Travels through France and Italy, by Tobias Smollett

Letter XXXIX

Aix En Provence, May 10, 1765.

DEAR SIR — I am thus far on my way to England. I had resolved to leave Nice, without having the least dispute with any one native of the place; but I found it impossible to keep this resolution. My landlord, Mr. C — a man of fashion, with whose family we had always lived in friendship, was so reasonable as to expect I should give him up the house and garden, though they were to be paid for till Michaelmas, and peremptorily declared I should not be permitted to sub-let them to any other person. He had of his own accord assured me more than once that he would take my furniture off my hands, and trusting to this assurance, I had lost the opportunity, of disposing it to advantage: but, when the time of my departure drew near, he refused to take it, at the same time insisting upon having the key of the house and garden, as well as on being paid the whole rent directly, though it would not be due till the middle of September. I was so exasperated at this treatment from a man whom I had cultivated with particular respect, that I determined to contest it at law: but the affair was accommodated by the mediation of a father of the Minims, a friend to both, and a merchant of Nice, who charged himself with the care of the house and furniture. A stranger must conduct himself with the utmost circumspection to be able to live among these people without being the dupe of imposition.

I had sent to Aix for a coach and four horses, which I hired at the rate of eighteen French livres a day, being equal to fifteen shillings and nine-pence sterling. The river Var was so swelled by the melting of the snow on the mountains, as to be impassable by any wheel-carriage; and, therefore, the coach remained at Antibes, to which we went by water, the distance being about nine or ten miles. This is the Antipolis of the antients, said to have been built like Nice, by a colony from Marseilles. In all probability, however, it was later than the foundation of Nice, and took its name from its being situated directly opposite to that city. Pliny says it was famous for its tunny-fishery; and to this circumstance Martial alludes in the following lines

Antipolitani, fateor, sum filia thynni. Essem si Scombri non tibi missa forem.

I’m spawned from Tunny of Antibes, ’tis true. Right Scomber had I been, I ne’er had come to you.

The famous pickle Garum was made from the Thynnus or Tunny as well as from the Scomber, but that from the Scomber was counted the most delicate. Commentators, however, are not agreed about the Scomber or Scombrus. Some suppose it was the Herring or Sprat; others believe it was the mackarel; after all, perhaps it was the Anchovy, which I do not find distinguished by any other Latin name: for the Encrasicolus is a Greek appellation altogether generical. Those who would be further informed about the Garum and the Scomber may consult Caelius Apicius de recogninaria, cum notis, variorum.

At present, Antibes is the frontier of France towards Italy, pretty strongly fortified, and garrisoned by a battalion of soldiers. The town is small and inconsiderable: but the basin of the harbour is surrounded to seaward by a curious bulwark founded upon piles driven in the water, consisting of a wall, ramparts, casemates, and quay. Vessels lie very safe in this harbour; but there is not water at the entrance of it to admit of ships of any burthen. The shallows run so far off from the coast, that a ship of force cannot lie near enough to batter the town; but it was bombarded in the late war. Its chief strength by land consists in a small quadrangular fort detached from the body of the place, which, in a particular manner, commands the entrance of the harbour. The wall of the town built in the sea has embrasures and salient angles, on which a great number of cannon may be mounted.

I think the adjacent country is much more pleasant than that on the side of Nice; and there is certainly no essential difference in the climate. The ground here is not so encumbered; it is laid out in agreeable inclosures, with intervals of open fields, and the mountains rise with an easy ascent at a much greater distance from the sea, than on the other side of the bay. Besides, here are charming rides along the beach, which is smooth and firm. When we passed in the last week of April, the corn was in the ear; the cherries were almost ripe; and the figs had begun to blacken. I had embarked my heavy baggage on board a London ship, which happened to be at Nice, ready to sail: as for our small trunks or portmanteaus, which we carried along with us, they were examined at Antibes; but the ceremony was performed very superficially, in consequence of tipping the searcher with half-a-crown, which is a wonderful conciliator at all the bureaus in this country.

We lay at Cannes, a neat village, charmingly situated on the beach of the Mediterranean, exactly opposite to the isles Marguerites, where state-prisoners are confined. As there are some good houses in this place, I would rather live here for the sake of the mild climate, than either at Antibes or Nice. Here you are not cooped up within walls, nor crowded with soldiers and people: but are already in the country, enjoy a fine air, and are well supplied with all sorts of fish.

