A Second Motor-Flight Through France

II

POITIERS TO THE PYRENEES

THE road from Poitiers to Angoulême carries one through a country rolling and various in line — a country with a dash of Normandy in it, but facing south instead of west.

The villages are fewer than in Normandy, and make less mark in the landscape; but the way passes through two drowsy little towns, Civray and Ruffec, each distinguished by the possession of an important church of the typical Romanesque of Poitou. That at Civray, in particular, is remarkable enough to form the object of a special pilgrimage, and to find it precisely in one’s path seemed part of the general brightness of the day. Here again are the sculptured archivolt and the rich imagery of Poitiers — one strange mutilated figure of a headless horseman dominating the front from the great arcade above the doorway, as at the church of the Sainte Croix in Bordeaux; but the façade of Civray is astonishingly topped by fifteenth-century machicolations, which somehow, in spite of their later date, give it an air of greater age, of reaching back to a wild warring past.

Angoulême, set on a promontory between Charente and Anguienne, commands to the north, south and east a vast circuit of meadowy and woody undulations. The interior of the town struck one as dull, and without characteristic detail; but on the front of the twelfthcentury cathedral, perched near the ledge of the cliff above the Anguienne, detail abounds as profusely as on the façade of Notre Dame at Poitiers. It is, however, so much less subordinate to the general conception that one remembers rather the garlanding of archivolts, the clustering of figures in countless niches and arcades, than the fundamental lines which should serve to bind them together; and the interior, roofed with cupolas after the manner of Saint Hilaire of Poitiers, is singularly stark and barrenlooking.

But when one has paid due tribute to the cathedral one is called on, from its doorway, to recognize Angoulême’s other striking distinction: its splendid natural site, and the way in which art has used and made the most of it. Starting from a long leafy cours with private hotels, a great avenue curves about the whole length of the walls, breaking midway into a terrace boldly hung above the valley, and ending in another leafy place, beneath which the slope of the hill has been skilfully transformed into a public garden. Angoulême now thrives on the manufacture of paper, and may therefore conceivably permit herself such civic adornments; but how of the many small hill-towns of France — such as Laon or Thiers, for instance — which apparently have only their past glory to subsist on, yet manage to lead up the admiring pilgrim by way of these sweeping approaches, encircling terraces and symmetrically-planted esplanades ? One can only salute once again the invincible French passion for form and fitness, and conclude that towns as well as nations somehow always manage to give themselves what they regard as essential, and that happy is the race to whom these things are the essentials.

On leaving Angoulême that afternoon we saw the first cypresses and the first almond blossoms. We were in the south at last; not the hot delicately-pencilled Mediterranean south, which has always a hint of the East in it, but the temperate Aquitanian midi cooled by the Gulf of Gascony. As one nears Bordeaux the country grows less broken, the horizon line flatter; but there is one really noble impression, when, from the bridge of Saint André de Cubzac, one looks out on the lordly sweep of the Dordogne, just before it merges its waters with the Garonne to form the great estuary of the Gironde. Soon after comes an endless dusty faubourg, then the long stone bridge over the Garonne, and the proud river-front of Bordeaux — a screen of eighteenth-century buildings stretched along the crescent-shaped quay. Bordeaux, thus approached, has indeed, as the guide-book says, fort grand air; and again one returns thanks to the motor, which almost always, avoiding the mean purlieus of the railway station, gives one these romantic or stately first impressions.

This river-front of Bordeaux is really little more than the architectural screen, a street or two deep, of a bustling, bright but featureless commercial town, which, from the Middle Ages to the close of the eighteenth century, seems to have crowded all its history along the curve of the Garonne. Even the early church of the Holy Cross — contemporaneous with Notre Dame la Grande of Poitiers — lifts its triple row of Romanesque arcades but a few yards from the river; and close by is Saint Michel, a stately example of late Gothic, with the unusual adjunct of a detached bell-tower, not set at an angle, in Italian fashion, but facing the church squarely from a little green enclosure across the street. But these vestiges of old Bordeaux, in spite of their intrinsic interest, are, on the whole, less characteristic, less personal, than the mise-en-scène of its long quay: a row of fine old hôtels with sculptured pediments and stately doorways, broken midway by the symmetrical buildings of the Exchange and the Custom House, and extending from the Arch of Triumph opposite the Pont de Bordeaux to the great Place des Quinconces, with its rostral columns and balustraded terrace above the river.

