Travels through France and Italy, by Tobias Smollett

Letter XII

Nice, December 6, 1763.

DEAR SIR — The inhabitants of Montpellier are sociable, gay, and good-tempered. They have a spirit of commerce, and have erected several considerable manufactures, in the neighbourhood of the city. People assemble every day to take the air on the esplanade, where there is a very good walk, just without the gate of the citadel: but, on the other side of the town, there is another still more agreeable, called the peirou, from whence there is a prospect of the Mediterranean on one side, and of the Cevennes on the other. Here is a good equestrian statue of Louis XIV, fronting one gate of the city, which is built in form of a triumphal arch, in honour of the same monarch. Immediately under the pierou is the physic garden, and near it an arcade just finished for an aqueduct, to convey a stream of water to the upper parts of the city. Perhaps I should have thought this a neat piece of work, if I had not seen the Pont du Garde: but, after having viewed the Roman arches, I could not look upon this but with pity and contempt. It is a wonder how the architect could be so fantastically modern, having such a noble model, as it were, before his eyes.

There are many protestants at this place, as well as at Nismes, and they are no longer molested on the score of religion. They have their conventicles in the country, where they assemble privately for worship. These are well known; and detachments are sent out every Sunday to intercept them; but the officer has always private directions to take another route. Whether this indulgence comes from the wisdom and lenity of the government, or is purchased with money of the commanding officer, I cannot determine: but certain it is, the laws of France punish capitally every protestant minister convicted of having performed the functions of his ministry in this kingdom; and one was hanged about two years ago, in the neighbourhood of Montauban.

The markets in Montpellier are well supplied with fish, poultry, butcher’s meat, and game, at reasonable rates. The wine of the country is strong and harsh, and never drank, but when mixed with water. Burgundy is dear, and so is the sweet wine of Frontignan, though made in the neighbourhood of Cette. You know it is famous all over Europe, and so are the liqueurs, or drams of various sorts, compounded and distilled at Montpellier. Cette is the sea-port, about four leagues from that city: but the canal of Languedoc comes up within a mile of it; and is indeed a great curiosity: a work in all respects worthy of a Colbert, under whose auspices it was finished. When I find such a general tribute of respect and veneration paid to the memory of that great man, I am astonished to see so few monuments of public utility left by other ministers. One would imagine, that even the desire of praise would prompt a much greater number to exert themselves for the glory and advantage of their country; yet in my opinion, the French have been ungrateful to Colbert, in the same proportion as they have over-rated the character of his master. Through all France one meets with statues and triumphal arches erected to Louis XIV, in consequence of his victories; by which, likewise, he acquired the title of Louis le Grand. But how were those victories obtained? Not by any personal merit of Louis. It was Colbert who improved his finances, and enabled him to pay his army. It was Louvois that provided all the necessaries of war. It was a Conde, a Turenne, a Luxemburg, a Vendome, who fought his battles; and his first conquests, for which he was deified by the pen of adulation, were obtained almost without bloodshed, over weak, dispirited, divided, and defenceless nations. It was Colbert that improved the marine, instituted manufactures, encouraged commerce, undertook works of public utility, and patronized the arts and sciences. But Louis (you will say) had the merit of choosing and supporting those ministers, and those generals. I answer, no. He found Colbert and Louvois already chosen: he found Conde and Turenne in the very zenith of military reputation. Luxemburg was Conde’s pupil; and Vendome, a prince of the blood, who at first obtained the command of armies in consequence of his high birth, and happened to turn out a man of genius. The same Louis had the sagacity to revoke the edict of Nantz; to entrust his armies to a Tallard, a Villeroy, and a Marsin. He had the humanity to ravage the country, burn the towns, and massacre the people of the Palatinate. He had the patriotism to impoverish and depopulate his own kingdom, in order to prosecute schemes of the most lawless ambition. He had the Consolation to beg a peace from those he had provoked to war by the most outrageous insolence; and he had the glory to espouse Mrs. Maintenon in her old age, the widow of the buffoon Scarron. Without all doubt, it was from irony he acquired the title le Grand.

