GORBIO AND ST. AGNESE.

January 17.

GORBIO is a delightful expedition. The valley of that name is lovely, and presents a whole series of pictures, in its little chapels, with old chestnut-trees overhanging them, in its ruined oil mills and broken bridges. Later in the season it is quite carpeted with brilliant scarlet anemones.

The way thither turns off from the Nice road, by the Madone Convent, close to the Prince's gardens. The village of Gorbio, which is about four miles from Mentone, is wonderfully picturesque in its situation, but is rather disappointing in itself, containing only the usual number of low dark archways, a gloomy church, and the ruined castle of the Lascaris, which retains a Romanesque window in its tower. The figure-artist might find good subjects among the women, who wash round the fountain beyond the village, or the men, performing, as we saw them, a quaint dance, which was chiefly hand-acting, near a terra cotta shrine, beneath an old tree, which here, as at Castellare, forms the outpost of the place. The best view for a sketch is from some boulder stones behind the village, whence it is seen standing on its conical hill backed by the sea, and the promontory of Bordighera.

The annual festa at Gorbio is like that of the other villages, except that here it is the custom for the peasants to present cockades to all the visitors, who are expected to offer some trifling gratuity in return. Lately these cockades have been made of the French colours, and, Italians refusing to wear them, the festas have become the scene of mild popular demonstrations.

The walk from Gorbio to Roccabruna is neither difficult nor fatiguing, and has beautiful views over the pine-clad mountains of St. Agnese on its jagged peak. As we came down upon Roccabruna in the sunset, the dark castle stood out against a sea of gold and a flame-coloured sky, closing the ravine by which we descended. Our walk had been a long one, and it was pleasant to find a refection of wine, and the sugared cakes which are peculiar to Roccabruna, awaiting our arrival, beneath the old crumbling gateway.


January 22.

UP, high up, through woods of pine, with a rich undergrowth of myrtle and tall white heath, winds the donkey-path to St. Agnese. Indeed, there are three paths, all equally beautiful, and with the same wooded character, only the distance is different. That which is generally taken, crosses the torrent Boirigo, near the entrance of the Cabruare valley, whence it begins an abrupt ascent, and fringed with cistus and myrtle, runs along one of the high ridges of the hills, directly towards the great mountain-barriers. The upper parts of these are grey, jagged and broken precipices of perpendicular rock, while their lower slopes are clothed pines, among which rises on the left the village of Gorbio, picturesquely placed in the hollow of a mountain amphitheatre. At length, the path steepens into a staircase, which climbs the rock by the edge of a clear rivulet, beyond which the village of St. Agnese comes suddenly in sight, behind gigantic grey precipices, crowned by the ruins of the Saracenic Castle. The village itself is one long street of low brown ruinous houses, with a solitary campanile rising from them, whose spire, covered with bright red and yellow tiles, is the only patch of colour in the whole landscape. Everything else looks dreary in the extreme, even the pines and myrtle have long since ceased, and scarcely a vestige of verdure enlivens the dead brown of the hills, while, behind, rises a second range of mountains, still more dreary, lurid and barren. To those who ascend hither from the sunny orange-groves of Mentone, it seems incredible that the temperature of St. Agnese is exactly the same as that of Clarens and Montreux, the Italy of Switzerland, yet so it is; though even the church, in its dedication to "Notre Dame de la Neige," bears witness to the character of St. Agnese, as compared with the surrounding villages.

We have been up twice to spend the day. The first time we were lionized over the village by the Cure, who, with the kindness which is invariably shewn by the priests in these mountain solitudes, was anxious to do the honours of his native place. The gaily-painted church, which has a vestibule of the 13th century, contains nothing remarkable. In the adjoining piazza, the little chapel and campanile of St. Carlo is picturesque, with a ruined doorway beside it, which forms the frame-work to a picture of snow-covered mountains, and bright rocks in the foreground, with goats grouped upon them. Those who do not wish for the additional ascent to the castle, may enjoy much the same view from a sunny terrazone, which commands a splendid panorama of the lower mountain ranges, intersected by orange-clad valleys, each with its separate torrent rushing to join the sea, whose vast blue expanse extends in either direction. Here women are always sitting out at work in the sunshine, and it is surprising to see mothers of large families allowing their children to play so close to the edge of the precipice, which is entirely unguarded. Hence, two very steep and stony paths lead down into the Cabruare valley, one descending abruptly to the village itself, the other running along a mountain ridge, by a lonely chapel, bearing inscription to the "Div Luc," where there is a pretty peasant's fte on the day of Sta. Lucia.

