BK media systems
Bennet's Book 1870
Winter and Spring
The Riviera, Mentone, Italy, Corsica, Sicily, Algeria, Spain and Biarritz,
By J. Henry Bennet, MD.
Tides - Colour - Fishes - Birds - The St. Louis Rocks.
What hidest thou in thy treasure-caves and cells, Thou ever-sounding and mysterious sea.
As spring advances some of the fish, which then descend in such enormous shoals from the Northern seas into the Atlantic, find their way into the Mediterranean, through the Straits of Gibraltar, and are very welcome. Thus, mackerel and whiting are caught in great numbers, and a large and much valued fish, the tunny appears.
The tunny or thynnus is a fish which belongs to the genus mackerel, scomber, which it resembles in form. It grows to more than seven feet in length, and then often weighs as much as four hundred weight."
After passing the Straits in dense masses, the tunny skirts the coasts of Spain, France, and Italy, to spawn in the Black Sea. It visits the smallest bays and coves, which renders its capture feasible - indeed, easy. Large and strong nets are fastened by cables and anchors, at the entrance of the bay where they are expected, and a sentinel is posted on some eminence to watch for their advent. When they are seen approaching along the coast, the fishermen get ready, and as soon as the fish have entered, they close the nets around or behind them. The tunny reach Mentone in early spring, and about the middle of April may be seen in the eastern bay of Cap Martin, the preparations being made for their advent. These preparations are on rather a small scale, and consist merely of three or four boats, a long net in the water, and the look-out, perched on a kind of platform raised some thirty feet high on the shore. In some parts of the coast of Italy and Sicily large nets, called madrigues, half a mile or a mile long, are used in fishing for the tunny. The sport is stated to be very exciting; but, unfortunately, it takes place in May and June, so that health visitors have taken flight to the north before it is in operation.
The tunny is not only allied to the mackerel, but also to the bonito, a beautiful tropical fish of a lovely blue colour. The bonito, although a tropical fish, is represented in the Mediterranean by a distinct and equally beautiful species, the Pelamys Sarda, the length of which is from the twenty to thirty inches.
Whales not infrequently pass into the Mediterranean through the Straits of Gibraltar, for a stately promenade. On one of my excursions to Corsica, we met one when out of sight of land. The steamer passed very near him, and he indulged us with a splendid spout. The French sailors called the whale "un souffleur", and he well deserved the term.
Porpoises are numerous, and as amusing in their gambols, leaps, and unwieldy gyrations, as in the northern seas. They constantly come in shore. On one occasion we met with a shoal out at sea, evidently in a frolic intent; they were apparently pursuiing each other, like boys at leap-frog. Regardless of our presence, they kept springing out of the water, kith a kind of flying leap. Sometimes half a dozen would be in the air at a time, all in a line. They passed our bows, and then were soon out of sight, as our courses diverged.
If, on a calm fine day, a height of some hundred feet or more is attained above the shore, and the surface of the sea is carefully examined, it will be seen to present ribbons, as it were, of water of different colours, lighter and darker. These ribbons describe all kinds of irregular liquid paths and sinuosities in the bay, and for a mile or two from the shore. They are varying marine currents, the cause of which is difficult to determine. Inequalities of surface at the bottom, differences of temperature, winds, all no doubt contribute to produce them. They illustrate on the surface of a calm sea the deeper and more powerful currents which play so important a part in the history of the great ocean.
These currents are the preserve, the delight of the marine naturalist, a fact but little known. I was introduced to them by Professor Pagenstecher, of Heidelberg, a well-known and enthusiastic naturalist, who came to Mentone two springs purposely to study its marine zoology. In these currents will be found a great number of small crustaceans called Copepodes, of a white, orange, or red colour, which seem to rest on their antennae; Saphirines which, rising and falling, look like a precious stone or a drop of dew, and sparkle like a flower; marvelous larvae, Asterias and Ursins, which wait with the friskiness of youth are taking an excursion in deep waters, whilst the father and mother are concealed amongst the rocks in quiet bays; Radiolariae, gelatinous balls like chains of frog’s eggs, punctuated with blue and yellow, and presenting microscopic spikes of silex of most elegant shapes; Pteropodes which, protected by a calcareous box, and supplied with two wings, swim about in the warm waters like flies and butterflies in the air. The glass jar into which the net is turned and washed is soon filled with these members of the microscopic world, and to a naturalist they give days of study, pleasure, and information.