To the modern traveller there is food for thought in the fact that Bordeaux owes this great decorative composition — in which should be included the theatre unfolding its majestic peristyle at the head of the Place de la Comêdie — to the magnificent taste and free expenditure of the Intendant Tourny, who ruled the province of Guyenne in the eighteenth century. Except at such high moments of æsthetic sensibility as produced the monuments of republican Italy all large schemes of civic adornment have been due to the initiative of one man, and executed without much regard to the rights of the tax-payer; and should the citizen of a modern republic too rashly congratulate himself on exemption from the pillage productive of such results, he might with equal reason remark that the tribute lawfully extracted from him sometimes seems to produce no results whatever.

On leaving Bordeaux we deserted the route nationals along the flat west bank of the Garonne, and re-crossing the Pont de Bordeaux ran south through the whitewine region between Garonne and Dordogne — that charming strip of country which, because of the brackishness of the river tides, goes by the unexpected name of Entre-deux-Mers. For several miles we skirted a line of white houses, half villa, half château, set in well-kept gardens; then came vineyards, as exquisitely kept, and packed into every cranny of the rocky côteaux, save where here and there a little town broke the view of the river — chief among them Langoiron, with its fine fortress-ruin, and Cadillac enclosed in stout quadrangular walls.

The latter place has the interest of being one of those symmetrically designed towns which, toward the close of the Middle Ages, were founded throughout southwestern France to draw “back to the land” a population depleted and demoralized by long years of warfare and barbarian invasion. These curious madeto-order towns — bastides or villes neuves — were usually laid out on a rectilinear plan, with a town-hall forming the centre of an arcaded market-place, to which four streets led from gateways in the four walls. Among the most characteristic examples are Aigues Mortes, which Saint Louis called into existence to provide himself with a Mediterranean port, and Cordes, near Gaillac, founded a little later by Count Raymond of Toulouse, and somewhat ambitiously named by him after the city of Cordova.

At Cadillac the specific physiognomy of the mediæval bastide is overshadowed by the lofty proportions and high pitched roof of the château which a sixteenth century Duke of Epernon planted in an angle of the walls. The adjoining parish church — itself of no mean dimensions — was once but the private chapel of these same dukes, who have left such a large architectural impress on their small shabby town; and one grieves to learn that the chief monument of their rule has fallen to base uses, and been stripped of the fine interior decorations which its majestic roof once sheltered .

Southwest of Cadillac the road passes through a vast stretch of pine forest with a dry aromatic undergrowth — an outskirt of the great “ Landes ” that reach inward from the Gulf of Gascony. On and on runs the white shadow-barred highway, between ranges of red boles and sunflecked heathy clearings — and when, after long hours, one emerges from the unwonted mystery and solitude of this piny desert into the usual busy agricultural France, the land is breaking southward into hilly waves, and beyond the hills are the Pyrenees.

Yet one’s first real sight of them — so masked are they by lesser ranges — is got next day from the terrace at Pau, that astonishing balcony hung above the great amphitheatre of southwestern France. Seen thus, with the prosaic English-provincial-looking town at one’s back, and the park-like green côteaux intervening beyond the Gave, the austere white peaks, seemingly afloat in heaven (for their base is almost always lost in mist), have a disconcerting look of irrelevance, of disproportion, of being subjected to a kind of indignity of inspection, like caged carnivora in a Zoo.

And Pau, on further acquaintance, utterly refuses to be brought into any sort of credible relation with its great southern horizon; conducts itself, architecturally and socially, like a comfortable little spa in a plain, and rises only by a great deal of hoisting on the part of the imaginative sight-seer to the height of its own dapper brick castle, which it has domesticated into an empty desultory Museum, and tethered down with a necklet of turf and flowers.

