Travels through France and Italy, by Tobias Smollett

Letter XIII

Nice, January 15, 1764.

DEAR SIR — I am at last settled at Nice, and have leisure to give you some account of this very remarkable place. The county of Nice extends about fourscore miles in length, and in some places it is thirty miles broad. It contains several small towns, and a great number of villages; all of which, this capital excepted, are situated among mountains, the most extensive plain of the whole country being this where I now am, in the neighbourhood of Nice. The length of it does not exceed two miles, nor is the breadth of it, in any part, above one. It is bounded by the Mediterranean on the south. From the sea-shore, the maritime Alps begin with hills of a gentle ascent, rising into mountains that form a sweep or amphitheatre ending at Montalban, which overhangs the town of Villa Franca. On the west side of this mountain, and in the eastern extremity of the amphitheatre, stands the city of Nice, wedged in between a steep rock and the little river Paglion, which descends from the mountains, and washing the town-walls on the west side, falls into the sea, after having filled some canals for the use of the inhabitants. There is a stone-bridge of three arches over it, by which those who come from Provence enter the city. The channel of it is very broad, but generally dry in many places; the water (as in the Var) dividing itself into several small streams. The Paglion being fed by melted snow and rain in the mountains, is quite dry in summer; but it is sometimes swelled by sudden rains to a very formidable torrent. This was the case in the year 1744, when the French and Spanish armies attacked eighteen Piedmontese battalions, which were posted on the side of Montalban. The assailants were repulsed with the loss of four thousand men, some hundreds of whom perished in repassing the Paglion, which had swelled to a surprising degree during the battle, in consequence of a heavy continued rain. This rain was of great service to the Piedmontese, as it prevented one half of the enemy from passing the river to sustain the other. Five hundred were taken prisoners: but the Piedmontese, foreseeing they should be surrounded next day by the French, who had penetrated behind them, by a pass in the mountains, retired in the night. Being received on board the English Fleet, which lay at Villa Franca, they were conveyed to Oneglia. In examining the bodies of those that were killed in the battle, the inhabitants of Nice perceived, that a great number of the Spanish soldiers were circumcised; a circumstance, from which they concluded, that a great many Jews engage in the service of his Catholic majesty. I am of a different opinion. The Jews are the least of any people that I know, addicted to a military life. I rather imagine they were of the Moorish race, who have subsisted in Spain, since the expulsion of their brethren; and though they conform externally to the rites of the Catholic religion, still retain in private their attachment to the law of Mahomet.

The city of Nice is built in form of an irregular isosceles triangle, the base of which fronts the sea. On the west side it is surrounded by a wall and rampart; on the east, it is over-hung by a rock, on which we see the ruins of an old castle, which, before the invention of artillery, was counted impregnable. It was taken and dismantled by marechal Catinat, in the time of Victor Amadaeus, the father of his Sardinian majesty. It was afterwards finally demolished by the duke of Berwick towards the latter end of queen Anne’s war. To repair it would be a very unnecessary expence, as it is commanded by Montalban, and several other eminences.

The town of Nice is altogether indefensible, and therefore without fortifications. There are only two iron guns upon a bastion that fronts the beach; and here the French had formed a considerable battery against the English cruisers, in the war of 1744, when the Mareschal Duke de Belleisle had his headquarters at Nice. This little town, situated in the bay of Antibes, is almost equidistant from Marseilles, Turin, and Genoa, the first and last being about thirty leagues from hence by sea; and the capital of Piedmont at the same distance to the northward, over the mountains. It lies exactly opposite to Capo di Ferro, on the coast of Barbary; and, the islands of Sardinia and Corsica are laid down about two degrees to the eastward, almost exactly in a line with Genoa. This little town, hardly a mile in circumference, is said to contain twelve thousand inhabitants. The streets are narrow; the houses are built of stone, and the windows in general are fitted with paper instead of glass. This expedient would not answer in a country subject to rain and storms; but here, where there is very little of either, the paper lozenges answer tolerably well. The bourgeois, however, begin to have their houses sashed with glass. Between the town-wall and the sea, the fishermen haul up their boats upon the open beach; but on the other side of the rock, where the castle stood, is the port or harbour of Nice, upon which some money has been expended. It is a small basin, defended to seaward by a mole of free-stone, which is much better contrived than executed: for the sea has already made three breaches in it; and in all probability, in another winter, the extremity of it will be carried quite away. It would require the talents of a very skilful architect to lay the foundation of a good mole, on an open beach like this; exposed to the swell of the whole Mediterranean, without any island or rock in the offing, to break the force of the waves. Besides, the shore is bold, and the bottom foul. There are seventeen feet of water in the basin, sufficient to float vessels of one hundred and fifty ton; and this is chiefly supplied by a small stream of very fine water; another great convenience for shipping. On the side of the mole, there is a constant guard of soldiers, and a battery of seven cannon, pointing to the sea. On the other side, there is a curious manufacture for twisting or reeling silk; a tavern, a coffee-house, and several other buildings, for the convenience of the sea-faring people. Without the harbour, is a lazarette, where persons coming from infected places, are obliged to perform quarantine. The harbour has been declared a free-port, and it is generally full of tartans, polacres, and other small vessels, that come from Sardinia, Ivica, Italy, and Spain, loaded with salt, wine, and other commodities; but here is no trade of any great consequence.

