importance, after the recovery
The railway takes us direct to Aurillac, chef-lieu of the Cantal, and
ancient capital of Haute Auvergne. At first the scenery resembles that
passed through the day before, close under the embankment, the river
flowing clear and bright between green slopes, hanging chestnut-woods,
and sweeps of vineyards. The earth everywhere seems soaked with claret;
and this wine-red colour of the soil, contracted with the golden-leafed
vine, makes a landscape of wonderful brilliance.
The aspect of the country changes as we quit the bright valley of the
Aveyron, and enter the department of the Cantal at Capdenac, where we
join the main line from Clermont-Ferrand to Toulouse. We just touch the
department of the Lot at Figeac, a quaint town, birthplace of the great
Orientalist Champollion, then enter the valley of the Cere, and are
soon at Aurillac.
A bit of dull prose after a glorious poem! Whilst it is difficult to
tear one's self away from Rodez, despite its ill-kept hotel, there is
nothing whatever to detain the ordinary tourist at Aurillac beyond an
hour or two. It is prettily situated in a fair open country, watered by
the river Jordanne, and is an excellent centre for the study of rural
I had come hither provided with a letter introductory to the State-paid
professor of agriculture, and here let me explain matters a little. The
French State, stanch to the maxim of the great Sully, 'Le labourage et
le paturage sont les deux mamelles de France,' is making tremendous
efforts on behalf of agricultural progress throughout the country. A
few years since, professorships of agriculture were appointed by the
Government in the various departments. The duties of these professors
is two-fold: they hold classes on the theory and practice of
agriculture in the Ecole Normale, or training-school for male teachers,
in winter, and in summer give free lectures, out of doors, in the
various towns and villages. Recruited from the great agricultural
schools of Grand Jouan, near Nantes, Grignan in the Seine, and Oise and
Montpellier, these lecturers have had the benefit of a thoroughly
practical training, and by little and little will doubtless effect
quite a revolution in out-of-the-way places.
Among the least progressive regions, agriculturally speaking, must be
pronounced the Cantal. As yet the use of machinery and artificial
manure is almost unknown. The professor gets the peasants together on a
Sunday afternoon and discourses to them in an easy, colloquial way on
the advantages of scientific methods. The conference over, he shows
specimens of superphosphates, top-dressings, new seeds, roots, etc.,
and here and there succeeds in inducing the more adventurous than the
rest to try an experiment.
The agricultural shows have much effect in stimulating progress. The
country folks delight to obtain prizes for their cattle, cheese and
other products. They are, as a rule, averse to innovation, especially
when it involves expenditure. The departmental professor will have to
bring proof positive to bear out his theories ere he can induce his
listeners to spend their savings--in French phrase, 'argent mignon'--
upon unknown good, instead of investing in Government three per cents.
Other interesting facts I learned here, all confirmatory of my former
accounts of the French peasant. These Cantal farmers, many of them
hiring land on lease, others small owners, are well-to-do; L1,200 is
not infrequently given as a dowry to the daughter of a small
proprietor; I was told of one, possessor of a few hectares only, who
had just before invested in the funds L80, one year's savings.
Avarice, I admit, is not infrequently the besetting sin of the French
peasant in these parts, but other characteristics of the Auvergnat,
such as roughness of manner, suspiciousness of strangers, a habit of
extortion, did not come under my notice during this stay in the Cantal.
One of my pleasantest experiences, indeed, of French rural life, is
that of an afternoon visit paid to a farmer in the neighbourhood of
Aurillac. No well-bred gentleman, no lady accustomed to society, could
have received an entire stranger with more urbanity, kindliness and
grace, than did this peasant of the Cantal and his wife. A charming
drive of an hour through well-wooded and neatly cultivated country
brought us to the farmstead called Le Croizet, a group of buildings
lying a hundred yards or so from the roadside.
In front of the well-built, roomy dwelling-house was a fruit and
vegetable garden, with a border of flowers and ornamental shrubs. The
place was not perhaps so neatly kept as English farm premises, but the
general look betokened comfort and well-being.