The mountains of Esterelles, which in one of my former letters I described as a most romantic and noble plantation of ever-greens, trees, shrubs, and aromatic plants, is at present quite desolate. Last summer, some execrable villains set fire to the pines, when the wind was high. It continued burning for several months, and the conflagration extended above ten leagues, consuming an incredible quantity of timber. The ground is now naked on each side of the road, or occupied by the black trunks of the trees, which have been scorched without falling. They stand as so many monuments of the judgment of heaven, filling the mind with horror and compassion. I could hardly refrain from shedding tears at this dismal spectacle, when I recalled the idea of what it was about eighteen months ago.

As we stayed all night at Frejus, I had an opportunity of viewing the amphitheatre at leisure. As near as I can judge by the eye, it is of the same dimensions with that of Nismes; but shockingly dilapidated. The stone seats rising from the arena are still extant, and the cells under them, where the wild beasts were kept. There are likewise the remains of two galleries one over another; and two vomitoria or great gateways at opposite sides of the arena, which is now a fine green, with a road through the middle of it: but all the external architecture and the ornaments are demolished. The most intire part of the wall now constitutes part of a monastery, the monks of which, I am told, have helped to destroy the amphitheatre, by removing the stones for their own purposes of building. In the neighbourhood of this amphitheatre, which stands without the walls, are the vestiges of an old edifice, said to have been the palace where the imperator or president resided: for it was a Roman colony, much favoured by Julius Caesar, who gave it the name of Forum Julii, and Civitas Forojuliensis. In all probability, it was he who built the amphitheatre, and brought hither the water ten leagues from the river of Ciagne, by means of an aqueduct, some arcades of which are still standing on the other side of the town. A great number of statues were found in this place, together with antient inscriptions, which have been published by different authors. I need not tell you that Julius Agricola, the father-inlaw of Tacitus, the historian, was a native of Frejus, which is now a very poor inconsiderable place. From hence the country opens to the left, forming an extensive plain between the sea and the mountains, which are a continuation of the Alps, that stretches through Provence and Dauphine. This plain watered with pleasant streams, and varied with vineyards, corn-fields, and meadow-ground, afforded a most agreeable prospect to our eyes, which were accustomed to the sight of scorching sands, rugged rocks, and abrupt mountains in the neighbourhood of Nice. Although this has much the appearance of a corn-country, I am told it does not produce enough for the consumption of its inhabitants, who are obliged to have annual supplies from abroad, imported at Marseilles. A Frenchman, at an average, eats three times the quantity of bread that satisfies a native of England, and indeed it is undoubtedly the staff of his life. I am therefore surprised that the Provencaux do not convert part of their vineyards into corn-fields: for they may boast of their wine as they please; but that which is drank by the common people, not only here, but also in all the wine countries of France, is neither so strong, nourishing, nor (in my opinion) so pleasant to the taste as the small-beer of England. It must be owned that all the peasants who have wine for their ordinary drink are of a diminutive size, in comparison of those who use milk, beer, or even water; and it is a constant observation, that when there is a scarcity of wine, the common people are always more healthy, than in those seasons when it abounds. The longer I live, the more I am convinced that wine, and all fermented liquors, are pernicious to the human constitution; and that for the preservation of health, and exhilaration of the spirits, there is no beverage comparable to simple water. Between Luc and Toulon, the country is delightfully parcelled out into inclosures. Here is plenty of rich pasturage for black cattle, and a greater number of pure streams and rivulets than I have observed in any other parts of France.

Toulon is a considerable place, even exclusive of the basin, docks, and arsenal, which indeed are such as justify the remark made by a stranger when he viewed them. “The king of France (said he) is greater at Toulon than at Versailles.” The quay, the jetties, the docks, and magazines, are contrived and executed with precision, order, solidity, and magnificence. I counted fourteen ships of the line lying unrigged in the basin, besides the Tonant of eighty guns, which was in dock repairing, and a new frigate on the stocks. I was credibly informed that in the last war, the king of France was so ill-served with cannon for his navy, that in every action there was scarce a ship which had not several pieces burst. These accidents did great damage, and discouraged the French mariners to such a degree, that they became more afraid of their own guns than of those of the English. There are now at Toulon above two thousand pieces of iron cannon unfit for service. This is an undeniable proof of the weakness and neglect of the French administration: but a more suprizing proof of their imbecility, is the state of the fortifications that defend the entrance of this very harbour. I have some reason to think that they trusted for its security entirely to our opinion that it must be inaccessible. Capt. E — of one of our frigates, lately entered the harbour with a contrary wind, which by obliging him to tack, afforded an opportunity of sounding the whole breadth and length of the passage. He came in without a pilot, and made a pretence of buying cordage, or some other stores; but the French officers were much chagrined at the boldness of his enterprize. They alleged that he came for no other reason but to sound the channel; and that he had an engineer aboard, who made drawings of the land and the forts, their bearings and distances. In all probability, these suspicions were communicated to the ministry; for an order immediately arrived, that no stranger should be admitted into the docks and arsenal.

