Travels through France and Italy, by Tobias Smollett

Letter XXIV

Nice, January 4, 1765.

DEAR SIR. — The constitution of this climate may be pretty well ascertained, from the inclosed register of the weather, which I kept with all possible care and attention. From a perusal of it, you will see that there is less rain and wind at Nice, than in any other part of the world that I know; and such is the serenity of the air, that you see nothing above your head for several months together, but a charming blue expanse, without cloud or speck. Whatever clouds may be formed by evaporation of the sea, they seldom or never hover over this small territory; but, in all probability, are attracted by the mountains that surround it, and there fall in rain or snow: as for those that gather from other quarters, I suppose their progress hitherward is obstructed by those very Alps, which rise one over another, to an extent of many leagues. This air being dry, pure, heavy, and elastic, must be agreeable to the constitution of those who labour under disorders arising from weak nerves, obstructed perspiration, relaxed fibres, a viscidity of lymph, and a languid circulation. In other respects, it encourages the scurvy, the atmosphere being undoubtedly impregnated with sea-salt. Ever since my arrival at Nice, I have had a scorbutical eruption on my right hand, which diminishes and increases according to the state of my health. One day last summer, when there was a strong breeze from the sea, the surface of our bodies was covered with a salt brine, very perceptible to the taste; my gums, as well as those of another person in my family, began to swell, and grow painful, though this had never happened before; and I was seized with violent pains in the joints of my knees. I was then at a country-house fronting the sea, and particularly exposed to the marine air. The swelling of our gums subsided as the wind fell: but what was very remarkable, the scurvy-spot on my hand disappeared, and did not return for a whole month. It is affirmed that sea-salt will dissolve, and render the blood so fluid, that it will exude through the coats of the vessels. Perhaps the sea-scurvy is a partial dissolution of it, by that mineral absorbed from the air by the lymphatics on the surface of the body, and by those of the lungs in respiration. Certain it is, in the last stages of the sea-scurvy, the blood often bursts from the pores; and this phaenomenon is imputed to a high degree of putrefaction: sure enough it is attended with putrefaction. We know that a certain quantity of salt is required to preserve the animal juices from going putrid: but, how a greater quantity should produce putrefaction, I leave to wiser heads to explain. Many people here have scorbutical complaints, though their teeth are not affected. They are subject to eruptions on the skin, putrid gums, pains in the bones, lassitude, indigestion, and low spirits; but the reigning distemper is a marasmus, or consumption, which proceeds gradually, without any pulmonary complaint, the complexion growing more and more florid, ‘till the very last scene of the tragedy. This I would impute to the effects of a very dry, saline atmosphere, upon a thin habit, in which there is an extraordinary waste by perspiration. The air is remarkably salt in this district, because the mountains that hem it in, prevent its communication with the circumambient atmosphere, in which the saline particles would otherwise be diffused; and there is no rain, nor dew, to precipitate or dissolve them. Such an air as I have described, should have no bad effect upon a moist, phlegmatic constitution, such as mine; and yet it must be owned, I have been visibly wasting since I came hither, though this decay I considered as the progress of the tabes which began in England. But the air of Nice has had a still more sensible effect upon Mr. Sch — z, who laboured under nervous complaints to such a degree, that life was a burthen to him. He had also a fixed pain in his breast, for which complaint he had formerly tried the air of Naples, where he resided some considerable time, and in a great measure recovered: but, this returning with weakness, faintness, low spirits, and entire loss of appetite, he was advised to come hither; and the success of his journey has greatly exceeded his expectation. Though the weather has been remarkably bad for this climate, he has enjoyed perfect health. Since he arrived at Nice, the pain in his breast has vanished; he eats heartily, sleeps well, is in high spirits, and so strong, that he is never off his legs in the day-time. He can walk to the Var and back again, before dinner; and he has climbed to the tops of all the mountains in this neighbourhood. I never saw before such sudden and happy effects from the change of air. I must also acknowledge, that ever since my arrival at Nice, I have breathed more freely than I had done for some years, and my spirits have been more alert. The father of my housekeeper, who was a dancing-master, had been so afflicted with an asthmatic disorder, that he could not live in France, Spain, or Italy; but found the air of Nice so agreeable to his lungs, that he was enabled to exercise his profession for above twenty years, and died last spring turned of seventy. Another advantage I have reaped from this climate is my being, in a great measure, delivered from a slow fever which used to hang about me, and render life a burthen. Neither am I so apt to catch cold as I used to be in England and France; and the colds I do catch are not of the same continuance and consequence, as those to which I was formerly subject. The air of Nice is so dry, that in summer, and even in winter, (except ill wet weather) you may pass the evening, and indeed the whole night, sub Dio, without feeling the least dew or