The farmer and his wife were absent, and their daughter-in-law received
us somewhat awkwardly. She seemed puzzled by the fact of English ladies
wanting to see a farm, but after a little her shyness vanished. Her
husband, she told us, was just then minding his own farm; he was a
small proprietor, possessing a bit of land and a cow or two. Two cows,
she informed us, as we chatted on, would suffice for the maintenance of
a family of five persons. Such reckoning, of course, only holds good of
thrifty, homely France. The magic of property not only turns sands to
gold: it teaches the great lesson of looking forward, of confronting
the morrow--realizing 'the unseen time.'
Soon the housewife came up, all cheeriness and hospitality. She made us
sit down in the large, airy, well-furnished kitchen--hitherto we had
chatted outside--and my curiosity being explained by the fact that I
was an English author, travelling for information, she readily answered
any questions I put to her.
'My husband will be here in a minute. He can tell you much more about
farming than I can,' she said.
She was a pleasant-looking, well-mannered, intelligent woman--a peasant
born and bred. Meantime I glanced round the kitchen.
The floor certainly was of uncarpeted stone and uneven, but the place
was clean and tidy, and everything in order. Against the wall were rows
of well-scoured cooking vessels; also shelves of china--evidently
reserved for high days and holidays--and a few pictures for further
True, the curtained bedstead of master and mistress stood in one
corner, but leading out of the kitchen was a second room for the son
and son's wife; whilst the hired women-servants occupied in the dairy
It may here be mentioned that the habit of sleeping in the kitchen
arises from the excessive cold. I found on lately revisiting Anjou, and
in the Berri, that the better-off peasants are building houses with
'It is tidier' (C'est plus propre), said a Berrichon to me. This
custom, therefore, of turning the kitchen into a bedchamber may be
considered as on the wane.
Our hostess now brought out one local dainty after another--galettes,
or flat cakes of rye and oaten flour, peculiar in flavour, and said to
be extremely nutritious; cream, curds and whey, fresh butter, and wine
--and was quite distressed that we could not make a hearty afternoon
meal. Then the master came in, one of Nature's gentlemen, if ever any
existed--stalwart, sunburnt to the complexion of an Arab, with a frank,
manly, shrewd face. He wore sabots, and, like his wife, was
stockingless. Stockings are objected to by French country-folks in hot
weather, and it seems to me on good grounds. His clothes were clean,
neat, and appropriate, and all of the material that goes into the
weekly wash-tub. Like his wife, he was most willing to give me any
information, and a pleasant and instructive time I had of it.
My host leased his farm. He was a tenant farmer precisely as the name
is understood here, with this difference--he owned a little land as
well. He could not tell me the exact size of his occupation in
hectares; land here, as in the Lozere, being computed instead by heads
of cattle, one hectare and a half of pasture allowed for each cow. Some
notion of its extent may be gathered from the fact that he possessed
120 cows. Besides these 200 hectares of pasturage, the farm comprised
arable land, the whole making up a total of nearly 1,000 acres. Much
larger farms, he told me, were to be found in the Cantal. The notion of
France being cut up into tiny parcels of land amused him not a little.
The crops here consist of wheat, barley, maize, rye, oats, buckwheat,
clover--a little of everything.
'But this is a cheese-making country. We don't grow anything like corn
enough for ourselves in the Cantal,' he said. 'Large quantities are
imported every year. It is our cows that pay.'
The principal stock kept is this beautiful Cantal cow, a small, red,
glossy-coated breed, very gentle, and very shy. The enormous quantities
of milk afforded by these dairy farms are sold in part at Aurillac for
home consumption. By far the larger proportion is used in the cheese-
makers' huts, or 'burons,' on the surrounding hills. The pleasant,
mild-flavoured Cantal cheese has hitherto not been an article of
export. It is decidedly inferior to Roquefort, fabricated from ewes'
milk in the Aveyron, and to the Gruyere of the French Jura. As the
quality of the milk is first-rate, a delicious flavour being imparted
by the fragrant herbs that abound here, this inferiority doubtless
arises from want of skill, or, perhaps, want of cleanliness in the
preparation. The numerous schools for dairy-farming that now exist in
France, and the new State-paid teachers of agriculture, will most
likely ere long revolutionize the art of cheese-making throughout the
department. We may then expect to find Cantal cheese at every English
Many more interesting facts I learned, my host chatting leisurely.