On the highest spur of the mountain, above the village, stand the ruins of the Saracenic castle, now reduced to mere fragments of wall, which almost seem one with the bare grey rock from which they spring. Tradition tells, that a Saracenic chieftain named Haroun, fortified this castle, whence he could observe all that passed on the Roman road below, and pillage what he pleased, occasionally carrying oif both the inhabitants and their property, while some of his companions carried on the same system of plunder by sea.

Among the captives thus brought hither, was a Christian virgin named Agnes, whose father and brothers were murdered before her eyes, and who had been seized with her companions on board a vessel which was conveying her to Spain. Her charms induced Haroun to force her to become his bride, and, by her amiable qualities, he was at length convinced of the truth of her religion, which he embraced, and built under the shelter of his fortress, a chapel to her patron saint, which became a place of great resort for the devout. To escape the vengeance of his former companions, Haroun was eventually obliged to escape with Agnes to Marseilles, where his baptism was celebrated with great rejoicings, and where he soon afterwards died. After his flight the Saracens abandoned St. Agnese for ever.

Our second visit was during the festa, when a concourse both of rich and poor, thronged the ascent. We arrived at eleven o'clock, but, by staying to draw at the first point where the village comes in sight, were not in time for the procession, and only heard the distant chantings borne on the wind, and saw the long line of white figures moving slowly along the terrazone above us. Most of the other English were in time to see them emerge from the principal church, and proceed to the little chapel of St. Agnese. where, according to ancient custom, a golden apple is offered to the clergy by the lord of the manor, (Signor Bottini). He always appears heading the procession in court dress, which, till the revolution, was that of Louis xv.; till then, also the golden apple was always stuffed with gold pieces, which were presented to the charities of the place, but now it is a mere matter of form. The greater part of the procession consisted of women, with white handkerchiefs or veils upon their heads, and lighted candles in their hands, headed by the banner of St. Agnes, on which the virgin saint is represented with her lamb. Kneeling along the whole length of the terrace, they chaunted the hymn, of St. Agnes in the open air, a sight which is effective at a distance, but which should not be seen, too near, or dirt and ugliness may destroy the poetry of the picture. "When the procession had returned to the church, some of the women assisted at a very congregational service there, while others proceeded to dance upon the terrace. Several handsome young peasants went about with baskets of flowers, presenting bouquets to the lady visitors, and, those who accepted them, were rather astonished to find that their having done so was equivalent to having accepted the donor as a partner, and that they also were expected to dance. Space was cleared, music struck up, and English and natives were soon mingled together in the mazes of a lively country dance. The bright rapidly moving figures, the rich colouring of the yellow rocks and the old houses, with their purple background of mountains, made a beautiful scene. There was, however, a melancholy absence of costume, little existing, except the ordinary coloured handkerchiefs of the women, and the tall red cap (berretto) of the men. The proceedings were wound up by an accident, which is usually the case on these occasions. A woman, whom they declared to have drunk too much champagne, though it is difficult to imagine where she can have found it in this mountain fastness, fell over the rocks, and was taken up insensible. This morning we have heard that she is dead. It is remarkable, that her only son was killed in exactly the same way and at the same time, three years ago.

We determined to return by Sta. Lucia, in spite of the positive declarations of Theresina Ravellina, who was with us, that we should not do anything of the kind, as she persisted the way was impracticable for her donkeys, all of which we knew was because of a friend, whom she wished to accompany to Cabruare. We insisted on going our own way; but when we had reached the foot of the first range of rocks, Theresina came after us, screaming that we had lost our way, and were not going to Sta. Lucia at all, and as she brought with her two fellow-countrymen to support her assertion, we were obliged to believe her, and toil back after her into the route. Too late we discovered that we had been in the right way after all, when she cooly confessed, that as she could not gain, her way by fair means, she had taken it by foul.

During the winter wolves frequently appear at St. Agnese, and are a constant subject of terror in this and other of the high mountain villages. Three years ago, a woman was at work in an olive garden near her cottage, in the village of Bera, when a man passed by, who told her that he had seen a wolf going towards her house, in which she had left her baby asleep. She flew home, and, on opening the door, saw a young girl struggling with the wolf upon the floor. She too had seen the wolf go towards the cottage, and utterly regardless of herself, had pursued it, in order to save the child. When she arrived, the wolf was on the point of rushing upon the cradle; it regarded her for an instant, and then they closed in a deadly struggle. The girl was very strong, and having contrived to clutch the wolf by the throat, she held it thus, till the mother returned with assistance, when the wolf was killed with a hatchet. Afterwards the mother put the child on her mule, and slinging the dead wolf across the saddle in front of it, took them down to Nice, where making a little exhibition, she collected several hundred francs for the child who had saved her baby.