The city of Nice is provided with a senate, which administers justice under the auspices of an avocat-general, sent hither by the king. The internal oeconomy of the town is managed by four consuls; one for the noblesse. another for the merchants, a third for the bourgeois, and a fourth for the peasants. These are chosen annually from the town-council. They keep the streets and markets in order, and superintend the public works. There is also an intendant, who takes care of his majesty’s revenue: but there is a discretionary power lodged in the person of the commandant, who is always an officer of rank in the service, and has under his immediate command the regiment which is here in garrison. That which is here now is a Swiss battalion, of which the king has five or six in his service. There is likewise a regiment of militia, which is exercised once a year. But of all these particulars, I shall speak more fully on another occasion.

When I stand upon the rampart, and look round me, I can scarce help thinking myself inchanted. The small extent of country which I see, is all cultivated like a garden. Indeed, the plain presents nothing but gardens, full of green trees, loaded with oranges, lemons, citrons, and bergamots, which make a delightful appearance. If you examine them more nearly, you will find plantations of green pease ready to gather; all sorts of sallading, and pot-herbs, in perfection; and plats of roses, carnations, ranunculas, anemonies, and daffodils, blowing in full glory, with such beauty, vigour, and perfume, as no flower in England ever exhibited.

I must tell you, that presents of carnations are sent from hence, in the winter, to Turin and Paris; nay, sometimes as far as London, by the post. They are packed up in a wooden box, without any sort of preparation, one pressed upon another: the person who receives them, cuts off a little bit of the stalk, and steeps them for two hours in vinegar and water, when they recover their full bloom and beauty. Then he places them in water-bottles, in an apartment where they are screened from the severities of the weather; and they will continue fresh and unfaded the best part of a month.

Amidst the plantations in the neighbourhood of Nice, appear a vast number of white bastides, or country-houses, which make a dazzling shew. Some few of these are good villas, belonging to the noblesse of this county; and even some of the bourgeois are provided with pretty lodgeable cassines; but in general, they are the habitations of the peasants, and contain nothing but misery and vermin. They are all built square; and, being whitened with lime or plaister, contribute greatly to the richness of the view. The hills are shaded to the tops with olive-trees, which are always green; and those hills are over-topped by more distant mountains, covered with snow. When I turn myself towards the sea, the view is bounded by the horizon; yet in a clear morning, one can perceive the high lands of Corsica. On the right hand, it is terminated by Antibes, and the mountain of Esterelles, which I described in my last. As for the weather, you will conclude, from what I have said of the oranges, flowers, etc. that it must be wonderfully mild and serene: but of the climate, I shall speak hereafter. Let me only observe, en passant, that the houses in general have no chimnies, but in their kitchens; and that many people, even of condition, at Nice, have no fire in their chambers, during the whole winter. When the weather happens to be a little more sharp than usual, they warm their apartments with a brasiere or pan of charcoal.

Though Nice itself retains few marks of antient splendor, there are considerable monuments of antiquity in its neighbourhood. About two short miles from the town, upon the summit of a pretty high hill, we find the ruins of the antient city Cemenelion, now called Cimia, which was once the metropolis of the Maritime Alps, and the scat of a Roman president. With respect to situation, nothing could be more agreeable or salubrious. It stood upon the gentle ascent and summit of a hill, fronting the Mediterranean; from the shore of which, it is distant about half a league; and, on the other side, it overlooked a bottom, or narrow vale, through which the Paglion (antiently called Paulo) runs towards the walls of Nice. It was inhabited by a people, whom Ptolomy and Pliny call the Vedantij: but these were undoubtedly mixed with a Roman colony, as appears by the monuments which still remain; I mean the ruins of an amphitheatre, a temple of Apollo, baths, aqueducts, sepulchral, and other stones, with inscriptions, and a great number of medals which the peasants have found by accident, in digging and labouring the vineyards and cornfields, which now cover the ground where the city stood.

Touching this city, very little is to be learned from the antient historians: but that it was the seat of a Roman praeses, is proved by the two following inscriptions, which are still extant.


By the Senate of Cemenelion, Dedicated to His Excellency P. Aelius Severinus, the best of Governors and Patrons.

This is now in the possession of the count de Gubernatis, who has a country-house upon the spot. The other, found near the same place, is in praise of the praeses Marcus Aurelius Masculus.


Inscribed by the three corporations under the authority of the Senate, to their most worthy Patron, His Excellency M. Aurelius Masculus, in testimony of their gratitude for the blessings of his incorruptible administration, his wonderful affability to all without Distinction, his generous Distribution of Corn in time of Dearth, his munificence in repairing the ruinous aqueduct, in searching for, discovering and restoring the water to its former course for the Benefit of the Community.