'It is usual in these parts,' he said, 'for the eldest son to inherit
an extra fourth part of land, he, in return, being bound to maintain
his parents in old age. A heritage is often thus divided during the
life-time of father and mother, the old folks not caring any longer to
be burdened with the toil of business.'
Much he told me also concerning the rights of 'pacage,' or pasturage on
commons--privileges upheld rather by custom than law. These rights of
pasturing cattle on common-grounds date from the earliest times, and we
read in French history of certain communes being ruined by the mortgage
of their 'pacage.'
After a stay of more than an hour we took leave, our host accompanying
us to the road, where the carriage waited.
I have before alluded to the excessive timidity of the cattle here,
perhaps arising from the infrequency of strangers in these regions. As
we now walked up the narrow lane separating the farm from the road, we
met three separate droves of cows returning to their stalls. It was
curious to note the suspiciousness of the gentle creatures, also their
quickness of observation. Had we been a couple of peasant women from a
distance, they would have passed us without hesitation. I had evidently
an outlandish look in their eyes. Only by dint of coaxing and calling
each animal by name could the master get them to go by.
'It is always well to be careful with beasts that don't know you,' he
said, as he planted himself between us and each drove. 'Gentle as my
cows are, they might give a stranger a kick.'
When all were gone, he extricated my gown from a bramble, then, baring
his head, bade us adieu with the courtesy of a polished gentleman.
THE LAND OF THE BURON.
Vic-sur-Cere, half an hour distant from Aurillac, is an earthly
paradise, a primitive Eden, as yet unspoiled by fashion and
utilitarianism. The large 'Etablissement des Bains,' described in
French and English guide-books, has long ceased to exist; bells,
carpets, curtains, and other luxuries are unknown; but the unfastidious
traveller, who prefers homeliness and honesty to elegance and
extortion, may here drink waters rivalling those of Spa without being
exposed to the exorbitant prices and insolence of the Spa hotel-
keepers. Rustic inns, or rather pensions, may be had at Vic-sur-Cere,
in which the tourist is wholesomely lodged and handsomely 'tabled' at a
cost that would enrapture Mr. Joseph Pennell. Two or three hundred
visitors, chiefly from the neighbouring towns, spend the summer
holidays here, one and all disappearing about the middle of September.
When we arrived, we had the entire place to ourselves--inn, river-side
walks, and dazzlingly green hills. No palm island in mid-Pacific could
offer a sweeter, more pastoral halting-place. It is indeed a perfect
little corner of earth, beauty of the quiet kind here reaching its
acme; and neither indoors nor abroad is there any drawback to mar the
From the windows of our hotel, close to the station, we enjoy a
prospect absolutely flawless--Nature in one of her daintiest moods is
here left to herself. The inn stands amid its large vegetable, fruit
and flower gardens; looking beyond these, we see the prettiest little
town imaginable nestled in a beautiful valley, around it rising
romantic crags, wooded heights, and gentle slopes, fresh and verdant as
if the month were May. Through the smooth meadows between the
encompassing hills winds the musically-named stream, the Iraliot, and
from end to end the broad expanse of green is scented with newly-mown
hay. The delightful scenery, the purity of the air, the excellent
quality of the waters, ought to turn Vic-sur-Cere into a miniature
Vichy. Fortunately for the lovers of rusticity and calm, such has not
as yet been the case, and the simple, straightforward character of the
people is still unspoiled by contact with the outer world. Here, also,
the pervading aspect is of well-being and contentment. 'Everybody can
live here,' we were told by an intelligent resident; 'only the idle,
the drunkard, and the thriftless need come to want.'
Vagrancy is altogether absent; the children are neatly dressed and very
clean; the men and women have all a look of cheerful independence as
they toil on their little farms or mind their small flocks and herds.
Here also, as elsewhere, the greatest variety exists in the matter of
holdings. We find tiny freeholds and large tenant farms side by side.
With few exceptions, all possess a house and bit of land. Folks toil
hard and fare hard, but live in no terror of sickness or old age. The
house and bit of land will not support a family; with the savings of a
man's best years, it is the harbour of refuge when work is past.
