Volcanoes for the Million.

Seven hours more! I shall become liquid in five. Why? Because I am packed in the centre of a redhot railway-carriage, on the hottest evening of the hottest July it has ever been my lot to broil through; and because my constitution is not adapted to such treatment, since my enemies (vulgar wretches!) say I am fat; my bitter enemies very fat; and I own myself that I am a little inclined to — well, to stoutness; and because the party on my left is a Frenchwoman, who, I should think, hasn’t touched water for a week, except most superficially; and the party on my right is a Frenchman, who, I’m sure, hasn’t touched it at all for twice as long; whilst the party opposite is a member of the ecclesiastical profession (likewise French), who seems to have caught cold at his baptism, and been unable to endure the idea of contact with the element from that day — a supposition borne out by his being troubled with a nasal affection, or cold, productive of a continuous species of combined snort and snivel, and who doesn’t seem ashamed of his dirt-encrusted countenance, but exposes its mahogany hues in the most barefaced — no, crusty faced — way; and whose crustiness is not confined to his face, but extends to his whole manner; and if this isn’t enough, because the remaining seats are filled with really fat French parties, each one combining in himself the worst peculiarities of all the rest, without a single redeeming one of his own; and because, lastly, all the windows are shut, and I am a minority of one when I propose to open them.

If this state of things isn’t sufficient to justify one in trickling gradually away, I shall be extremely glad to know what is. Talk of Purgatory! why it must be quite a refreshing sort of ghostly pleasure-garden, or Cremorne, compared with this carriage to-night as it bears us, not over quickly, southward on the Great South Trunk Line of France, and I defy you to prove the contrary.

I don’t think I mentioned that we had a little French boy, whose mother had brought him in, though there was no vacant seat, and who (when he wasn’t eating) slept on anybody’s lap which looked to him most comfortable.

This is my predicament. Leaving the frizzling white pavements of London and Paris for the frizzling green plains of Central France, and at last for the hills and coolness of the Puy de Dome. Where we don’t arrive just yet, though. Hours of wide awake nightmare first. Pass Orleans at eleven, travellers getting sleepy.

My she neighbour puts on a terrific head-gear (whose shadow bobs about opposite me like the ghost of a mad Hindoo idol); then snores. My he neighbour casts a once-white handkerchief over his head, and snores too; throwing in moreover an occasional choke. My umber-coloured friend opposite does the same, with an increased allowance of chokes; and so they continue, each snoring and choking in turn, the only variety being when they become isochronous, and snore and choke together. How can I sleep?

On, on, on. —Past the Allier, a broad river which we cross on a wooden bridge, which temporarily replaces a massive one of masonry swept away by the great inundations, to St. Germains des Fossees, where it being now broad daylight, and my companions having given up snores and become simply Bores, they most of them depart by the main line running to Lyons and Marseilles; and we on again past Vichy — sacred to mineral water and to Strauss, god of waltzes — to Clermont Ferrand, where we at length arrive, and I scrape up French enough to get some breakfast.

Poof! —Hotter than ever! I don’t do Clermont (having, in fact, lost so much weight during the last day or two that I can’t risk it in the heat), but crib accounts of its cathedral, monuments, petrifying springs, museums, &c, from the Guidebook, to talk about when I return; so taking a voiture, with a brigand-hatted man in blue for driver, I start at once for the Volcanoes.

The strong point of the Auvergne peasants certainly is skill in cracking whips. I don’t remember ever seeing them strike their cattle with them; but yet the whip-cracking which I heard during my stay in their country, left a shadowy impression on my mind, after leaving it, instinctively suggestive of fireworks.

During my drive to Pontgiband I formed a better idea than I had ever before had of the sensations of Guy Fawkes during his annual immolation in a storm of crackers on the fifth of November; and I am convinced that if Mr. Harrison of Rose of Castile renown were to settle in these parts, there is no position or rank which his masterly skill, acquired in that amusing opera, would not justify him in aspiring to. But I digress.

I reached Pontgiband, then, my destination, in a crack, as I may say. Passing high up through the vineyards which clothe the sunny hills of Clermont, into the cool regions —almost cold — at the foot of the giant guardian of the country, the Puy de Dome, and on through lava and barrenness (for the whole country now round us is covered with volcanic mountains, of pre-Adamite activity, but whose lava streams, little affected by time, still stretch for miles over the valleys and plains) to the above-named town, my destination.

Central in one of the wildest, most picturesque, and beautiful, but yet least known, parts of France; interesting in the highest degree to the geologist, scarcely less so to the antiquary, and abounding in attractions for the admirer of Nature merely; and at the same time easy of access, being, as I have shown, only twenty-four hours from London, it is strange that this district has not been more sought by that rising institution, the British tourist.

