A Motor-Flight Through France (Part III)

Edith Wharton reflects on her European travels in the final installment of a three-part series.

This is the final part of a three-part series.
Read part one here and part two here.

In Auvergne

At last, we were really in Auvergne. On our balcony at Royat, just under the flank of the Puy de Dôme, we found ourselves in close communion with its tossed heights, its black towns, its threatening castles. And Royat itself—even the dull new watering-place quarter—is extremely characteristic of the region: hanging in a cleft of the great volcanic upheaval, with hotels, villas, gardens, vineyard clutching at every precarious ledge and fissure, as though just momentarily arrested in their descent upon the roofs of Clermont.

As a watering-place Royat is not, in outward aspect, an ornamental specimen of its class; and it has the further disadvantage of being connected with Clermont by a long dusty suburb, noisy with tram-cars; but as a centre for excursions it offers its good hotels and “modern conveniences” at the precise spot most favourable to the motorist, who may radiate from it upon almost every centre of interest in Auvergne, and return at night to digestible food and clean beds—two requisites for which, in central France, one is often doomed to pine.

Auvergne, one of the most interesting, and hitherto almost the least known, of the old French provinces, offers two distinct and equally striking sides to the appreciative traveler: on the one hand, its remarkably individual church architecture, and on the other, the no less personal character of its landscape. Almost all its towns are distinguished by one of those ancient swarthy churches, with western narthex, great central tower, and curious incrustations of polychrome lava, which marked, in Auvergne, as strongly distinctive an architectural impulse as flowered, on a vastly larger scale, and a century or more later, in the Gothic of the Ile de France. And the towns surrounding these churches, and often built up, Italian fashion, on the crest or flank of one of the strange volcanic eminences springing from the plain—the towns themselves, with their narrow perpendicular streets and tall black houses, are so darkly individual, so plainly akin to the fierce predatory castles on the adjacent hills, that one is arrested at every turn by the desire to follow up the obscure threads of history connecting them with this little-known portion of the rich French past.

But to the traveler restricted by time, the other side of the picture—its background, rather, of tormented blue beaks and wide-spread forest—which must assert itself, at all seasons, quite as distinctively as the historic and architectural character of the towns, is likely, in May, to carry off the victory. We had come, at any rate, with the modest purpose of taking a bird’s-eye view of the region, such a mere flight across the scene as draws one back, later, to brood and hover; and one glance at the landscape from the Royat balcony confirmed us in the resolve to throw as sweeping a glance as possible, and defer the study of details to our next—our already-projected!—visit.

The following morning, therefore, we set out early for the heart of the Monts Dore. Our road carried us southward, along a series of high ridges above the wide Allier vale, and then up and down, over wild volcanic hills, now densely wooded, now desolately bare. We were on the road to Issoire and La Chaise Dieu, two of the most notable old towns of southern Auvergne; but, in pursuit of scenery, we reluctantly turned off at the village of Coudes, at the mouth of a lateral valley, and struck up toward the western passes which lead to the Pic de Sancy.

Some miles up this valley, which follows the capricious windings of the Couzes, lie the baths of Saint Nectaire-le-Bas, romantically planted in a narrow defile, beneath the pyramidal Romanesque church which the higher-lying original village lifts up on a steep splinter of rock. The landscape beyond Saint Nectaire grows more rugged and Alpine in character: the pastures have a Swiss look, and the shaggy mountain-sides are clothed with a northern growth of beech and pine. Presently, at a turn of the road, we came on the little crater-lake of Chambon, its intense blueness vividly set in the greenest of meadows, and overhung by the dark basalt cliff which carries on its summit the fortified castle of Murols. The situation of Murols, lifted on its isolated shaft of rock avobe that lonely upland valley, is in itself impressive enough to bring out the full value of such romantic suggestions as it had to offer; and the monument is worthy of its site. It is in fact a very noble ruin, raising its high central keep above two other circuits of battered masonry, the ampler and later of which shows the classical pilasters and large fenestration of what must have been one of the stateliest specimens of the last stage of French feudal architecture. Though the guide-books record a mention of Murols as early as the thirteenth century, the castle now standing is all of later date, and the great rectangular exterior is an interesting example of the transitional period when Italian palace architecture began to be grafted on the rugged stock of French military construction.

Just beyond the lake of Chambon the road begins to ascend the long curves of the Col de Diane, the pass which leads over into the valley of Mont Dore. As we rose through bleak meadows and patches of scant woodland, the mountains of Auvergne unrolled themselves to the east in one of those lonely tossing expanses of summit and ridge and chasm that suggest the mysterious undulations of some uninhabited planet. Though the Col de Diane is not a high pass, it gives, from its yoke, a strangely memorable impression of distance and mystery; partly, perhaps, because in that desert region there is neither village nor house to break the labyrinth of peaks; but chiefly because of the convulsed outlines into which they have been tossed by subterranean fires.