moisture; and as for fogs, they are never seen in this district. In summer, the air is cooled by a regular sea-breeze blowing from the cast, like that of the West-Indies. It begins in the forenoon, and increases with the heat of the day. It dies away about six or seven; and immediately after sun-set is succeeded by an agreeable land-breeze from the mountains. The sea-breeze from the eastward, however, is not so constant here, as in the West-Indies between the tropicks, because the sun, which produces it, is not so powerful. This country lies nearer the region of variable winds, and is surrounded by mountains, capes, and straights, which often influence the constitution and current of the air. About the winter solstice, the people of Nice expect wind and rain, which generally lasts, with intervals, ‘till the beginning of February: but even during this, their worst weather, the sun breaks out occasionally, and you may take the air either a-foot or on horseback every day; for the moisture is immediately absorbed by the earth, which is naturally dry. They likewise lay their account with being visited by showers of rain and gusts of wind in April. A week’s rain in the middle of August makes them happy. It not only refreshes the parched ground, and plumps up the grapes and other fruit, but it cools the air and assuages the beets, which then begin to grow very troublesome; but the rainy season is about the autumnal equinox, or rather something later. It continues about twelve days or a fortnight, and is extremely welcome to the natives of this country. This rainy season is often delayed ‘till the latter end of November, and sometimes ‘till the month of December; in which case, the rest of the winter is generally dry. The heavy rains in this country generally come with a south-west wind, which was the creberque procellis Africus, the stormy southwest, of the antients. It is here called Lebeche, a corruption of Lybicus: it generally blows high for a day or two, and rolls the Mediterranean before it in huge waves, that often enter the town of Nice. It likewise drives before it all the clouds which had been formed above the surface of the Mediterranean. These being expended in rain, fair weather naturally ensues. For this reason, the Nissards observe le lebeche racommode le tems, the Lebeche settles the weather. During the rains of this season, however, the winds have been variable. From the sixteenth of November, ‘till the fourth of January, we have had two and twenty days of heavy rain: a very extraordinary visitation in this country: but the seasons seem to be more irregular than formerly, all over Europe. In the month of July, the mercury in Fahrenheit’s thermometer, rose to eighty-four at Rome, the highest degree at which it was ever known in that country; and the very next day, the Sabine mountains were covered with snow. The same phaemomenon happened on the eleventh of August, and the thirtieth of September. The consequence of these sudden variations of weather, was this: putrid fevers were less frequent than usual; but the sudden cheek of perspiration from the cold, produced colds, inflammatory sore throats, and the rheumatism. I know instances of some English valetudinarians, who have passed the winter at Aix, on the supposition that there was little or no difference between that air and the climate of Nice: but this is a very great mistake, which may be attended with fatal consequences. Aix is altogether exposed to the north and north-west winds, which blow as cold in Provence, as ever I felt them on the mountains of Scotland: whereas Nice is entirely screened from these winds by the Maritime Alps, which form an amphitheatre, to the land-side, around this little territory: but another incontestible proof of the mildness of this climate, is deduced from the oranges, lemons, citrons, roses, narcissus’s, july-flowers, and jonquils, which ripen and blow in the middle of winter. I have described the agreeable side of this climate; and now I will point out its inconveniences. In the winter, but especially in the spring, the sun is so hot, that one can hardly take exercise of any sort abroad, without being thrown into a breathing sweat; and the wind at this season is so cold and piercing, that it often produces a mischievous effect on the pores thus opened. If the heat rarifies the blood and juices, while the cold air constringes the fibres, and obstructs the perspiration, inflammatory disorders must ensue. Accordingly, the people are then subject to colds, pleurisies, peripneumonies, and ardent fevers. An old count advised me to stay within doors in March, car alors les humeurs commencent a se remuer, for then the humours begin to be in motion. During the heats of summer, some few persons of gross habits have, in consequence of violent exercise and excess, been seized with putrid fevers, attended with exanthemata, erisipelatous, and miliary eruptions, which commonly prove fatal: but the people in general are healthy, even those that take very little exercise: a strong presumption in favour of the climate! As to medicine, I know nothing of the practice of the Nice physicians. Here are eleven in all; but four or five make shift to live by the profession. They receive, by way of fee, ten sols (an English six-pence) a visit, and this is but ill paid: so you may guess whether they are in a condition to support the dignity of physic; and whether any man, of a liberal education, would bury himself at Nice on such terms. I am acquainted with an Italian physician settled at Villa Franca, a very good sort of a man, who practises for a certain salary, raised by annual contribution among the better sort of people; and an allowance from the king, for visiting the sick belonging to the garrison and the gallies. The whole may amount to near thirty pounds.