Part of the road from hence to Marseilles lies through a vast mountain, which resembles that of Estrelles; but is not so well covered with wood, though it has the advantage of an agreeable stream running through the bottom.

I was much pleased with Marseilles, which is indeed a noble city, large, populous, and flourishing. The streets of what is called the new Town are open, airy and spacious; the houses well built, and even magnificent. The harbour is an oval basin, surrounded on every side either by the buildings or the land, so that the shipping lies perfectly secure; and here is generally an incredible number of vessels. On the city side, there is a semi-circular quay of free-stone, which extends thirteen hundred paces; and the space between this and the houses that front it, is continually filled with a surprising crowd of people. The gallies, to the number of eight or nine, are moored with their sterns to one part of the wharf, and the slaves are permitted to work for their own benefit at their respective occupations, in little shops or booths, which they rent for a trifle. There you see tradesmen of all kinds sitting at work, chained by one foot, shoe-makers, taylors, silversmiths, watch and clock-makers, barbers, stocking-weavers, jewellers, pattern-drawers, scriveners, booksellers, cutlers, and all manner of shop-keepers. They pay about two sols a day to the king for this indulgence; live well and look jolly; and can afford to sell their goods and labour much cheaper than other dealers and tradesmen. At night, however, they are obliged to lie aboard. Notwithstanding the great face of business at Marseilles, their trade is greatly on the decline; and their merchants are failing every day. This decay of commerce is in a great measure owing to the English, who, at the peace, poured in such a quantity of European merchandize into Martinique and Guadalupe, that when the merchants of Marseilles sent over their cargoes, they found the markets overstocked, and were obliged to sell for a considerable loss. Besides, the French colonists had such a stock of sugars, coffee, and other commodities lying by them during the war, that upon the first notice of peace, they shipped them off in great quantities for Marseilles. I am told that the produce of the islands is at present cheaper here than where it grows; and on the other hand the merchandize of this country sells for less money at Martinique than in Provence.

A single person, who travels in this country, may live at a reasonable rate in these towns, by eating at the public ordinaries: but I would advise all families that come hither to make any stay, to take furnished lodgings as soon as they can: for the expence of living at an hotel is enormous. I was obliged to pay at Marseilles four livres a head for every meal, and half that price for my servant, and was charged six livres a day besides for the apartment, so that our daily expence, including breakfast and a valet de place, amounted to two loui’dores. The same imposition prevails all over the south of France, though it is generally supposed to be the cheapest and most plentiful part of the kingdom. Without all doubt, it must be owing to the folly and extravagance of English travellers, who have allowed themselves to be fleeced without wincing, until this extortion is become authorized by custom. It is very disagreeable riding in the avenues of Marseilles, because you are confined in a dusty high road, crouded with carriages and beasts of burden, between two white walls, the reflection from which, while the sun shines, is intolerable. But in this neighbourhood there is a vast number of pleasant country-houses, called Bastides, said to amount to twelve thousand, some of which may be rented ready furnished at a very reasonable price. Marseilles is a gay city, and the inhabitants indulge themselves in a variety of amusements. They have assemblies, a concert spirituel, and a comedy. Here is also a spacious cours, or walk shaded with trees, to which in the evening there is a great resort of well-dressed people.

Marseilles being a free port, there is a bureau about half a league from the city on the road to Aix, where all carriages undergo examination; and if any thing contraband is found, the vehicle, baggage, and even the horses are confiscated. We escaped this disagreeable ceremony by the sagacity of our driver. Of his own accord, he declared at the bureau, that we had bought a pound of coffee and some sugar at Marseilles, and were ready to pay the duty, which amounted to about ten sols. They took the money, gave him a receipt, and let the carriage pass, without further question.

I proposed to stay one night only at Aix: but Mr. A— r, who is here, had found such benefit from drinking the waters, that I was persuaded to make trial of them for eight or ten days. I have accordingly taken private lodgings, and drank them at the fountain-head, not without finding considerable benefit. In my next I shall say something further of these waters, though I am afraid they will not prove a source of much entertainment. It will be sufficient for me to find them contribute in any degree to the health of — Dear Sir, Yours assuredly.

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