Professor Pagenstecher was very successful, he told me, during the few weeks he spent with us, and returned to Heidelberg laden with numerous scientific treasures, and a very happy man. I may remark that I have never known an unhappy, misanthropical naturalist. As a class, I think they are truly the happiest and most contended of men. Constant communion with nature draws their thoughts from the cares, the anxieties, the heartaches, the passions of life, and thereby purifies and elevates their minds; whilst every advance in knowledge, every discovery made, increases the admiration, the reverence felt for the Divine Author of all things, who has so marvellously organized everything for the best.
All who sail on or live near the Mediterranean notice the peculiar blueness of its waters. This tinge would seem to imply that they contain more salt than the waters of the ocean. The more salt held in solution by water, the bluer it is; the less salt, the greener it is. Hence the light green hue of the Polar seas, which contain much more fresh water than those of the tropics. The latter are generally, from this cause, of a deep indigo, like the Mediterranean. The evaporation from the Mediterranean abstracts a much greater quantity of water than its rivers supply. Hence the strong current that sets in from the ocean at Gibraltar, and also, no doubt, the blue tinge of its saline waters.
In describing the natural features of the Mentonian amphitheatre, I must not omit to mention, that its olive and pine woods are alive with feathered songsters. The notes of some are very musical, and those of others reproduce sounds familiarly heard in the summer in our own pine forrests in England. The same can not be said of the small green tree-fogs that scramble about on the branches of the Olive-trees, or of their larger brothers that live in or near the tanks. In winter they are, fortunately, silent; but as spring arrives, they commence every evening evening an endless chorus, which lasts until after daylight, much to the dismay and distress of those who live in their neighborhood. They certainly more than compensate for the nightingale, which arrives, as with us, early in May, and warbles all night long in every tree. The birds are mostly winter emigrants from the north, like ourselves in search of a southern sun. The olives and pine cones afford them abundant food.
On the sea, near the shore, are constantly seen troops of sea-gulls, attracted by the household refuse which the inhabitants are rather too prone to cast over the sea-wall into the salt water. When wind and storm are looming on the horizon they are more especially numerous, sometimes congregating in flocks of several hundred. They generally swim about on the waves near the shore, and look very picturesque when present in such numbers.
The swallows and martins, as I have stated, never abandon the sheltered ravines and sun-heated rocky mountains of the Pont St. Louis throughout the winter, finding sufficient insect life to maintain them. Although in an exceptionally warm and sheltered nook like the St. Louis rocks, they may thus remain, the general swallow population migrates from the Riviera as it does from more northern countries, crossing the Mediterranean to Africa. The presence of the swallows attracts hawks and occasionally the majestic eagle from the adjoining Alpine regions. I have often lain, in mid-winter, for hours among the rocks at St. Louis, high above the blue vessel-dotted sea, with the wild Thyme, the Rosemary, and the Cneorum in full flower around me, watching their great numbers, resume their rapid flight in and out of the evening. Suddenly a noble hawk, occasionally a majestic Alpine eagle, appears, oaring aloft with wide-stretched pinions. The poor swallows, stricken with fear, instantly seek refuge, and in a few seconds disappear from the gaze of their ruthless pursuer. Sweeping from one rock to the other, he seems to enjoy the confusion and solitude he has created, and remains „the monarch of all he surveys".
My friend Mr. Traherne Moggridge (the author of the very beautiful work entitled "The Flora of Mentone"), who has made the ornitology of Mentone a study, tells me that the rock Martin swallow does not visit England in summer, although it ascends quite as far north, in an easterly direction.
