Make your own free website on Tripod.com


THE EASTERN ENVIRONS OF MENTONE.

WHEN the Revolution came, France took possession of Mentone, and the brother of the terrible Robespierre was sent thither "to represent the people, and to guillotine the aristocrats." But fortunately the frontier was not far off, and all the doomed persons fled across it before M. Robespierre could arrive, so that when he came and took up his quarters in the Maison d'Adhemar, he found very little to do. Meanwhile the little colony of royalists established themselves at La Cuze, near the Pont St. Louis, just beyond the frontier, where they lived very comfortably, safe within the republic of Genoa, but still in sight of their own homes. People yet living at Mentone, hand down from the recital of their parents, curious details of the lives of these exiles, who were obliged to live in the most limited space in the maisonettes of the orange gardens, though in the evening all the society met together to play at cards in the principal villa. Among the royalists, was one old man, who had no family, but only a faithful dog, with which he lived quite alone in a little cottage, which still stands above an archway, near the wall overhanging the path by the sea shore to the Rochers Rouges. One night he had been playing at cards as usual, and returned home late with his faithful companion. But soon after the dog returned to the villa, and going to each of the company in turn, by its signs of distress endeavoured to attract their attention. They all decided that something must have happened to its master Monsieur le Bour, as the solitary old man was called, and on going to his cottage to look after him, they found that he had fallen down on the floor in an apoplectic fit, of which he soon afterwards died. The dog refused to leave his body, and even after he was buried, remained by the grave of its master, from which nothing could entice it away; and there, refusing all food, it eventually expired. Afterwards as the French territory extended further along the Riviera, the emigrants were forced to fly to Ventimiglia and finally to Taggia.

At this time the only road through Mentone was that which passed through the Rue Longue, and along the terrace above which the English chaplain's house and Maison Trenca, &c. are now situated. This road continued the whole way from Nice to Genoa, passing sometimes along the sea shore, sometimes high up in the mountains, in both of which situations, traces of it are still to be met with. Madame de Genlis says of it, "En sortant de Nice cette route est parfaitement bien nommée la Corniche; c'est en effet presque toujours une vraie Corniche, en beaucoup d'endroits si etroite qu'une personne y peut à peine passer. .... Depuis Monaco jusqu' à Menton l'on respire; le chemin est tres beau. Cette derniere ville est agréable; elle est entree sur le bord de mer, et l'on y trouve quantités des citronniers et d'oranges, dont l'air est embaumé." Under the empire this was all changed. A military road from Nice to Genoa was ordered by Napoleon shortly after his coronation in France, but it was only constructed as far as Ventimiglia before his fall cut short its completion. The road along the quay of Mentone was made at this time; but the most striking memorial of the empire in these parts is the Pont St. Louis, one-mile-and-a-half from Mentone, on the road to Genoa, crossing a frightful abyss between two gigantic rocks, with a single arch of 22 metres span, at the height of 80 metres. The situation of this bridge is striking and romantic in the highest degree, surrounded by tremendous precipices, while in the depth beneath, an old aqueduct, winding along the surface of the rock, carries water from a cascade to the orange gardens near it. The best view of this bridge is from below, where on the terraces of the Villa Naylor, the heliotrope, hanging in masses from the high walls, is in full flower even in December, and where the brilliant salvias, plumbagos and roses with which the garden is filled, form a striking contrast to the wild scenery beyond it.

This place, beautiful as it is, abounds in histories which are each more dreadful than the other.

After the revolution of 1789, bands of peasants and deserters formed themselves into companies in the wild districts of North Italy, and were known as "Barbets." These people, goaded on by misery, were accustomed to rob and murder travellers, and then to hide themselves in the mountains, amongst the ravines and rocks, where none could find them. It is said that one of these Barbets, a peasant by origin, but a deserter from a regiment, took refuge behind the Pont St. Louis, in a cavern, reached only by a tiny path in the rock, and that from thence he attacked and plundered those who passed by. There, he was one evening awaiting a visit from his betrothed, a young girl of Fregonia or Ciotti, his native village, who, ignorant that her lover was an assassin, frequently escaped unobserved from home in order to see him in his hiding place, and console him by her loving words. "Whilst he was lying hidden behind a rock, the Barbet heard a footstep coming along the little path, and saw a man approach carrying a small portmanteau. The temptation was too great, and throwing himself upon the unfortunate traveller, he murdered him in an instant. But another scream echoed the death cry of his victim; it was that of the young girl, who arrived at the moment of the fatal act, and having thus witnessed the guilt of her lover, threw herself in despair from the top of the little path and fell into the gulf below the Pont St. Louis. Her body was never found; the Barbet was afterwards taken, but his fate is unknown.

The villa was also the scene of a sad calamity only three years ago, when a young English girl, who had gone out with her sister to see the sunset, fell from the rocks and was killed on the spot. The distress of her family was aggravated by the difficulties which the Mentone officials threw in the way of the removal of the body to the house before the inquest, which was to take place on the following day, and which were only overcome by the personal interest with the syndic of a family who had long been resident in the town. Another tragedy occurred in the same garden, when an English child in a fit of passion, shot the gardener's little son dead upon the spot.

A rugged path under the cliff below the road leads round the Rochers Rouges to a platform whence there is a splendid view of the town, and of the mountains, embracing the distant coast of France, the Estrelles and Antibes, with Monaco, Mont Agel, Turbia, Monts Garillon and Baudon, St. Agnese and the Berceau. The rocks themselves are exceedingly fine both in form and colour; they are overgrown with wild rue, rosemary, euphorbia and delicate painted mallows. In their caverns a great number of the bones of the stag, goat, horse, wild boar, wolf, wild cat and rabbit have been discovered, with an immense quantity of shells of the still existing kinds of fishes. These, and the number of fragments of rude weapons in flint also discovered here, lead to the supposition that these caverns must once have been inhabited by the Troglodytes, described by Strabo and Pliny. This theory is expatiated upon in a pamphlet called "Les Instruments Silex et les Ossements trouvés dans les Cavernes de Menton," by M. Forel, 1860.