But Pau’s real purpose is to serve as the hub of a great wheel, of which the spokes, made of smooth white roads, radiate away into every fold and cleft of the country. As a centre for excursions there is no place like it in France, because there is nothing in France that quite matches the sweetness and diversity of the long Pyrenean border. Nowhere else are the pastoral and sylvan so happily mated, nowhere the villages so compact of thrift, and romance, the foregrounds so sweet, the distances so sublime and shining.

Whichever way one turns — down the winding southern valleys toward Lourdes and Argelès, or to Oloron and the Eaux Chaudes; westward, over low hills, to the old town of Orthez and the Salies de Béarn; or east, again, to the plain of Tarbes in its great ring of snow-peaks — always there is the same fulness of impressions, always the same brightness and the same nobility.

For a culminating instance of these impressions one might choose, on a spring afternoon, the run to Lourdes by the valley of the Gave and Bétharram. First rich meadows, hedgerows, village streets; then fields again and hills; then the brown rush of the Gave between wooded banks; and, where the river threads the arch of an ivied bridge, the turreted monastery walls and pilgrimage church of Bétharram — a deserted seventeenth-century Lourdes, giving one a hint of what the modern sanctuary might have been had the millions spent on it been drawn from the faithful when piety still walked with art.

Bétharram, since its devotees have forsaken it, is a quite negligible “sight,” relegated to small type even in the copious Joanne; yet in view of what is coming it is worth while to pause before its half-Spanish, half-Venetian churchfront, and to obey the suave yet noble gesture with which the Virgin above the doorway calls her pilgrims in.

She has only a low brown church to show, with heavy stucco angels spreading their gilded wings down a perspective of incense-fogged baroque; but the image of it will come back when presently, standing under the big dome of the Lourdes “Basilica,” one gives thanks that modern piety chose to build its own shrine instead of laying hands on an old one.

There are two Lourdes, the “grey” and the “white.” The former, undescribed and unvisited, is simply one of the most picturesque and feudal-looking hill villages in Europe. Planted on a steep rock at the mouth of the valley, the mountains pressing it close to the west and south, it opposes its unbroken walls and stern old keep to the other, the “white,” town sprawling on the river bank — the town of the Basilica, the Rosary, the Grotto: a congeries of pietistic hotels, pensions, pedlars’ booths and panoramas, where the Grand Hôtel du Casino or du Palais adjoins the Pension de la Première Apparition, and the blue-sashed Vierge de Lourdes on the threshold calls attention to the electric light and déjeuner par petites tables within.

Out of this vast sea of vulgarism — the more aggressive and intolerable because its last waves break against one of the loveliest landscapes of this lovely country — rises what the uninstructed tourist might be pardoned for regarding as the Casino of an eminently successful watering-place — as the Grotto beneath, with its drinking-fountains, baths, bottling-taps and boutiques, might stand for the “Source” or “Brunnen” where the hypochrondriac pays toll to Hygeia before seeking relaxation in the gilded halls above. For the shrine of Bernadette has long since been overlaid by the machinery of a vast “business enterprise,” a scheme of life in which every heart-beat is itemized, tariffed and exploited, so that even the invocations encrusting by thousands the Basilica walls seem to record so many cases of definite “give and take,” so many bargains struck with heaven — en souvenir de man vœu, reconnaissance pour une guérison, souvenir d’une prière exaucée, and so on — and as one turns away from this monument of a thriving industry one may be pardoned for remembering the plane tree by the Ilissus and another invocation: —

“Ye gods, give me beauty in the inward soul; and may the inner and the outer man be one.”

But beyond Lourdes is Argelès, and at the first turn of the road one is again in the fresh Pyrenean country, among budding crops, sleek fawn-coloured cattle, and the grave handsome peasantry who make one feel that the devotional ville d’eaux one has just left is a mushroom growth quite unrelated to the life of industry to which these agricultural landscapes testify.