Having received a favourable answer from Mr. B — the English consul at Nice, and recommended the care of my heavy baggage to Mr. Ray, who undertook to send it by sea from Cette to Villefranche, I hired a coach and mules for seven loui’dores, and set out from Montpellier on the 13th of November, the weather being agreeable, though the air was cold and frosty. In other respects there were no signs of winter: the olives were now ripe, and appeared on each side of the road as black as sloes; and the corn was already half a foot high. On the second day of our journey, we passed the Rhone on a bridge of boats at Buccaire, and lay on the other side at Tarrascone. Next day we put up at a wretched place called Orgon, where, however, we were regaled with an excellent supper; and among other delicacies, with a dish of green pease. Provence is a pleasant country, well cultivated; but the inns are not so good here as in Languedoc, and few of them are provided with a certain convenience which an English traveller can very ill dispense with. Those you find are generally on the tops of houses, exceedingly nasty; and so much exposed to the weather, that a valetudinarian cannot use them without hazard of his life. At Nismes in Languedoc, where we found the Temple of Cloacina in a most shocking condition, the servant-maid told me her mistress had caused it to be made on purpose for the English travellers; but now she was very sorry for what she had done, as all the French who frequented her house, instead of using the seat, left their offerings on the floor, which she was obliged to have cleaned three or four times a day. This is a degree of beastliness, which would appear detestable even in the capital of North-Britain. On the fourth day of our pilgrimage, we lay in the suburbs of Aix, but did not enter the city, which I had a great curiosity to see. The villainous asthma baulked me of that satisfaction. I was pinched with the cold, and impatient to reach a warmer climate. Our next stage was at a paltry village, where we were poorly entertained. I looked so ill in the morning, that the good woman of the house, who was big with child, took me by the hand at parting, and even shed tears, praying fervently that God would restore me to my health. This was the only instance of sympathy, compassion, or goodness of heart, that I had met with among the publicans of France. Indeed at Valencia, our landlady, understanding I was travelling to Montpellier for my health would have dissuaded me from going thither; and exhorted me, in particular, to beware of the physicians, who were all a pack of assassins. She advised me to eat fricassees of chickens, and white meat, and to take a good bouillon every morning.

A bouillon is an universal remedy among the good people of France; insomuch, that they have no idea of any person’s dying, after having swallowed un bon bouillon. One of the English gentlemen, who were robbed and murdered about thirty years ago between Calais and Boulogne, being brought to the post-house of Boulogne with some signs of life, this remedy was immediately administered. “What surprises me greatly, (said the post-master, speaking of this melancholy story to a friend of mine, two years after it happened) I made an excellent bouillon, and poured it down his throat with my own hands, and yet he did not recover.” Now, in all probability, this bouillon it was that stopped his breath. When I was a very young man, I remember to have seen a person suffocated by such impertinent officiousness. A young man of uncommon parts and erudition, very well esteemed at the university of G— ow was found early one morning in a subterranean vault among the ruins of an old archiepiscopal palace, with his throat cut from ear to ear. Being conveyed to a public-house in the neighbourhood, he made signs for pen, ink, and paper, and in all probability would have explained the cause of this terrible catastrophe, when an old woman, seeing the windpipe, which was cut, sticking out of the wound, and mistaking it for the gullet, by way of giving him a cordial to support his spirits, poured into it, through a small funnel, a glass of burnt brandy, which strangled him in the tenth part of a minute. The gash was so hideous, and formed by so many repeated strokes of a razor, that the surgeons believed he could not possibly be the perpetrator himself; nevertheless this was certainly the case.

At Brignolles, where we dined, I was obliged to quarrel with the landlady, and threaten to leave her house, before she would indulge us with any sort of flesh-meat. It was meagre day, and she had made her provision accordingly. She even hinted some dissatisfaction at having heretics in her house: but, as I was not disposed to eat stinking fish, with ragouts of eggs and onions, I insisted upon a leg of mutton, and a brace of fine partridges, which I found in the larder. Next day, when we set out in the morning from Luc, it blew a north-westerly wind so extremely cold and biting, that even a flannel wrapper could not keep me tolerably warm in the coach. Whether the cold had put our coachman in a bad humour, or he had some other cause of resentment against himself, I know not; but we had not gone above a quarter of a mile, when he drove the carriage full against the corner of a garden wall, and broke the axle-tree, so that we were obliged to return to the inn on foot, and wait a whole day, until a new piece could be made and adjusted. The wind that blew, is called Maestral, in the Provencial dialect, and indeed is the severest that ever I felt. At this inn, we met with a young French officer who had been a prisoner in England, and spoke our language pretty well. He told me, that such a wind did not blow above twice or three times in a winter, and was never of long continuance, that in general, the weather was very mild and agreeable during the winter months; that living was very cheap in this part of Provence, which afforded great plenty of game. Here, too, I found a young Irish recollet, in his way from Rome to his own country. He complained, that he was almost starved by the inhospitable disposition of the French people; and that the regular clergy, in particular, had treated him with the most cruel disdain. I relieved his necessities, and gave him a letter to a gentleman of his own country at Montpellier.

