Old wine in old bottles

According to the inhabitants of Seta (or Cette, in the old, disintegrating book I am reading) — a city on a hill about three leagues west of Montpellier — it is possible with the simpler wines of Catalonia and Roussillon, the excellent inexpensive local brandy, and plentiful springwater, to make “Port, Sherry, Clarets, Burgundy, Champaigne, Hock” and almost any other wine, to a very low standard. The town was bursting with enterprise. Barely two centuries ago, they were supplying all Europe (except England which had high customs duties) with inferior imitations of these beverages. Yes, except for England (and the cruel efficiency of her Revenue Cutters), free trade and capitalism were flourishing, and “the people” everywhere liked “cheap.”

Some things do not change, except in crude volume.

The town of Besièrs (or Béziers, or Bezières, but I prefer the Occitan spelling), mid way between Montpellier and beloved Carcassonne, is among the towns I wish I had visited during my longish Continental walks, earlier in life. It was the principal source of this good, cheap brandy, and too, from what I’ve read, a beautiful town just inland of the cliffs above the Mediterranean Sea.

Granted, there was much destruction, in July of 1209, so that monuments before that date are damaged if not extinct. The inhabitants refused to hand over their Cathar heretics, when the assembled Crusaders asked politely at their gates. Instead they dug in. Yet there were known to be faithful Catholics in the town, including priests, in addition to the many excitables.

It was indeed the place where the Albigensian Crusade began. Gentle reader may recall an historical sound-bite associated with this event. Arnaud Amalric, the Abbot of Cîteaux (or Cistaux if we want to be old-fashioned) — the papal legate advising the Crusaders — was asked by a conscientious soldier how to tell the heretics apart from the faithful when they stormed the town.

Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius,” the good abbot replied. Or in English, “Kill them all; God will know his own.”

Whether or not he agrees with this approach or stratagem, I’m sure gentle reader will join me in admiring how succinctly it was expressed; and in reflecting that this decisive action had a very positive result, postponing the Reformation for another three hundred years.

Besièrs, almost as old as Marseilles (founded six centuries before Christ), and known to sportsmen as a centre of French bullfighting, is not my topic today. Instead we visit a smaller town, approaching from the east. The author, Derwent Conway (nom de plume of Henry David Inglis) does not name it in the book I am reading.

His own tour, of 1830, begins with a circuit of Switzerland; descends the Rhône, to wander across southern France; ascends the Pyrenees; then comes down through Bordeaux; ending with an itinerary along the Loire. It was published at Edinburgh the next year, in the two pocket volumes I now have from a Greater Parkdale flea market. There was an old letter tucked inside, to the book’s former owner, recommending it for remarks on French wines, which the writer found astute after more than a century. The correspondents were apparently serious imbibers, and the work was given in return for a fine Chambertin ’28, two cases of which had been “liberated” in 1944.

But that is to take us off the road to Besièrs in 1830. This Conway, or Inglis — a Scottish advocate who became bored, and exchanged his trade for journalism and travel — must have been a quick walker. I do not think I could have covered his route in a single season, even in my prime; though it must be said he resorted to coaches and horses, river boats and ferries, through some sections of his journey. Most of it would have been “pedestrianism,” however; which is still possible if one’s legs will permit the exercise. I took the occasional motor autobus myself; but will insist the only way to notice the country one tours, is to walk across it. …

To Lourdes, for example, twenty-eight years before the Marian apparitions. Through many other towns, before other things happened — if one can read, and thus return to a time when the open road was a genuine adventure. It remains so in some places today, I suppose, but only if one is following the footpath rights of way, parish to parish, off the thunder’d pavement. Anything over four miles per hour (between halts) will blur all the gorgeous details. Except the thrill from heights, air travel is insupportable.

The English-speaking peoples were once renowned, or condemned, as persistent travellers. An explanation for this is provided by a French gentleman in whose company the author found himself at the table d’hôte in this unnamed little town. The Frenchman called it, la maladie noir — a restless desire to move from one place to another, as if in search of some cure. Conway admits that this is exactly what afflicted him before he left home. “Itchy feet,” we call it, with pretended innocence. (My own feet still itch terribly, as my mind succumbs to elderly nostalgia.)

Better to read these older ambulators than the newer, for after all, the parts we want to see are invariably those which were built before modernity and suburbanism drowned them in “diversity” (i.e. total sameness), and the invasion of monied mass tourism rendered even the surviving good bits so tourist-crowded and glib. Visitez les plus belles régions de France before Alphonse de Lamartine has laid down his confounded railways, and all the noise and ugliness is edited away. The wonders of this world are all now museums, and until the Islamists blow them up, will only “make your feet hot.” (Whistler’s comment after a frenetic afternoon in the Uffizi.)

I should also like to read Conway’s tour of Scandinavia; his Solitary Walks through many Lands; his Rambles in the Footsteps of Don Quixote; his journeys through the Tyrol “with a glance at Bavaria”; his observations on Ireland. He is a masterfully attentive journalist, interactive with all passing life; and the composer of innumerable wonderful asides, including analyses worthy of a Tocqueville. (For instance his explanation of why the best brandy comes from places like Besièrs, which are the worst wine districts.)

He commanded such illustrators as George Cruikshank (for the book on Spain), in the days before photography ruined everything. He was quoted in Parliament as an authority on foreign and even Irish affairs. He is an admirable prose writer, comparable to the novelists of his generation. Unlike our better “magazine” writers of today, he is not merely bigoted, ignorant, illiterate, vain, pandering, quarrelsome, and thick.