One of the ornaments of the flower garden is autumn, and a constant visitor to our rooms in winter, is the Humming Bird Hawk Moth (Macroglossa stellatarum). It is a large brown moth, with a mouse-like body and head, brilliant eyes, small wings, and a tongue an inch or two in length, usually curled up proboscis shape. When hovering over flowers, I am told that it thoroughly resembles the humming bird of tropical countries, whence its name. They are really pretty creatures, and I have often had several in the drawing-room for days together, hovering over cut flowers, darting their tongue in and out of corollas, and feeding on their sweets.
[BK: since Bennet does not stay until late spring, May, June, he so misses the lucioles, small bugs that light up in the calm corners of the terraces and Olive groves.]
The St. Louis rocks rise all but perpendicularly from the sea, on the eastern side of the eastern bay, the Genoa road being blasted from their flanks. They present, near the shore, a deep, irregular, and picturesque cleft or ravine, formed by a watercourse which falls as a cascade from a considerable height. The road crosses this ravine by a bold and elegant bridge of one arch, which is now the frontier between France and Italy. Masses of rock, irregularly divided and worn by the convulsions of nature, and by the action of water and weather, form the boundaries of the ravine. They are partly naked, partly clothed with mountain plants, Lentiscus Bushes, Thyme, the Cneorum, Valerian, and Bluebell. These rocks are continous with the ridge that ascends to the Berceau, one of the highest mountains of the Mentonian amphitheatre (3850 feet). A few hundred feet above and from the sea, the scene becomes wild and grand. The mountain assumes the form of a fantastic mass of huge rocks and stones. In one region they form a species of stony torrent, arrested in its rapid descent, in another they are piled one over the other in every conceivable shape.
On the eastern side of the St. Louis ravine, lying on the side of the mountain, seven hundred feet above the sea, is a very picturesque, grey looking village, Grimaldi by name. It is seen from the town and the eastern bay, warming itself in the sun, and is generally rendered conspiciously by patches of white which surround it. This is the linen of the inhabitants, lying on the mountain to dry. On the left side of the Genoa road, which winds above the shore blasted out of the solid limestone rocks, below the village, is an old ruined mediaeval castellated tower, which formerly belonged to the Counts of Grimaldi; it was built either to protect the coast and the town from the attacks of the roving Moors and Saracens, or by the latter when they were masters of the country. It is known by the name of the Grimaldi tower, and it is from a small watch turret near it that is taken the very truthful view of the Mentone amphitheatre contained in the frontispiece [of the book]. This is one of the most sheltered spots that can be found in the entire district, and the view from it is certainly one of the most complete and most lovely. It is here that I have established my winter garden. With a view to the cultivation of flowers and to the tranquil enjoyment of „invalid layarone life" in hours of leisure, I have become the happy proprietor of the watch tower, of the smiling sunny terraces that adjoin it, and of part of the rocky mountain side.
At the bottom of the picturesque ravine, which is crossed by the bold St. Louis bridge, there is a copious watercourse, that is made to irrigate and fertilize all the terraces to which it can be diverted. Indeed, as I have stated, the groves of Lemon trees which cover these terraces, owe their existence to the water thus obtained. In the lower part of the ravine there is an aqueduct on arches, which tradition says was built in the time of the Romans. Several hundred feet higher there is a small water canal, scooped out of the rock, which descends from the upper part of the ravine. As it is a short cut from the village of Grimaldi to Mentone the villagers constantly make use of it, although there is scarcely foot-room for one person, and the precipice is immediately at the side. In one part the aqueduct is so much in a hollow of the rock that there is scarcely room to pass upright. A tale is told of a young Grimaldi girl who all her life had blithely and fearlessly traversed this path. She got married, had a baby, and carried the cradle on her head, as is the custom of the peasants in this country. One day she took the familiar road, with the cradle in the usual position, forgot the rock above, struck against it, and was dashed over the precipice with her child.