On a stormy day, the waves dash up grandly beneath the cliffs in foaming showers of spray, and the water rushing under the rocks, and being forced upwards by the air through their little fissures, produces the most graceful natural fountains.

Beyond the red rocks is a platform containing a little walled-in Gethsemane of olive trees, which quite cover the ground with their black berries. Hence a path winds up the hill to join the Riviera road. The old Genoa road, a mere mule track, still exists in parts nearer the shore, but in some places it has been entirely carried away by torrents-and landslips. Theresine says, that when this was the highway to Genoa, accidents never ceased to occur here, and she herself recollects the time when a month never passed without a man or a mule being precipitated into the chasm beyond the Rochers Rouges, and being dashed to pieces. One of the persons who fell into this frightful abyss, escaped and is alive still, and employed on the new road above. One day, Mr. Newton, the artist, was going by this path to his work, with the porter of his hotel carrying a large picture before him. Suddenly, with a loud scream, both man and picture disappeared into one of the chasms. "Were you not terrified for the fate of your picture?" he was asked. "No," he said, "I was so certain that the man must be dashed to pieces, that it never occurred to me to think of the picture at all." However, the man was not at all hurt, and came up grinning, while the picture had a large hole knocked through the middle of it.

Continuing this path with difficulty, on turning the corner of the promontory, one reaches a quaint dilapidated building, with a solitary palm tree and some old cypresses beside it, which still retains traces of rich ancient colour around its windows and doorways, and which has an open loggia covered with frescoes. This is the Palazzo Orenga, which formerly belonged to the noble Genoese family of that name, by whom it was built, and who are now extinct. Its present possessor, Signor Granducci, a wild-looking figure, with shaggy uncombed locks, a red cap with a hood over it, and a long blue cloak which covered him all over, received us with great kindness when we went there, showing us all over the house and into the loggia, whose arches frame an exquisite view of Bordighera. The fine old rooms were in the last stage of decay, the frescoed, ceilings having in many places fallen in, and having been replaced by a rough roof of timber, which was insufficient to keep out the wet. The poor old Signor accompanied us when we went away, down the rocky slope, which was quite perfumed by the wild lavender, now (January) in full bloom. He asked us many questions about politics, for his isolation was evidently never broken by a newspaper. Especially was he anxious to know whether there was likely to be a war in Italy this year, because he said, "Si les Autrichiens arrivent, ils nous enverront en Paradis." "Well," was the answer, "if they only do that, it will not be much harm." "Mais Monsieur, je ne suis pas trop pressé," muttered the old Signor.

Above the palazzo is the village of St. Mauro, which in French ought to be rendered St. Maur, not St. Maurice, as it has been called since the annexation.

Beyond the brown ruined tower, which stands on the point above the Rochers Rouges, a line of white houses is seen, among the olive-trees above the road. It is worth while to climb up to them, for they form the village of Grimaldi, whose broad sunny terrace is as thoroughly Italian a scene as any in the Riviera, for it is crossed by a dark archway, and lined on one side with bright houses, upon whose walls yellow gourds hang in the sun, with a little church, painted pink and yellow, while on the other is overshadowed by old olive-trees, beneath which is seen the broad expanse of sea, here deep blue, there gleaming silver white in the hot sunshine. Children in bright handkerchiefs and aprons, are always playing about in Grimaldi, and the constant burden of their song, "Tanta di gioia, tanto di contento," while we were drawing there, gave a pleasant idea of their condition. Beyond Grimaldi the path becomes steeper, and being much exposed, is like a forcing-bed under the hot rays of the sun in the middle of the day. But we were quite repaid for the fatigues of our walk when we reached the top, as the scenery there is almost Alpine, in its bold rocky foregrounds, beneath which yawns the deep black chasm of St. Louis, with a huge cliff frowning above. The cries of the birds, too, and the shouts of the goat-herds were quite like those of Switzerland. Half-way up the gorge an aqueduct winds along the face of the rock, which is often used as a foot-path, though it is none of the safest. The other day, as a lady was walking along here to see the view, she suddenly became giddy from the unguarded height on which she was resting; she caught at the nearest stone to support herself, when, to her horror, it gave way, and, in an instant, she was deluged by a perfect torrent of water, which rushed out above, behind, and around her; for the stone she had seized for safety, had been the plug of the aqueduct.

Happily, the gentleman who was with her, had presence of mind to throw himself on his face, and to hold her feet, to prevent her being carried away, and thus they supported themselves till the first fury of the water had subsided. A winding path now skirts the hill to Ciotti Inferiore, where a broken stone arch frames a picturesque view of the Berceau. Above, on the scorched rock, is Ciotti Superiore, a quaint cluster of houses, while the church, quite separated from its village, stands further off on the highest ridge of the mountain. From behind the rock, at the back of the church, the sea-view is truly magnificent, embracing the coast, with its numerous bays, as far as the Estrelles, which turn golden and pink in the sunset; the grand mountain barriers, with all the orange-clad valleys running up into them; and St. Agnese rising out of the blue mist, on its perpendicular cliff. Close at hand a huge projecting rock breaks the whole view, and lights it up with its varied fringe of golden green fir-trees. Ciotti is certainly one of the most striking places near Mentone, and has a wild mountain character of its own that is quite peculiar, yet, even in this high situation, the most lovely narcissus and pink carnations were blooming in January, and a little "Carita" begging girl, was enchanted to sell us a large bunch of them for one soldo, while we were drawing.