When I rose in the morning, and opened a window that looked into the garden, I thought myself either in a dream, or bewitched. All the trees were cloathed with snow, and all the country covered at least a foot thick. “This cannot be the south of France, (said I to myself) it must be the Highlands of Scotland!” At a wretched town called Muy, where we dined, I had a warm dispute with our landlord, which, however, did not terminate to my satisfaction. I sent on the mules before, to the next stage, resolving to take post-horses, and bespoke them accordingly of the aubergiste, who was, at the same time, inn-keeper and post-master. We were ushered into the common eating-room, and had a very indifferent dinner; after which, I sent a loui’dore to be changed, in order to pay the reckoning. The landlord, instead of giving the full change, deducted three livres a head for dinner, and sent in the rest of the money by my servant. Provoked more at his ill manners, than at his extortion, I ferreted him out of a bed-chamber, where he had concealed himself, and obliged him to restore the full change, from which I paid him at the rate of two livres a head. He refused to take the money, which I threw down on the table; and the horses being ready, stepped into the coach, ordering the postillions to drive on. Here I had certainly reckoned without my host. The fellows declared they would not budge, until I should pay their master; and as I threatened them with manual chastisement, they alighted, and disappeared in a twinkling. I was now so incensed, that though I could hardly breathe; though the afternoon was far advanced, and the street covered with wet snow, I walked to the consul of the town, and made my complaint in form. This magistrate, who seemed to be a taylor, accompanied me to the inn, where by this time the whole town was assembled, and endeavoured to persuade me to compromise the affair. I said, as he was the magistrate, I would stand to his award. He answered, “that he would not presume to determine what I was to pay.” I have already paid him a reasonable price for his dinner, (said I) and now I demand post-horses according to the king’s ordonnance. The aubergiste said the horses were ready, but the guides were run away; and he could not find others to go in their place. I argued with great vehemence, offering to leave a loui’dore for the poor of the parish, provided the consul would oblige the rascal to do his duty. The consul shrugged up his shoulders, and declared it was not in his power. This was a lie, but I perceived he had no mind to disoblige the publican. If the mules had not been sent away, I should certainly have not only payed what I thought proper, but corrected the landlord into the bargain, for his insolence and extortion; but now I was entirely at his mercy, and as the consul continued to exhort me in very humble terms, to comply with his demands, I thought proper to acquiesce. Then the postillions immediately appeared: the crowd seemed to exult in the triumph of the aubergiste; and I was obliged to travel in the night, in very severe weather, after all the fatigue and mortification I had undergone.

We lay at Frejus, which was the Forum Julianum of the antients, and still boasts of some remains of antiquity; particularly the ruins of an amphitheatre, and an aqueduct. The first we passed in the dark, and next morning the weather was so cold that I could not walk abroad to see it. The town is at present very inconsiderable, and indeed in a ruinous condition. Nevertheless, we were very well lodged at the post-house, and treated with more politeness than we had met with in any other part of France.

As we had a very high mountain to ascend in the morning, I ordered the mules on before to the next post, and hired six horses for the coach. At the east end of Frejus, we saw close to the road on our left-hand, the arcades of the antient aqueduct, and the ruins of some Roman edifices, which seemed to have been temples. There was nothing striking in the architecture of the aqueduct. The arches are small and low, without either grace or ornament, and seem to have been calculated for mere utility.

