ON DONKEYS TO PEGLIA.
THIS expedition, which so many talk of and so few carry out, we have
accomplished at last.
Saturday, March 2, was a beautiful morning, and the sun, which rose in
crimson splendour from the sea, had soon dried up the thick dew which lay upon
the ground, and was scorching the barren sides of the hills.
We assembled our party at 7 a.m. before Maison Gastaldy, and soon were on our
donkeys, clambering up the steep path in the pine woods to St. Agnese, through
the delicious luxuriant undergrowth of myrtle, arbutus, rosemary, and
Mediterranean heath, now in full bloom. The ground too on the more open banks
was blue with hepaticas and violets, and here and there a tuft of
English-looking primroses was peeping forth. The road had been a good deal
injured in places by the heavy rain, but still we contrived to find a passage,
and reached the ridge of the mountains below St. Agnese before ten o'clock;
then, instead of ascending to the village, we halted at a desolate little chapel
on the edge of the precipice, where we gave our donkeys a breakfast of rosemary
in the porch, and held a council-general.
This is considered the extreme limit of donkey's powers, and it was hard work
to persuade Theresine to go any further, though the temptation of an additional
five francs for each donkey, proved irresistible in the end, in spite of her
declaring we meant to take her, "jusqu' à la maison même du diable.
Beyond St. Agnese, the path to Peglia turns to the left, and crossing a ridge
of hill continues to wind constantly in the same direction, till it reaches its
destination. The scenery is wild and desolate in the extreme, the arid hills
covered with loose stones, but with scarcely a vestige of vegetation to vary
their dead brown, which melts into deep purple in more distant ranges, while
above and beyond, snowy Alps rise ghost-like against the sky. We did not meet a
creature between the two villages, except a solitary cow-herd, watching some
calves who were trying to extract a miserable subsistence from the few tufts of
short grass which grew between the rocks. All was bleak, gloomy desolation, till
after about two hours' walk, on turning a corner, a magnificent view revealed
itself. In the distance was the blue, mirror-calm sea, with the further islands
of Hyeres, and the nearer of Cannes. Beyond the jagged range of purple Estrelles,
other capes and promontories, unseen from below, extended their pale forms
across the distance; beneath our feet, the mountains were broken into a hundred
deep chasms and purple ravines, while the path to Peglia wound serpentlike at
the foot of gigantic precipices. A short distance beyond this, on turning a
corner, by a ruined chapel, Peglia itself is first seen in its solitary valley.
The church bells were ringing as we descended, otherwise the town bursting upon
us suddenly in that desolate spot, would have seemed uncannily still and
dreamlike, with the rugged precipices closing it in on either side, and the grim
grey church standing like a sentinel before the groups of brown houses sleeping
in the purple haze, and backed by the sunlit sea, while patches of brilliant
green grass here alone varied the monotony of the brown hill sides.
The first view was so striking, that some of the party staid to sketch, and
when they rejoined the others, they found them comfortably seated on the little
platform in front of the church, overlooking the town and valley, where the
hospitality of the cure had already set out a table with a bottle of excellent
wine, bread, cheese and fruit, of which he pressed all to partake. Afterwards he
exhibited his church, which is exceedingly interesting both within and without.
The floor is still formed by the living rock, and many of the pillars are
masses of rock, which have never been moved from their original situation, and
are merely cut into huge square blocks. The gigantic font formed from a single
block of porphyry, and the granite basins for holy water, of rude and primitive
shape, are very curious. A chapel with a painted ceiling, has some strange old
pictures of the life of Christ, and some of the modern pictures are grotesque,
especially one of a party of saints dragging an ugly little naked devil in
chains. A queer-looking wooden arm stretches out a crucifix from the side of the
pulpit, certainly a most restful invention for the preacher, if it was necessary
for some one to hold it so. Altogether any artist who loves picturesque
interiors, might make some capital drawings inside the church at Peglia, and
though the building is not of the "premier siècle," as the old cure
declared, it is equally interesting to the architect. Both alike will be aghast
to hear that it will soon be seen no more, and that the people of Peglia, who
think five minutes' walk too far to go to church, are going to pull it down, in
order to build a church nearer home with the materials. Could not the
Architectural Society of France be induced to interfere ?
The rarity of visits from strangers at Peglia, seemed greatly to enhance
their value. We were accompanied over the town, not only by the cure, but by the
mayor, who, his companion informed us, was the only person in the place who knew
any thing. Both were equally amazed at the interest their antiquities inspired,
and at our rushing to examine and copy inscriptions, which they had passed a
hundred times without ever noticing. The chief extent of the knowledge of each
seemed to be that Peglia was the oldest place in the department, and that you
have only to look around you to prove it. The streets are narrow and dark, and
the doorways are arched and gloomy, the windows are frequently gothic, with a
central pillar and richly carved capital. Through a dark vaulted passage, you
ascend to what was once an old palace of the Lascaris, now containing a school
and the Hotel de Ville, which is a common-place room with an Armoire, filled
with what the mayor called "the Gothic Manuscripts," really Latin MSS.
on vellum in gothic characters, which we had not time to decipher. From the
rocks above this, the view looking down over the brown roofs of the town, with
its broken fragments of encircling walls, its gothic remains, and a modern dome,
is very striking and peculiar.
"Could we not stay till to-morrow, and could he not give us all beds,
with the assistance of Monsieur le Maire, and could he not send an express to
Mentone to prevent our friends being alarmed," said the hospitable curé.
And "was not to-morrow their civil festa, when little imitation cannons
would fire all day long in the most diverting manner," echoed the mayor;
"and was it not utterly impossible for us to return to Mentone that
night," chorused both. But, unfortunately, "to-morrow" was
Sunday, and as we did not feel we could stay away two whole days, we were
obliged to set off on our return at four o'clock, in spite of the wrathful
expostulations of Theresine, who was certain that we meant to kill both her and
her donkeys, and who had already looked out lodgings for the repose of each in
the hope of assisting at the festa in the morning.
Peglia looked lovely against the green sunset sky, as our procession wound up
the hills on our return. The curé went with us to set us on our way, and
returned after the first two miles, with a donation for his poor, with which he
was highly delighted, and a commission to find out all he possibly could about
the antiquities and traditions of his native place.
We took another way home, which is much shorter, but very steep, the path for
some distance being quite lost in the bed of a torrent, after which it crosses
the lower slopes of Mont Garillon, whence it descends upon Gorbio by a ridge,
from whence the town is seen, quaintly cresting its round-topped hill. We did
not reach Gorbio till nightfall, and the rest of the way was in almost pitch
darkness, so that we had to hold each other's hands to prevent being lost. In
this state we sank up to our knees in the deep mud which the rains had left, and
a lady, who chose to walk alone, fell over one of the high olive terraces, but
contrived to scramble up again without being hurt.
Between eight and nine we regained Mentone.