A cold wind swept the top of the pass, and snow still lay under the rocks by the roadside; so that it was cheering to the spirits, as well as to the eye, when we presently began our descent through dark pine forests into the vale of the Dordogne. The baths of Mont Dore lie directly beneath the pass, at the mouth of a valley hollowed out of the side of the Pic de Sancy, the highest peak in Auvergne. In spite of the milder air and bright spring foliage we were still distinctly in high places; and Mont Dore itself, not yet decked for the entertainment of its bathers, had the rude poverty-stricken look which everywhere marks the real mountain village. Later, no doubt, when its hotels are open, and its scanty gardens in bloom, it takes on a thin veneer of frivolity; but it must always be an austere-looking village, with its ill-kept cobblestone streets, and gaunt stone houses grouped against a background of bare Alpine pastures. We were not sorry, therefore, that its few restaurants presented barred shutters to our midday hunger, and that we were obliged to follow the first footsteps of the infant Dordogne down the valley to the lower-lying baths of Bourboule.

The Dordogne is a child of lusty growth, and at its very leap from the cradle, under the Pic de Sancy, it rolls a fine brown torrent beneath its steeply wooded banks. Its course led us rapidly down the mountain glen to the amiable but somewhat characterless little watering-place of La Bourboule, set in a depression of the hills, with a background of gentle slopes which, in summer, might offer fairly pleasant walks between one’s douches; and here, at a fresh white hotel with an affable landlady, we lunched on trout that must have leapt straight from the Dordogne into the frying-pan.

After luncheon we once took our way along the lively curves of the river; to part with them at last, reluctantly, a few miles down the valley, and strike out across a dull plateau to the mountain-town of Laqueille, — a gaunt, wind-beaten place, with nothing of note to offer except its splendid view of a high cornice above the valley running south from the chain of the Dôme. Beyond Laqueille, again, we began to descend by long windings; and at last, turning off from the direct road to Royat, we engaged ourselves in a series of wooded gorges, in search of the remote village of Orcival.

The church of Orcival is one of the most noted of that strange group of Auvergnat churches which some students of French Romanesque are disposed to attribute, not only to one brief period of time, but to the hand of one architect; so closely are they allied, not alone in plan and construction, but in their peculiar and original decorative details. We had resolved, therefore, not to return to Royat without a sight of Orcival; and spite of the misleading directions plentifully bestowed on us by the way, and resulting in endless doublings through narrow lonely glens, we finally came, in the neck of the last and narrowest, upon a huddled group of stone roofs with a church rising nobly above them.

Here it was at last—and our first glance told us how well worth the search we had made for it. But a second made evident the disturbing fact that a cattle-fair was going on in the village; and though this is not an unusual event in French towns, or one calculated, in general, to interfere with the movements of the sightseer, we soon saw that, owing to the peculiar position of Orcival, which is jammed into the head of its glen as tightly as a cork in a bottle, the occupation of the square about the church formed a complete check on circulation.

And the square was fully occupied: it presented, as we descended on it, an agitated surface of blue human backs, and dun and white bovine ones, so closely and inextricably mixed that any impact from without merely sent a wave across the mass, without making the slightest break in its substance. On its edge, therefore, we halted; the church, with its beautiful rounded chevet and central pyramid-tower, islanded a few yards away across a horned sea which divided is from us as hopelessly as Egypt from Israel; and the waves of the sea setting toward us with somewhat threatening intent at the least sign of our attempting to cross it. There was therefore nothing to be done but to own ourselves intruders, and defer a sight of Orcival to our next visit; and with much backing and wriggling, and some unfavourable comment on the part of the opposition, we effected a crestfallen exit from that interesting but inhospitable village.

The road there to Royat climbs over the long Col de Ceyssat, close under the southern side of the Puy de Dôme; and we looked up longingly at the bare top of the mountain, yearning to try the ascent, but fearing that our “horse-power” was not pitched to such heights. That adventure too was therefore deferred till our next visit, which every renunciation of the kind was helping to bring nearer and make more inevitable; and we pushed on to Royat across the dreary plain of Laschamp, noted in the records of motoring as the starting-point of the perilous circuit d’Auvergne.

Royat to Bourges

The term of our holiday was upon us, and stern necessity took us back, the next day, to Vichy. We followed, this time, the road along the western side of the Limagne, passing through the old towns of Riom and Aigueperse. Riom, thanks to its broad boulevards and bright open squares, struck us as the most cheerful and animated place we had seen in Auvergne; and it has, besides, a great air of Renaissance elegance, many of its old traceried hôtels having been built in the sixteenth century, when the chief development of the town took place.

Aigueperse, on the contrary, spite of its situation in the same sunny luxuriant plain, presents the morose aspect of the typical town of Auvergne, without many compensating merits, save that of two striking pictures of the Italian school which are to be seen in its modernized cathedral. From Aigueperse our road struck eastward across the Limagne to Gannat; and thence, through pleasant fields and woods, we returned to Vichy, on the opposite edge of the plain.

We started early the next morning on our journey to the north, for our slight experience of the inns of central France made us anxious to reach Orléans by night. Such long runs cannot be made without the sacrifice of much that charms and arrests one by the way; and this part of the country should be seen at leisure, in the long summer days, when the hotels are less sepulchrally damp, and when one can remain late out of doors, instead of having to shiver through the evening hours around a smoky oil-lamp, in a room which will not bear inspection even by that insufficient light.