Without meeting here the urbanity and hospitable welcome that awaited
us near Aurillac, we found the peasant farmers exceedingly civil to
strangers; and when once made to understand the motives of my
inquisitiveness, they were quite ready to give me any information I
One farm I visited in the neighbourhood was a tenant-holding of about
1,000 acres, let at a fixed rental of L600 a year, and this is far from
the largest farm hereabouts. The stock consisted of seventy-eight cows,
five horses, four pair of team oxen, besides large numbers of sheep,
pigs, and poultry. Five women-servants were boarded in the house, and
several cheese-makers employed on the alps during summer.
The farmer's wife received us pleasantly, and after a little
explanation, when she quite understood the reason of my visit, answered
all questions with ease and intelligence. She was resting from the
labours of the day, a piece of knitting in her hands, which she
politely laid aside whilst chatting.
The kitchen was large, clean, and airy, its principal ornaments
consisting of rows of prize medals on tablets, awarded at different
agricultural shows. On the shelves were rows of copper cooking vessels,
burnished as those of a Dutch interior. The bed-chambers were apart.
Certainly, the housewife's personal appearance left something to
desire, but we were assured that on Sundays she turned out for Mass
gloved, veiled and bonneted like any town lady. French peasants will
not set about the day's labour in smart or shabby-genteel clothes.
Here, as near Aurillac, modern agricultural methods, machinery and
artificial manures are not yet the order of the day. As an instance of
what peasant farmers in France can effect whilst following old plans,
let me cite the predecessor of my hostess's husband. This man had
lately retired, having saved up enough money to live upon. He had, in
fact, become a rentier.
Another tenant farm near consisted of 1,000 acres, stocked with 120
cows, eight pair of team oxen, besides sheep, horses and pigs.
Adjoining such large holdings are small freeholds farmed by their
peasant owners--dairy farms of a few acres, market-gardens of one or
two, and so on.
Metayage, or the system of half-profits, is rarely found in the Cantal.
Tenancy at a fixed rental is preferred, as less complicated and
troublesome. [Footnote: I have described the metayage of Berri in a
contribution to _Macmillan's Magazine_, 'In George Sand's
Country,' 1886.] It was pleasant to see the people working in their
little field or garden, or minding their goats and sheep, their decent
appearance, cheerfulness and healthful looks testifying to the
satisfactory conditions of existence.
I do not for a moment aver that such a state of things exists in every
part of France; but everywhere we find the same qualities--
independence, thrift and foresight--called forth by the all-potent
agency of possession. I have somewhere seen the fact mentioned, and
adduced as an argument against peasant property, that the owner of
seven cows had not a wardrobe in which to hang so much as his wife's
clothes; they were suspended on a rope. Was the writer aware of the
money-value of seven cows, the capital thereby represented, and could
she point to any farm-labourer in England, however well off in the
matter of cupboards and clothes-pegs, possessed of seven cows, their
stalls and pasture-ground--in other words, a capitalist to the extent
of several hundred pounds? Few French peasants, we fancy, would
exchange their house, land and stock for the furniture of an English
labourer's cottage, wardrobe included. As a matter of fact, most of
these small farmers own furniture, clothes and house-linen in
Cheese-making is the chief industry of the place. Far away on the
summit of every green hill may be descried the red-roofed hut, or
buron, of the cheese-maker. Here, with his dog, and sometimes a
shepherd, he spends the summer months, descending to the valleys before
the first snow falls. The dairyman, or fromager, is generally a hired
workman, specially trained for the work. He is paid at the rate of L25
or L30 a year, besides board and lodging. As soon as the snows melt and
the cows can be driven afield, he betakes himself to his buron on the
alp, if married, leaving his wife in the valley below.