The mountain of Esterelles, which is eight miles over, was formerly frequented by a gang of desperate banditti, who are now happily exterminated: the road is very good, but in some places very steep and bordered by precipices. The mountain is covered with pines, and the laurus cerasus, the fruit of which being now ripe, made a most romantic appearance through the snow that lay upon the branches. The cherries were so large that I at first mistook them for dwarf oranges. I think they are counted poisonous in England, but here the people eat them without hesitation. In the middle of the mountain is the post-house, where we dined in a room so cold, that the bare remembrance of it makes my teeth chatter. After dinner I chanced to look into another chamber that fronted the south, where the sun shone; and opening a window perceived, within a yard of my hand, a large tree loaded with oranges, many of which were ripe. You may judge what my astonishment was to find Winter in all his rigour reigning on one side of the house, and Summer in all her glory on the other. Certain it is, the middle of this mountain seemed to be the boundary of the cold weather. As we proceeded slowly in the afternoon we were quite enchanted. This side of the hill is a natural plantation of the most agreeable ever-greens, pines, firs, laurel, cypress, sweet myrtle, tamarisc, box, and juniper, interspersed with sweet marjoram, lavender, thyme, wild thyme, and sage. On the right-hand the ground shoots up into agreeable cones, between which you have delightful vistas of the Mediterranean, which washes the foot of the rock; and between two divisions of the mountains, there is a bottom watered by a charming stream, which greatly adds to the rural beauties of the scene.

This night we passed at Cannes, a little fishing town, agreeably situated on the beach of the sea, and in the same place lodged Monsieur Nadeau d’Etrueil, the unfortunate French governor of Guadeloupe, condemned to be imprisoned for life in one of the isles Marguerite, which lie within a mile of this coast.

Next day we journeyed by the way of Antibes, a small maritime town, tolerably well fortified; and passing the little river Loup, over a stone-bridge, arrived about noon at the village of St. Laurent, the extremity of France, where we passed the Var, after our baggage had undergone examination. From Cannes to this village the road lies along the sea-side; and sure nothing can be more delightful. Though in the morning there was a frost upon the ground, the sun was as warm as it is in May in England. The sea was quite smooth, and the beach formed of white polished pebbles; on the left-hand the country was covered with green olives, and the side of the road planted with large trees of sweet myrtle growing wild like the hawthorns in England. From Antibes we had the first view of Nice, lying on the opposite side of the bay, and making a very agreeable appearance. The author of the Grand Tour says, that from Antibes to Nice the roads are very bad, through rugged mountains bordered with precipices On the left, and by the sea to the right; whereas, in fact, there is neither precipice nor mountain near it.

The Var, which divides the county of Nice from Provence, is no other than a torrent fed chiefly by the snow that melts on the maritime Alps, from which it takes its origin. In the summer it is swelled to a dangerous height, and this is also the case after heavy rains: but at present the middle of it is quite dry, and the water divided into two or three narrow streams, which, however, are both deep and rapid. This river has been absurdly enough by some supposed the Rubicon, in all probability from the description of that river in the Pharsalia of Lucan, who makes it the boundary betwixt Gaul and Italy —

— et Gallica certus
Limes ab Ausoniis disterminat arva colonis.

A sure Frontier that parts the Gallic plains
From the rich meadows of th’ Ansonian swains.

whereas, in fact, the Rubicon, now called Pisatello, runs between Ravenna and Rimini. — But to return to the Var. At the village of St. Laurent, famous for its Muscadine wines, there is a set of guides always in attendance to conduct you in your passage over the river. Six of those fellows, tucked up above the middle, with long poles in their hands, took charge of our coach, and by many windings guided it safe to the opposite shore. Indeed there was no occasion for any; but it is a sort of a perquisite, and I did not choose to run any risque, how small soever it might be, for the sake of saving half a crown, with which they were satisfied. If you do not gratify the searchers at St. Laurent with the same sum, they will rummage your trunks, and turn all your cloaths topsy turvy. And here, once for all, I would advise every traveller who consults his own case and convenience, to be liberal of his money to all that sort of people; and even to wink at the imposition of aubergistes on the road, unless it be very flagrant. So sure as you enter into disputes with them, you will be put to a great deal of trouble, and fret yourself to no manner of purpose. I have travelled with oeconomists in England, who declared they would rather give away a crown than allow themselves to be cheated of a farthing. This is a good maxim, but requires a great share of resolution and self-denial to put it in practice. In one excursion of about two hundred miles my fellow-traveller was in a passion, and of consequence very bad company from one end of the journey to the other. He was incessantly scolding either at landlords, landladies, waiters, hostlers, or postilions. We had bad horses, and bad chaises; set out from every stage with the curses of the people; and at this expence I saved about ten shillings in the whole journey. For such a paltry consideration, he was contented to be miserable himself, and to make every other person unhappy with whom he had any concern. When I came last from Bath it rained so hard, that the postilion who drove the chaise was wet to the skin before we had gone a couple of miles. When we arrived at the Devises, I gave him two shillings instead of one, out of pure compassion. The consequence of this liberality was, that in the next stage we seemed rather to fly than to travel upon solid ground. I continued my bounty to the second driver, and indeed through the whole journey, and found myself accommodated in a very different manner from what I had experienced before. I had elegant chaises, with excellent horses; and the postilions of their own accord used such diligence, that although the roads were broken by the rain, I travelled at the rate of twelve miles an hour; and my extraordinary expence from Bath to London, amounted precisely to six shillings.