On the western side of the St Louis ravine are the warm terraces, as I have named them, the warmest region of Mentone. On the rocky mountain slope, the owners have scooped out and built a series of terraces, which have been entirely planted with flourishing Lemon-trees. They owe their existence entirely to the little streamlet which has been diverted from the ravine watercourse, and which irrigates the terraces, filling large tanks for summer use. Sheltered on every side except the south and south-west, saturated with sunshine from early morning to evening, the rock and soil never cool, and cold and frost are unknown, even on exceptional cold days. Thus they constitute a natural hotbed, where vegetation is always in advance, where winter is unknown, and where invalids may safely while away the day in the coldest weather.
The stranger wandering among the rocks above these terraces, may accidentally find a small black metal cross. This cross commemorates a painful catastrophe that occurred a few years ago. A sprightly English girl of ten, whose parents occupied the villa below, escaped with a younger sister from their governess, and, in lighthearted play, scrambled up the rocks. Having reached this wild region, the elder one climbed upon a peak to wave her handkerchief in recognition to a friend below. Unfortunately she lost her footing, fell head-foremost, and was killed on the spot. There was universal mourning for the sad fate of the fair English child on the part of the kind-hearted Mentonians, and even now the fearful accident is never mentioned without deep sympathy for the bereaved parents.
The beach underneath and beyond the St. Louis revine is singularly beautiful. The red limestone, or red rocks, as they are generally called, ascends perpendicularly to a great height, and the shore is merely formed of debris and advancing buttresses of the same formation, worked by the waves into the most jagged, irregular, and fantastic shapes. When there is a strong south-westerly gale blowing, the waves are thrown on these rocks with extreme force, and are broken into foam and spray, that rise, with a noise like thunder, to a great height. On one point there is a subterranean passage or tunnel, into which the sea is engulfed, to escape further on in the shape of a magnificient jet d’eau. The sight, in stormy weather, is truly magnificient. The Bone caves are at the base of the red rocks, above the coast line.
Along and on the shore rocks used to pass the road to Genoa, a mere mule track, as before stated. Remains of it still exist, and it constitutes one of the most picturesque and pleasant promenades. The view of Mentone and of its amphitheatre is very fine from this point. About half a mile beyond the torrent that descends from the St. Louis ravine, the path passes along the shore over a gully, by a bridge of one arch, so thin and light that it is crossed for the first time with some apprehension. It is said to be of Roman construction, and, small as it is, seems worthy such an origin.
Some bold rocks which here rise out of the sea near the shore, and give the command of deep water, are the favourite haunt of anglers. I have tried my fortune, piscatorially, like others, but with very little success. Would not some plan of ground-baiting be likely to attract the finny tribe? The refuse which the townspeople throw into the sea, over the quay, at the entrance of the town, seems to have that effect; a fact which accounts for the habitual presence of native anglers. I leave this question, however, to those more learned than myself in the art. On these rocks is found the „samphire", which is not confined to the dizzy heights of Dover. The region is also a favourite habitat for the Cinerea maritima, and for the elegant Lavatera.
A strong sea wall, and a broad foot causeway have been built along the shore of the eastern bay, from the town to the St. Louis rocks. Thus an admirable promenade, sheltered from the north-east, has been formed, most valuable to the invalids who inhabit the eastern bay.
I would, however, warn all real invalids never to lounge or sit on the sea-beach unless there be a dead calm. Generally speaking, when there is a perceptible sea-breeze, with rolling waves, it is dangerous. As previously explained, although this breeze apparently comes from the south, it is often in reality a north wind deflected landwards. As such it may produce a chill, and give rise to cold or sore-throat, or to even more serious mischief. I often feel inclined to stop the carriage and, philanthropically, to warn invalid strangers, whom I see sitting or lying on the beach in January or February, as if they were enjoying „otium sine dignitate" on our own shores in July or August. This leads me to remark that in our active. Feverish modern civilization the old classic saying which I have quoted (awry) has ceased to be true. „Ease or leisure and dignity" no longer go together. Now, it must be ease without dignity, or dignity without ease. The two cannot be combined.