Have the fromager of the Cantal hills and the Caussenard of the
Lozerien steppe their legends, folklore, songs? Have their love-stories
been chronicled by some French Auerbach, their ballads found a
translator in a French Hebel? Without doubt this sequestered life of
shepherd and mountain has its vein of poetry and romance as well as any
other. To reach one of these cheese-makers' huts is quite an
expedition, and on foot is only practicable to hardy pedestrians. It is
a beautiful drive from the valley of the Cere to the open pasture-
ground, dotted with burons, behind its steep green hills on the
southern side. As the road winds upwards, we see the crags and slopes
clothed with the delicate greenery of young fir and pine. These are
seedlings planted by the State; here, as in other departments, some
strenuous efforts being made to replant the ancient forests. Goats are
no longer permitted to browse on the mountain-sides promiscuously, as
in former days, and thus slowly, but surely, not only the soil, but the
climate and products of these re-wooded districts, will undergo
complete transformation. And who can tell? Perhaps the Causse itself
will, generations hence, cease to exist, and the Roof of France become
a vast flowery garden. The country people here all speak a patois, and
the fromager is not communicative. It is always well to be accompanied
by a blue-bloused native on these visits. The dogs, too, that keep
guard over the buron, like the cows, are very suspicious of strangers.
More attractive than the interior of the cheese-maker's hut--often
dark, ill-ventilated, and malodorous--is the scene without, a wide
prospect of pastoral, idyllic charm. The Cantal offers many a superb
mountain panorama and grandiose scene. Nowhere is to be found more
sweetness, graciousness and repose than in the valley of the Cere.
After a few days' sojourn we journeyed to Clermont-Ferrand, which I
found much embellished since my long stay in that city, just ten years
before. Thence, seeing the Puy de Dome flushed with the red light of
the rising sun, a sight compensating for much insolence and discomfort
at the Hotel de l'Univers, we proceeded to St. Germain-des-Fosses,
where we parted, my young companion taking the train to Autun, I
proceeding by way of Lyons to Gap, on a visit to a beloved French
The weather had remained brilliantly fine throughout our expedition,
although the cold of early morning was now piercing. And brilliantly
fine it remained till my departure for England, early in October.
MY SECOND JOURNEY IN SEARCH OF THE CAUSSES.
THROUGH THE MORVAN.
Of the four hundred and fifty passengers who crossed with us from Dover
to Calais, in August, 1888, we lost every trace when quitting the
Paris-Lyon-Mediterranee line at La Roche. Writing a hundred years ago,
the great agriculturist, Arthur Young, gave his countrymen the
following excellent piece of advice, which, it need hardly be said, has
been generally neglected from that day to this: 'It may be useful to
those who see no more of France than by once passing to Italy, to
remark that if they would view the finest parts of the kingdom they
should land at Dieppe, and follow the Seine to Paris, then take the
great road to Moulins, and thence quit it for Auvergne, and pass to
Viviers, the Rhone, and so by Aix to Italy. By such a variation from
the frequented road the traveller might suffer for want of good inns,
but would be repaid by the sight of a much finer and more singular
country than the common road by Dijon offers, which passes in a great
measure through the worst parts of France.'
The Suffolk squire who rode through France on the eve of the Great
Revolution, in spite of his conscientious desire to see all that the
country had to show, lost much from want of roads, maps, and any kind
of accommodation. Nowadays, as will be seen from the following pages,
good food and good beds await the traveller in the most remote
districts; but in vain! Ninety-nine tourists out of a hundred remain of
the poet Shelley's opinion--there is nothing to see in France--and
hurry on as fast as the express can carry them to Geneva.
At the clean, bright, friendly little town of Auxerre we find ourselves
as isolated from the beaten track as well can be. We are free to roam,
sketch, stare at will, and no one notices us; not even an importunate
beggar molests the sketcher as she brings out her book in the middle of
This immunity from observation and annoyance forms a minor charm of
Auxerre possesses a beautiful little cathedral. It is one-towered, as
that of Sens, a circumstance probably due to want of funds for the
We always carry away in the memory some striking characteristic of
French cathedrals, and no one can forget the exquisite tint of the
building-stone here, a ruddy hue as of gold lighting up the dark,
richly-sculptured mass without, nor the charming cluster of airy
columns joining the Lady Chapel to the choir within, daintiest bit of
architectural fancy. Whilst we were revelling in the contrast afforded
by the intense glow of the stained glass and the pure white marble--the
interior being one of the loveliest, if least spacious, in France--the
sacristan's wife came up and said that if we waited a few minutes
longer we should see a wedding.
'Although,' she added with an air of apology, 'a wedding of the third
Now, whilst fairly familiar with French ways, I had never heard of
marriages being divided after the manner of railway-carriages, into
first, second, and third class. Our informant hastened to enlighten us.