The river Var falls into the Mediterranean a little below St. Laurent, about four miles to the westward of Nice. Within the memory of persons now living, there have been three wooden bridges thrown over it, and as often destroyed in consequence of the jealousy subsisting between the kings of France and Sardinia; this river being the boundary of their dominions on the side of Provence. However, this is a consideration that ought not to interfere with the other advantages that would accrue to both kingdoms from such a convenience. If there was a bridge over the Var, and a post-road made from Nice to Genoa, I am very confident that all those strangers who now pass the Alps in their way to and from Italy, would choose this road as infinitely more safe, commodious, and agreeable. This would also be the case with all those who hire felucas from Marseilles or Antibes, and expose themselves to the dangers and inconveniences of travelling by sea in an open boat.

In the afternoon we arrived at Nice, where we found Mr. M— e, the English gentleman whom I had seen at Boulogne, and advised to come hither. He had followed my advice, and reached Nice about a month before my arrival, with his lady, child, and an old gouvernante. He had travelled with his own post-chaise and horses, and is now lodged just without one of the gates of the city, in the house of the count de V— n, for which he pays five loui’dores a month. I could hire one much better in the neighbourhood of London, for the same money. Unless you will submit to this extortion, and hire a whole house for a length of time, you will find no ready-furnished lodgings at Nice. After having stewed a week in a paltry inn, I have taken a ground floor for ten months at the rate of four hundred livres a year, that is twenty pounds sterling, for the Piedmontese livre is about an English shilling. The apartments are large, lofty, and commodious enough, with two small gardens, in which there is plenty of sallad, and a great number of oranges and lemons: but as it required some time to provide furniture, our consul Mr. B— d, one of the best natured and most friendly men in the world, has lent me his lodgings, which are charmingly situated by the sea-side, and open upon a terrace, that runs parallel to the beach, forming part of the town wall. Mr. B— d himself lives at Villa Franca, which is divided from Nice by a single mountain, on the top of which there is a small fort, called the castle of Montalban. Immediately after our arrival we were visited by one Mr. de Martines, a most agreeable young fellow, a lieutenant in the Swiss regiment, which is here in garrison. He is a Protestant, extremely fond of our nation, and understands our language tolerably well. He was particularly recommended to our acquaintance by general P— and his lady; we are happy in his conversation; find him wonderfully obliging, and extremely serviceable on many occasions. We have likewise made acquaintance with some other individuals, particularly with Mr. St. Pierre, junior, who is a considerable merchant, and consul for Naples. He is a well-bred, sensible young man, speaks English, is an excellent performer on the lute and mandolin, and has a pretty collection of books. In a word, I hope we shall pass the winter agreeably enough, especially if Mr. M— e should hold out; but I am afraid he is too far gone in a consumption to recover. He spent the last winter at Nismes, and consulted F— at Montpellier. I was impatient to see the prescription, and found it almost verbatim the same he had sent to me; although I am persuaded there is a very essential difference between our disorders. Mr. M— e has been long afflicted with violent spasms, colliquative sweats, prostration of appetite, and a disorder in his bowels. He is likewise jaundiced all over, and I am confident his liver is unsound. He tried the tortoise soup, which he said in a fortnight stuffed him up with phlegm. This gentleman has got a smattering of physic, and I am afraid tampers with his own constitution, by means of Brookes’s Practice of Physic, and some dispensatories, which he is continually poring over. I beg pardon for this tedious epistle, and am — Very sincerely, dear Sir, Your affectionate, humble servant.

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