There is always an added interest — architectural and racial — about the border regions where the idiosyncrasies of one people “run,” as it were, into those adjoining; and a key to the character of each is given by noting precisely what traits have survived in transplantation. The Pyreneans have a certain Spanish seriousness, but so tempered by Gallic good-humour that their address recalls the perfectly-mingled courtesy and self-respect of the Tuscan peasant. One feels in it, at any rate, the result of an old civilization blent with independence and simplicity of living; and these bold handsome men, straight of feature and limb, seem the natural product of their rich hill-country, so disciplined by industry, yet so romantically free.

Argelès is a charming old hill-town, which has kept itself quite aloof from the new watering-place of Gazost in the plain; but the real object of the excursion lies higher up the valley, in a chestnut forest on the slope of the mountains. Here the tiny village of Saint Savin swarms bee-like about its great Romanesque church — a naked massive structure, like the skeleton of some prehistoric animal half-emerging from the rock. Old as it is, it is rooted in remains of greater antiquity — the fallen walls of an abbey of Charlemagne’s building, itself raised, the legend runs, on the site of a Roman villa which once served as the hermitage of Saint Savin, son of a Count of Barcelona.

It has been the fate of too many venerable architectural relics to sacrifice their bloom of vétusté to the scrupulous care which makes them look like conscious cossetted old ladies, of whom their admiring relatives say, “Should you ever suspect her age?” — and only in such remote monuments as that of Saint Savin does one get the sense of undisguised antiquity, of a long stolid existence exposed to every elemental influence. The result is an impression of rugged taciturn strength, and of mysterious memories striking back, as in the holy-water basin of the transept, and the uncouth capitals of the chapter-house, to those dark days when Christian civilization hung in the balance, and the horn of Roland sounded down the pass.

But a mediæval church is always more or less in the order of nature: there is something more incongruous about a mediæval watering-place. Yet the Pyrenees abound in them; and at Cauterets, farther up the same valley, the monks of this very monastery of Saint Savin maintained, in the tenth century, “habitations to facilitate the use of the baths.” Of the original Cauterets, however, little remains, and to get an impression of an old ville d’eaux one must turn westward from Pau, and strike across the hills, by ways of exceeding beauty, to the Salies de Béarn. The frequentation of these saline springs dates back as far as the monkish charter of Cauterets; and the old town of the Salies, with its incredibly picturesque half-timbered houses, its black balconies and gables above the river, looks much as it must have when, in 1587, a charter was drawn up for the regular “exploitation” of the baths.

Pushing still farther westward one meets the highway to Bayonne and Biarritz, and may thence pass south by Saint Jean de Luz and Hendaye to the Spanish border. But the spokes of the wheel radiate in so many different directions and lead to scenes so extraordinarily varied — from the savage gorge of the Eaux-Chaudes to the smiling vale of Saint Jean Pied-de-Port, from the romantic pass of the Pied de Roland to Fontarrabia perched like a painted Spanish Virgin on its rock above the Gulf of Gascony — that to do them any sort of justice the comet-flight of the motor would have to be bound down to an orbit between Bidassoa and Garonne.

Familiarity cannot blunt the wonder of the climb from Pau to the crest of the hills above Tarbes. Southward the Pyrenees unfold themselves in a long line of snows, and ahead every turn of the road gives a fresh glimpse of wood and valley, of thriving villages and farms, till the last jut of the ridge shows Tarbes far off in the plain, with the dim folds of the Cévennes clouding the eastern distance.

All along the northeastern skirt of the Pyrenees runs the same bright and opulent country; and at the old markettown of Montrejeau, where the Garonne cuts its way down the vale of Luchon, there is just such a fortunate grouping of hill and river, and distant high-perched ruin, as our grandparents admired in landscapes of the romantic school. It was our good luck to enter Montrejeau on Easter Monday, while the market was going on, and the narrow streets were packed with mild creamcoloured cattle and their lively bluesmocked drivers. Great merriment and general good-humour marked our passage through the town to the big inn with its open galleries and old-fashioned courtyard; and here, the dining-room being as packed as the streets, our table was laid in a sunny old walled garden full of spring flowers and clipped yews.