It seems that only wedding-parties of the first and second classes are
entitled to enter by the front-door, to music of the full church
orchestra, and to carpets laid down from porch to altar, every detail
of pomp and ceremony depending on the price paid.
I must say that were I a French bride I should bargain for a wedding of
the first class at any sacrifice. To have the big doors of the front
portal flung open at the thrice-repeated knock of the beadle's staff;
to hear Mendelssohn's 'Wedding March' pealed from the great organ; to
march in solemn procession up the aisle, preceded by that wonderful
figure in cocked hat, red sash, pink silk stockings, and shoes
sparkling with huge buckles, all the congregation a-titter--it seems to
me it were worth while being married simply for the intoxication of
such a moment.
The third-class wedding-party, entering by a small side-door, and
passing without music to the altar, made nevertheless a pretty picture:
the bride, a handsome demoiselle de boutique, or shop assistant, in
white, with veil and wreath; behind her, girls in bright dresses
bearing enormous bouquets; bridegroom and supporters, all in spick and
span swallow-tail coats, with white ties and gloves, like beaux in a
French comedy, backwards and forwards; the priests looking gorgeous,
although in their second-best robes, their gold plates shining as they
collected the money; for whether married first, second or third class,
the Church exacts its due. I felt real commiseration for these middle-
class, evidently hard-working people, as the gold plate was presented
again and again, first, I presume, for the Church; secondly, for the
poor; thirdly, for Heaven knows what. Then two of the bridesmaids, each
taking the arm of a white-gloved, swallow-tailed cavalier, made the
round of the wedding guests, begging money of them. In fact, there
seemed no end to the giving. Small wonder that marriages are on the
decline in France! We left the bridal party still on their crimson
velvet fauteuils--twelve being the number allotted to a wedding of the
third class, the remaining guests being accommodated on rush-bottomed
chairs--and next visited the underground Church of St. Germain.
What a contrast it presented to the lightness, brilliancy, and gaiety,
if we may use such a word, of the cathedral! There the effect on the
mind is of pure delight; we feel the exhilaration, not the austerity,
of religion. Very different is the impression produced by St. Germain,
which may be described as a church of tombs, a temple consecrated to
the dead. Although on a smaller scale, this ancient burial-place of
saints and martyrs recalls the awful mausoleum of Spanish kings. The
Escurial itself is hardly more impressive.
The upper church stands airily in the garden of the town hospital, its
fine tower all that is left of the original building. The lower remains
intact. We descend into a perfect little Gothic interior, with naves,
choir, and chapel, all in darkness but for the feeble glimmer of the
sacristan's candle, every part showing ancient frescoes in wonderful
preservation. In huge niches of the walls and under our feet, the
enormous lids of the tombs yielding to our guide's touch, lie the bones
of saints deposited there nearly a thousand years ago, 'English saints,
many of them, who crossed the water with St. Germain,' our cicerone
said with animation, evidently thinking the fact would interest us
extremely. No less curious than these tombs are the frescoes,
illustrating, among other subjects, the life of St. Maxime, companion
of St. Germain, whose bones lie here. 'St. Maxime, St. Maxime,' I said,
as I laboriously deciphered the Latin inscription on the tomb. 'Does
this name, then, belong to a woman?'
'Si fait,' rejoined our guide, no little astonished at such ignorance,
'we have many names in France that do for both sexes, and she belonged
to your own country.'
I did not feel in a position to contradict the statement, but no matter
to what country she belonged, St. Maxime has secured double
immortality--first, in the saints' calendar; secondly, in the mausoleum
of Auxerre. Alike these tombs and frescoes, with the sepulchres of the
Pharaohs, seem able to defy the encroachments of Time.
During the Revolution, great consternation prevailed concerning the
precious relics. The bones of the saintly bishop were disinterred and
hidden elsewhere for safety, and in the after-confusion were never
replaced, but buried elsewhere.
The huge sarcophagus in the wall is a cenotaph.