This president well deserved such a mark of respect from a people whom he had assisted in two such essential articles, as their corn and their water. You know the praeses of a Roman province had the jus sigendi clavi, the right to drive a nail in the Kalendar, the privilege of wearing the latus clavus, or broad studs on his garment, the gladius, infula, praetexta, purpura & annulus aureus, the Sword, Diadem, purple Robe, and gold Ring, he had his vasa, vehicula, apparitores, Scipio eburneus, & sella curulis, Kettledrums, [I know the kettledrum is a modern invention; but the vasa militari modo conclamata was something analogous.] Chariots, Pursuivants, ivory staff, and chair of state.

I shall give you one more sepulchral inscription on a marble, which is now placed over the gate of the church belonging to the convent of St. Pont, a venerable building, which stands at the bottom of the hill, fronting the north side of the town of Nice. This St. Pont, or Pontius, was a Roman convert to Christianity, who suffered martyrdom at Cemenelion in the year 261, during the reigns of the emperors Valerian and Gallienus. The legends recount some ridiculous miracles wrought in favour of this saint, both before and after his death. Charles V. emperor of Germany and king of Spain, caused this monastery to be built on the spot where Pontius suffered decapitation. But to return to the inscription: it appears in these words.


Freely consecrated by Aurelius Rhodismanus, the Emperor’s Freedman, to the much honoured memory of his dear Consort Flavia Aurelia of Rome, a woman equally distinguished by her unblemished Virtue and conjugal affection. His children Martial and Aurelia Romula deeply affected and distressed by the Violence of his Grief, erected and dedicated a monument to their dear deserving Parent.

[I don’t pretend to translate these inscriptions literally, because I am doubtful about the meaning of some abbreviations.]

The amphitheatre of Cemenelion is but very small, compared to that of Nismes. The arena is ploughed up, and bears corn: some of the seats remain, and part of two opposite porticos; but all the columns, and the external facade of the building, are taken away so that it is impossible to judge of the architecture, all we can perceive is, that it was built in an oval form. About one hundred paces from the amphitheatre stood an antient temple, supposed to have been dedicated to Apollo. The original roof is demolished, as well as the portico; the vestiges of which may still be traced. The part called the Basilica, and about one half of the Cella Sanctior, remain, and are converted into the dwelling-house and stable of the peasant who takes care of the count de Gubernatis’s garden, in which this monument stands. In the Cella Sanctior, I found a lean cow, a he-goat, and a jack-ass; the very same conjunction of animals which I had seen drawing a plough in Burgundy. Several mutilated statues have been dug up from the ruins of this temple; and a great number of medals have been found in the different vineyards which now occupy the space upon which stood the antient city of Cemenelion. These were of gold, silver, and brass. Many of them were presented to Charles Emanuel I. duke of Savoy. The prince of Monaco has a good number of them in his collection; and the rest are in private hands. The peasants, in digging, have likewise found many urns, lachrymatories, and sepulchral stones, with epitaphs, which are now dispersed among different convents and private houses. All this ground is a rich mine of antiquities, which, if properly worked, would produce a great number of valuable curiosities. Just by the temple of Apollo were the ruins of a bath, composed of great blocks of marble, which have been taken away for the purposes of modern building. In all probability, many other noble monuments of this city have been dilapidated by the same barbarous oeconomy. There are some subterranean vaults, through which the water was conducted to this bath, still extant in the garden of the count de Gubernatis. Of the aqueduct that conveyed water to the town, I can say very little, but that it was scooped through a mountain: that this subterranean passage was discovered some years ago, by removing the rubbish which choaked it up: that the people penetrating a considerable way, by the help of lighted torches, found a very plentiful stream of water flowing in an aqueduct, as high as an ordinary man, arched over head, and lined with a sort of cement. They could not, however, trace this stream to its source; and it is again stopped up with earth and rubbish. There is not a soul in this country, who has either spirit or understanding to conduct an inquiry of this kind. Hard by the amphitheatre is a convent of Recollets, built in a very romantic situation, on the brink of a precipice. On one side of their garden, they ascend to a kind of esplanade, which they say was part of the citadel of Cemenelion. They have planted it with cypress-trees, and flowering-shrubs. One of the monks told me, that it is vaulted below, as they can plainly perceive by the sound of their instruments used in houghing the ground. A very small expence would bring the secrets of this cavern to light. They have nothing to do, but to make a breach in the wall, which appears uncovered towards the garden.

The city of Cemenelion was first sacked by the Longobards, who made an irruption into Provence, under their king Alboinus, about the middle of the sixth century. It was afterwards totally destroyed by the Saracens, who, at different times, ravaged this whole coast. The remains of the people are supposed to have changed their habitation, and formed a coalition with the inhabitants of Nice.

What further I have to say of Nice, you shall know in good time; at present, I have nothing to add, but what you very well know, that I am always your affectionate humble servant.

Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30