It seemed impossible that any incident of the afternoon should be quite at the height of this gay repast, consumed in fragrance and sunshine; but we began to think differently when, an hour or two later, we took the first curve of the long climb to Saint Bertrand de Comminges. This atom of a town, hugging a steep wedge of rock at the mouth of the vale of Luchon, was once — and for many centuries — a diocesan seat; and who, by all the spirits of incongruousness, should one of its last bishops be, but the uncle of that acute and lively Madame de Boigne whose memoirs have recently shed such light on the last days of the Old Régime ?

By no effort of imagination can one project into the single perpendicular street of Saint Bertrand, topped by its rugged Gothic cathedral, the gallant figure of Monseigneur Dillon, one of those philosophical prelates whom one instinctively places against the lambris dorés of an Episcopal Palace hung with Boucher tapestries. But in truth the little town has too old and strange a history to be conscious of so fugitive an incident of its past. For its foundations were laid by the mountain tribes who harassed Pompey’s legions and were driven back by him into the valley of the Garonne; and in due time a great temple rose on what is now the rock of the cathedral. Walls and ramparts presently enclosed it, and the passage of the Vandals having swept the dwellers of the plain back into this impregnable circuit, Comminges became an episcopal city when the Catholic Church was organized in Gaul. Thereafter it underwent all the vicissitudes of barbarian invasion, falling at last into such decay that for five hundred years it is said to have been without inhabitants. Yet the episcopal line was maintained without more than one long break, and in the eleventh century the diocese woke to life at the call of its saintly Bishop, Bertrand de l’Isle Jourdain. Saint Bertrand began the cathedral and built about it the mediæval town which bears his name; and two hundred years later another Bertrand de Comminges, raised to the papacy as Clement V, but still mindful of the welfare of his former diocese, completed the Romanesque pile by the addition of a vast Gothic nave and choir.

It is the church of Clement V that still crowns the rock of Comminges, contrasting by its monumental proportions with the handful of houses enclosed in the walls at its base. The inhabitants of Comminges number at present but some five hundred, and the town subsists, the guide-books tell one, only on its religious festivals, the fame of its monuments, and the fidelity of a few “old families” who are kept there par le prestige des souvenirs.

One wonders, climbing the steep street, which of its decrepit houses are inhabited by these interesting devotees of the past. No life is visible save that contributed by a few bleary old women squatted under mouldering arches, and a fire-fly dance of children about the stony square before the church; and the church itself seems withdrawn immeasurably far into the past, sunk back upon dim ancient memories of Gaul and Visigoth.

One gets an even intenser sense of these distances from the little cloister wedged against the church-flank and overhanging the radiant valley of the Garonne — a queer cramped enceinte, with squat arches supported by monstergirdled capitals, and in one case by a strange group of blurred battered figures, supposedly the four Evangelists, one of whom — the Saint John — is notable in Romanesque archæology for bearing in his arms the limp lamb which is his attribute.

The effect of antiquity is enhanced, as at Saint Savin, by the beneficent neglect which has allowed the exterior of the building to take on all the scars and hues of age; so that one comes with a start of surprise on the rich and carefully-tended interior, where a brilliant bloom of Renaissance decoration has overlaid the stout Gothic frame-work.

This airy curtain, masking choir, rood-screen and organ-loft in a lacework of delicate yet hardy wood-carving, has kept, in the dry Pyrenean air, all its sharpness of detail, acquiring only a lustre of surface that gives it almost the texture of old bronze. It is wonderfully free and fanciful, yet tempered by the southern sense of form; subdued to the main lines of the composition, but breaking into the liveliest ripples of leaf and flower, of bird and sprite and angel, till its audacities culminate in the scaly undulations of the mermaids on the terminal seats of the choir — creatures of bale and beauty, who seem to have brought from across the Alps their pagan eyes and sidelong Lombard smile.

The finger-tailed monster of Chauvigny, the plaintively-real bat of the choir-stall at Poitiers, and these siren evocations of a classic past group themselves curiously in the mind as embodiments of successive phases of human fancy, imaginative interpretations of life.

(To be continued.)