No similar panic is likely to create a second disturbance of the sacred
relics in this subterranean abbey church. And who can say? Centuries
hence, devout Catholics, dark-skinned descendants of races only just
emerging from cannibalism, may make a solemn pilgrimage hither and find
the pictured story of St. Maxime still intact on the walls! Be this as
it may, no travellers within reach of Auxerre should fail to visit its
two beautiful and perfect churches, the one with its majestic front and
single tower rising airily above the level landscape, its noble
proportions standing out in the bright sunshine, radiant and lightsome
alike within and without; the other, hidden in the bowels of the earth,
giving no visible evidence of its existence, aisle, vaulted roofs,
vistas of delicate columns, only to be realized in the glimmer of a
But Auxerre possesses other antiquities and many ancient houses, in one
of which, the Fontaine Hotel, the traveller is comfortably and
reasonably housed. When we descended to our late supper in the salle a
manger, we found master, mistress, and their children dining with the
entire staff of servants. Such a circumstance indicates the difference
between English and French ways. In an English hotel, would the chef
sit down to talk with boots?--the lady bookkeeper condescend to break
bread with the kitchen-maid? Just as in France there is nothing like
our differentiation of domestic labour, one servant there fulfilling
what are called the duties of three here, so there is no parallel to
our social inequalities, kept up even in the kitchen.
The chef here, who obligingly quitted the table and the company to cook
our cutlets, was a strikingly handsome man, as so many head-cooks are.
The connection between cookery as a fine art and personal beauty I
leave to others to discover. I must say that after a considerable
acquaintance with these officials I can hardly call to mind any of mean
appearance. One of the handsomest, I remember, was an accomplished
young chef, who gave me lessons in the art of omelette-making at the
well-known, home-like Hotel du Jura, Dijon.
Auxerre, although possessing a cathedral, is not a bishopric, its See
having been annexed to that of Sens, after the Revolution.
Formerly capital of the Auxerrois part of the kingdom of Burgundy,
Auxerre is now chef-lieu of the department of the Yonne, the little
river making such pretty pictures between Sens and La Roche.
Between Auxerre and Autun much of the scenery has an English look. We
might be in Surrey or Sussex. Lofty hedges enclosing fields and
meadows, stretches of heath-covered waste, oak woods, and homesteads
half hidden by orchards form the landscape. As our train crawls on,
stopping at every station, we have ample time to enjoy the scenery and
scrutinize the agriculture, here somewhat backward. These very slow
trains off the great lines should always be resorted to by the
inquiring traveller, the Bommelzug as it is called in German, the train
de boeufs in French. What can be seen from the windows of the flying
_Rapide_? Here we might almost alight and pluck the wild flowers
growing so temptingly on the embankment. Brisk tourists might even turn
the long halt at Avallon to good account, and get a hasty peep of one
of the most wonderful sites in this part of France, not so much as
hinted at from the railway. It was hard to pass Avallon by, 'most
musical name, recalling the "Idylls of the King," a place that may be
compared with Granada, with anything;' harder still, not to revisit the
abbey church of Vezelay, beautiful in itself, so celebrated in history;
so majestically placed on a ridge overlooking the two departments of
the Yonne and the Nievre, but Goethe's invaluable maxim must be that of
the conscientious traveller, 'An der Naechste muss man denken' (We must
think of the nearest, the most important thing). Time did not now admit
of a two days' halt here. As I have described Avallon and Vezelay fully
elsewhere, [Footnote: I allude to several papers contributed to the
_Pall Mall Gazette_ whilst under the editorship of Mr. John Morley
(September and October, 1881), also to my edition of Murray's 'Handbook
to France,' part ii., 1884.] I will only now assure all tempted to take
this suggestion and visit both, that they cannot be disappointed. So
the train crawled on till the pretty home-like landscape was lost in
the twilight, and night over took us.
It was late when we reached Autun, not too late, however, to receive a
right cordial welcome from the author of 'Round my House,' who had
ridden from his country home in the starlight to welcome us.
THROUGH THE MORVAN (continued).
A delightful Sunday spent among delightful English and French friends,
long bright hours of perfect weather, long bright hours of genial and
affectionate intercourse, English sobriety lightened with French esprit
and playfulness-such reminiscences, however precious to the possessor,
hardly form materials for a chapter. I pass on to say something about
Autun itself, a town so rarely visited by my country-folk, that the
principal hotels have not as yet set up a teapot. The people, however,
are so obliging that they will let you go into the kitchen and there
make your own tea, even a plum-pudding, if you want it.