Among the inconveniences of this climate, the vermin form no inconsiderable article. Vipers and snakes are found in the mountains. Our gardens swarm with lizzards; and there are some few scorpions; but as yet I have seen but one of this species. In summer, notwithstanding all the care and precautions we can take, we are pestered with incredible swarms of flies, fleas, and bugs; but the gnats, or couzins, are more intolerable than all the rest. In the day-time, it is impossible to keep the flies out of your mouth, nostrils, eyes, and ears. They croud into your milk, tea, chocolate, soup, wine, and water: they soil your sugar, contaminate your victuals, and devour your fruit; they cover and defile your furniture, floors, cielings, and indeed your whole body. As soon as candles are lighted, the couzins begin to buz about your ears in myriads, and torment you with their stings, so that you have no rest nor respite ‘till you get into bed, where you are secured by your mosquito-net. This inclosure is very disagreeable in hot weather; and very inconvenient to those, who, like me, are subject to a cough and spitting. It is moreover ineffectual; for some of those cursed insects insinuate themselves within it, almost every night; and half a dozen of them are sufficient to disturb you ‘till morning. This is a plague that continues all the year; but in summer it is intolerable. During this season, likewise, the moths are so mischievous, that it requires the utmost care to preserve woollen cloths from being destroyed. From the month of May, ‘till the beginning of October, the heat is so violent, that you cannot stir abroad after six in the morning ‘till eight at night, so that you are entirely deprived of the benefit of exercise: There is no shaded walk in, or near the town; and there is neither coach nor chaise to hire, unless you travel post. Indeed, there is no road fit for any wheel carriage, but the common highway to the Var, in which you are scorched by the reflexion of the sun from the sand and stones, and at the same time half stifled with dust. If you ride out in the cool of the evening, you will have the disadvantage of returning in the dark.

Among the demerits of Nice, I must also mention the water which is used in the city. It is drawn from wells; and for the most part so hard, that it curdles with soap. There are many fountains and streams in the neighbourhood, that afford excellent water, which, at no great charge, might be conveyed into the town, so as to form conduits in all the public streets: but the inhabitants are either destitute of public spirit, or cannot afford the expense. [General Paterson delivered a Plan to the King of Sardinia for supplying Nice with excellent water for so small an expence as one livre a house per annum; but the inhabitants remonstrated against it as an intolerable Imposition.] I have a draw-well in my porch, and another in my garden, which supply tolerable water for culinary uses; but what we drink, is fetched from a well belonging to a convent of Dominicans in this neighbourhood. Our linnen is washed in the river Paglion; and when that is dry, in the brook called Limpia, which runs into the harbour.

In mentioning the water of this neighbourhood, I ought not to omit the baths of Rocabiliare, a small town among the mountains, about five and twenty miles from Nice. There are three sources, each warmer than the other; the warmest being nearly equal to the heat of the king’s bath at Bath in Somersetshire, as far as I can judge from information. I have perused a Latin manuscript, which treats of these baths at Rocabiliare, written by the duke of Savoy’s first physician about sixty years ago. He talks much of the sulphur and the nitre which they contain; but I apprehend their efficacy is owing to the same volatile vitriolic principle, which characterises the waters at Bath. They are attenuating and deobstruent, consequently of service in disorders arising from a languid circulation, a viscidity of the juices, a lax fibre, and obstructed viscera. The road from hence to Rocabiliare is in some parts very dangerous, lying along the brink of precipices, impassable to any other carriage but a mule. The town itself affords bad lodging and accommodation, and little or no society. The waters are at the distance of a mile and a half from the town: there are no baths nor shelter, nor any sort of convenience for those that drink them; and the best part of their efficacy is lost, unless they are drank at the fountain-head. If these objections were in some measure removed, I would advise valetudinarians, who come hither for the benefit of this climate, to pass the heats of summer at Rocabiliare, which being situated among mountains, enjoys a cool temperate air all the summer. This would be a salutary respite from the salt air of Nice, to those who labour under scorbutical complaints; and they would return with fresh vigour and spirits, to pass the winter in this place, where no severity of weather is known. Last June, when I found myself so ill at my cassine, I had determined to go to Rocabiliare, and even to erect a hut at the spring, for my own convenience. A gentleman of Nice undertook to procure me a tolerable lodging in the house of the cure, who was his relation. He assured me, there was no want of fresh butter, good poultry, excellent veal, and delicate trout; and that the articles of living might be had at Rocabiliare for half the price we paid at Nice: but finding myself grow better immediately on my return from the cassine to my own house, I would not put myself to the trouble and expence of a further removal.

I think I have now communicated all the particulars relating to Nice, that are worth knowing; and perhaps many more than you desired to know: but, in such cases, I would rather be thought prolix and unentertaining, than deficient in that regard and attention with which I am very sincerely — Your friend and servant.

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