So foreign that the very peasants talk an unknown tongue, unintelligible to ordinary Frenchmen, and to which Welsh is sweet and mellifluous; so lovely, and with such variety of loveliness, that no part of picturesque Europe need despise it; with fish for the sportsman (uncommonly good the trout is too), swarms of ragged parties in blue linen costumes, wild flowing beards, and ragged staves in hand, all as dirty as the most enthusiastic artist in the picturesque could desire; and hills, dales, cascades, caverns, ruins, and forests for the photographer; for all, the Puy de Dome ought to be secured by the “Return-ticket available for fourteen-days” people at once.

I feel certain that those who visit this country, will wish to do so again; and that those — a large class — who can spare the fortnight necessary for so novel and interesting an excursion, but who can do no more, will return as well and better pleased than the beaten-track tourist who does his Alps or his Rhine at a far greater expenditure of time, of money, and of labour (this last no insignificant item, I find), but who probably return blase and wearied with what everybody by this time knows so well.

I go again this autumn, and take Mrs. Tomkins with me.

Let me recommend very squeamish people though, to stop at home in Brighton, Ryde, Scarborough, or their usual haunts; since I think it barely possible that in their wanderings among these simple-minded French people they may occasionally meet with a flea or even a …, when woe betide them, for the English are a juicy people.

The whole district, comprising tho department of the Puy de Dome and part of that of Cantal, is one of very remarkable characteristics. It rises from the broad, flat, sunny plain of the Limague, which occupies so much of South France, and appears to be entirely volcanic in origin.

From the northern part of this elevated (and in this blazing weather comparatively cool) plateau, springs up a chain of six or seven almost conical hills of different elevations. These are called in the language of the country, puys. The chain is some miles in length, and the cones towards each of its extremities — the Puy de Corne and the Puy de Louchadiere — are crushed down on their western sides, and present in great perfection the cup-shaped cavity forming the crater of a volcano.

From these craters two streams of lava have burst at some remote period, before man was; and pouring down the hill sides have, after independent courses of six or eight miles, united their seething currents in one, which flowing on has at length been stopped by a wall of rock forming the western bank of a little river. The bed of this stream, choked up at the time, has been reformed in the substance of the lava itself by the action of the water through many centuries.

On this sheet of lava, and of it, Pontgiband is built; and to this curious volcanic action the natural beauties which surround it are due. For the wide surface of the lava sheet is broken up into fern-covered masses piled together in wildest confusion, forming caves, monuments, and seas of basalt.

In some places the river flows between walls forty or fifty feet high, of the same rugged material. In others its course has disclosed columns of the pale brown basalt, crystallised into large hexagonal prisms. In others, again, pillared caverns seem to penetrate, which overhang the dancing stream beneath. Further on forests of dark silent pines line the sides of a wide, gloomy valley whose centre forms the river’s bed, over which it bubbles on, past the ruins of what has once been an immense monastery of the Chartreuse monks.

Besides all this, Pontgiband boasts of an old castle, itself lava built, whose battlemented towers frown over the town from the summit of the hill on which it is perched. There is, too, the Puy de Dome, the highest of the chain of hills, though never itself a cone of eruption. On it at certain, or uncertain times fairies and goblins swarm: there the unwary traveller may see sights and hear sounds at these times, such as mortal traveller never sees or hears elsewhere.

The natives themselves are not unnoticeable. The men wild and weird in dress and manner; seldom venturing from their hill recesses, save when they clatter in their rattling sabots after their herds to the fair in the nearest town. The women, whose first peculiarity is universal, unmitigated and intense ugliness; and their second, a habit of bandaging their heads from cradledom upwards, in yards of never removed linen swathes, surmounted by caps of whose hideousness no words could give more than a faint idea, and who consequently become literally thick-headed; but who are, nevertheless (both men and women) a harmless, inoffensive set, barring dirt and an inherent distrust and dislike of the English, which seems, though not demonstratively, to pervade all classes in this, one of the best-preserved parts of real, old-fashioned, royal France.

How I enjoyed my visit, where I went, what I did, how I climbed into craters of volcanoes and other inaccessible places, how I penetrated ruined castles and monasteries, wonderful caverns and mysterious ravines; how I saw strange ceremonies and customs, and heard appalling legends; how I attended fetes, religious and otherwise; how I beheld a French chasse, or horse-race, and did marvel and smile much thereat; how I experienced hospitalities which makes the recollections of a few days very pleasant; how I visited the region of the Mont Dore, fifteen miles off, where France rears her highest peak — that of Sancy — and heard how Saussure made his celebrated barometric experiments there; and how I returned home to St. Mary Axe, refreshed, strengthened, and embrowned, but delighted — is it not given to future pages to disclose? Perhaps.

X.


 

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