First some will ask the meaning of a name at the head of my page. The
Morvan-what may that be? I must explain, then, without going over
ground I have already described, that the Morvan, accessible as a
tourist-ground from Avallon, Autun, or Nevers, is a little Celtic
kingdom, isolated till recent times from the rest of France, alike by
position, language, and customs.
The name is familiar to French ears as Wales is to our own. Just as we
talk of such-and-such a place being in Wales, instead of specifying the
particular shire, so French folks will tell you that they have just
made a journey into the Morvan, that so-and-so lives in the Morvan,
without naming the department--Saone-et-Loire, the Yonne or Nievre, in
each of which a portion of the Morvan lies. In the very heart of the
country, especially round about Chateau-Chinon, its marvellously placed
little capital, we still see the saie, a garment identical with the
Gallic sagum, and the Morvandial, although gradually losing his once so
strongly-marked characteristics, prefers his own dialect to French.
Throughout the entire country, indeed, Morvandial is spoken.
From many points of view this region of survivals is full of interest.
Till half-way through the present century, village communism existed
here in full force, having withstood the shocks of the French
Revolution. The last village commune was not broken up till 1848.
The ancient industry of wood-floating, or flottage a buches perdues, is
still actively carried on. The logs, which are cut in summer, each
being marked with the owner's name, are floated down the rivers in
winter to Paris, women and children doing the greater part of the work.
This simple system of water transport, without any kind of vehicle, was
invented by a Parisian, Rouvet by name, so long ago as 1569.
More interesting than these facts, perhaps, to most travellers, is the
delightful scenery of the Morvan, and the beauty of its white oxen, a
race apart. We find these gentle, majestic creatures everywhere
tenderly cared for, as perhaps no other animals are in France, and
lending wonderful picturesqueness and charm to every landscape. No
matter whither you go, winding up the forest-girt mountain road, from
Autun to Chateau-Chinon, traversing the romantic valley of the Cure,
from Avallon to Vezelay, exploring the pretty, Surrey-like woods and
hills around the gay little watering-place of St. Honore-les-Bains, are
to be seen the white, lustrous-skinned, majestic creatures, who almost
make us forgive the ungallant refrain of Pierre Dupont's famous song:
'J'aime bien Jeanne, ma femme, mais j'aimerais mieux la voir mourir,
que de voir mourir mes boeufs' (I love my wife Jane, but I would rather
see her die than my oxen).
The best plan for the tourist wishing to see the Morvan is to hire one
of the light carriages called a caleche, and drive, not only round the
country so called, but right through--a journey occupying about a
fortnight when leisurely made.
Travellers pressed for time may, however, visit Chateau-Chinon in a day
from Autun. This five hours' drive to the former capital of the Morvan,
one continued ascent, gives one an excellent idea of the Morvandial
scenery, and in clear weather is delightful. From the not too
comfortable coupe of the cumbersome old vehicle, we come ever upon
wider and more magnificent prospects; on either side are brilliant
green pastures, watered by little rivers clear as crystal, lofty alders
fringing their banks, and the grand white oxen pasturing peacefully
here and there; beyond these gracious scenes rise wooded hills, or
masses of granite, taking weird forms; while as we journey further on
we get tremendous panoramas, with a background of violet hills. These
heights are about equal to the Cumberland range, the loftiest peak of
the Morvan rising to that of Skiddaw.
Far away the famous Mont Beuvray, the Bibracte of the 'Commentaries'
lying half-way between Chateau-Chinon and Autun, is a bold, grand
outline to day, under a cold, gray sky. Wild crags to climb and
romantic sites abound, also scenes of quiet caressing grace and smiling
pastoralness. Nowhere can be found more beautiful pastures, winding
lanes, tossing streams. The country round about is wonderfully
solitary, but newly-built schools in the scattered villages tell of
Meantime driver and passengers alight whilst our steady horses climb
one sharp ascent after another. As we wind about the hills we catch
sight of tiny hamlets perched on airy crests, recalling the castellated
villages of the African Kabylia.
Arrived at our destination, the ancient capital and stronghold of the
Celtic Morvan, the whole country lies at our feet as a map--sunny
pasture and cornland, glen and dale, mountain stream, tumbling river