We suffered, I remember, many pangs by the way; and not least, that of having to take in la mere parenthesis the charmingly complete little town of La Palisse on the Bèbre, with the ruined ivied castle of the Comtes de Chabannes overhanging a curve of the river, and grouping itself in a memorable composition with the picturesque houses below it.

Farther north, again, Moulins on the Allier inflicted a still deeper pang; for this fine old town has considerable claims to distinction besides the great triptych that made its name known through Europe after the recent exhibition of French Primitives in Paris. The Virgin of Moulins, gloriously enthroned in the cathedral among her soft-faced Lombard angels, remains undoubtedly the crowning glory of the town, if only on account of the problem which she holds out, so inscrutably, to explorers of the baffling annals of early French art. But aside from this preeminent possession, and the interest of several minor relics, Moulins has the attraction of its own amiable and distinguished physiognomy. With its streets of light-coloured stone, its handsome eighteenth century hotels and broad well-paved cours, it seemed, after the grim black towns of the south, a singularly open and cheerful place; and one was conscious, behind the handsome stone gateways and balconied façades, of the existence of old paneled drawing-rooms with pastel portraits and faded tapestry furniture.

The approach to Nevers, the old capital of the Nivernais, carried us abruptly back to the Middle Ages, but to an exuberant northern mediævalism far removed from the Gallo-Roman tradition of central France. The cathedral of Nevers, with its ornate portals and fantastically decorated clock-tower, has, in the old ducal place across the square, a rival more than capable of meeting its challenge on equal grounds: a building of really gallant exterior, with fine angle towers, and within, a great staircase commemorating in luxuriant sculpture the legendary beginnings of that ancient house of Cleves which, in the fifteenth century, allied itself by marriage with the dukes of Burgundy.

At Nevers we found ourselves once more on the Loire; but only to break from it again in a long dash across country to Bourges. At this point we left behind us the charming diversified scenery which had accompanied us to the borders of the Loire, and entered upon a region of low monotonous undulations, flattening out gradually inot the vast wheat-fields about Bourges. But who would wish any other setting for that memorable silhouette, throned, from whichever point of the compass one approaches it, in such proud isolation above the plain? One forgets even, in a distant view of Bourges, that nature has helped, by an opportune rise of the ground, to lift the cathedral to its singular eminence: the hill, and the town upon it, seem so merely the unremarked pedestal of the monument. It is not till one climbs the steep street leading up from the Place Saint Bonnet that one realizes the peculiar topographical advantages of such a site; advantages which perhaps partly account for the overwhelming and not quite explicable effect of a first sight of the cathedral.

Even now, on a second visit, with the great monuments of the Ile de France fresh in memory, we felt the same effect, and the same difficulty in running it down, in differentiating it from the richer, yet perhaps less deeply Gothic impression produced by the rival churches of the north. For, begin as one will by admitting, by insisting upon, the defects of Bourges—its irregular inharmonious façade, its thin piers, its mean outer aisles—one yet ends in a state where criticism perforce yields to sensation, where one surrenders one’s self wholly to the spell of its spiritual suggestion. Certainly it would be hard to put a finger, either within or without, on the specific concrete cause of this feeling. Is it to be found in the extraordinary beauty of the five western portals, so crowded with noble and pathetic imagery and delicate ornamental detail? But the doors of Chartres surpass even these! Is it then, if one looks within, the rich blue and red of its dense ancient glass? But Chartres, again, has finer glass of that unmatched period. Is it the long clear sweep of the nave and aisles, uninterrupted by the cross-lines of transept or chancel-screen? But if one recalls the wonderful convolutions of the ambulatory of Canterbury, one has to confess that Gothic art—even in its conventionalized English form—has created curves of greater poetry and mystery, produced a more thrilling sense of shadowy consecrated distances. Perhaps the spell of Bourges resides in a fortunate accidental mingling of many of the qualities that predominate in this or that more perfect structure—in the mixing of the ingredients so that there rises from them, as one stands in one of the lofty inner aisles, with one’s face toward the choir, that breath of mystical devotion which issues from the very heart of mediæval Christianity.

“With this sweetness,” wrote Saint Theresa, of the Prayer of Quiet, “the whole inner and outer man seems to be delighted, as though some delicious ointment were poured into the soul like an exquisite perfume … as if we suddenly came to a place where it is exhaled, not only form one, but from many things; and we know not what it is, or from which one of them it comes, but they all penetrate us.” … If Amiens, in its harmony of conception and vigour of execution, seems to embody the developing will-power of a people passionate in belief, and indomitable in the concrete expression of their creed, here at Bourges one feels that other, less expressible side of the great ruling influence of the middle ages—the power that willed mighty monuments and build them, yet also, even in its moments and built them, yet also, even in its moments of most brutal material ascendancy, created the other houses, not built with hands, where the spirits of the saints may dwell.

This is the final part of a three-part series.
Read part one here and part two here.