As soon as the boat sailed we got down to serious business, as there was all the packing to be done. It was almost as bad as when we got packed at home and everybody was just about as bad tempered.
“Where is my — ?” “Do we want this before we get to London?” “Where does this go?” and other similar questions were flying from one person and cabin to the other until it was finally over and the boat was slowing down in the bay at Villefranche.
This was our first French port and from the boat it was certainly very pretty. There was no wharf, so we had to anchor in the bay.
Then came the customs. I thought everything was quite settled before I left the boat. The French officer took the bags and asked if we had any spirits or cigarettes. I said, “No, I don’t drink and I don’t smoke”. His inquiries were going down on the bags in chalk beautifully. He came to my new Aerpax case and because this looked unusual he asked me to open it. I unlocked it and then he saw my lovely array of about 100 films. He picked them up, looked at them, smelt them, and then called another officer. “Yes, I must pay duty!” I will not put down all the argument, but after a couple more officers were called and also an interpreter, I was eventually allowed to take them without paying. Before I get to any other country I will split them up into all the bags. With the assistance of Rozie and Elizabeth, who both made good use of their French, we finally arrived at the car to take us to Nice.
I believe I wrote in my previous epistle that Naples was the prettiest city we had seen, but Nice can beat it. It is situated right on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea with hills all round it. It is a very old city, but is also quite modern. We saw the remains of a Roman amphitheatre on one of the hills and we saw some of the most modern shops and hotels we have yet found. The climate is mild, there is no wind, the spring flowers are in bloom, and the springtime sun is refreshing and exhilarating.
After getting booked at the Metropole Hotel we went for a walk.
We were the real tourists, stopping and staring everywhere. We saw many amusing things which were typically French.
Most of the men were wearing berets. Many people were walking arm in arm.
The ladies were mostly dressed in black and looked very smart in spite of their much-made-up faces. The language and gesticulations were fascinating.
We walked until the ladies were tired and I said I would hire a car to leisurely drive around the city. Just then I saw an old-fashioned phaeton waiting at the curbside to be hired. “Just the very thing” I thought, “as we can see better and drive slower”.
The job of making the driver understand what we wanted was our first experience of fending for ourselves in France.
He could not speak a word of English. By making signs and Rozie and Elizabeth using their best French we were able to complete the contract and drove off in high spirits. It was a splendid idea, for he took us for an hour’s drive and showed us many places of interest. It was too late in the evening for photos. and I can see I will have to miss very many good pictures because I cannot choose the right moment to take them. We paid him 30 francs, which is equal to 4/- in our money, and engaged him for the next morning.
In the hotel we found the bathroom is kept locked as baths are extra. I had a great time next morning arranging for a bath. In the end I went down to the ground floor and saw the man in charge, who could understand English, and told him what I wanted. For breakfast all of our ideas were upset because we were put into a special room where we sat down to coffee and two fancy rolls with butter and marmalade. We afterwards convinced them that we required fruit and eggs and bacon. The fruit is given you in a small basket and the eggs and bacon, or rather the one egg and one small piece of bacon, are apparently put into a small dish in which they are served and are baked in the oven with butter. I have not tried this, but they are enjoyed by the ladies. Wine is the national beverage. At the first dinner I ordered a bottle to try it and it was very good. A large bottle cost 2/- and there were also cheaper wines to choose from. Champagne costs from 1/6 per pint bottle. The food is all well cooked and we enjoyed it. The bedrooms are clean, but they appear to be afraid of fresh air everywhere. In all rooms there is a lack of ventilation and the central heating is kept going although the temperature is just about as good as our summer.
The next afternoon at 2 o’clock we started on a special trip to Grasse, where there are several perfume factories. We went in a large motor bus and the drive was wonderful. For a number of miles we went along ordinary country roads and then we started climbing into the mountains along a very narrow road. When I say narrow, I mean very narrow, as we know the word, for in many places there was scarcely room for the bus to travel and even to pass anyone on foot would have been impossible. Most of these country roads and even many of the roads in the country villages have no footpath and there is just room for cars to pass each other.
On the road to Grasse we passed several small villages which had been built very many years ago. It appears to have been the custom in the olden days for the people to select the highest point on a hill for their homes.
The guide explained that this was for defence purposes as the people could see their enemies approaching as they kept lookouts so that the whole of the hillsides could be seen. These villages were simply a cluster of a few hundred homes built as closely together as possible.
Vence was one of those we passed through and it was a good illustration. We saw it from afar and it appeared to be a mass of old architecture at the very top of a a high peak.
When we reached it there was scarcely enough room for the bus to drive through the streets, but that didn’t seem to trouble the driver in any way. We were less than a couple of feet from the buildings on each side in places. There were sharp bends and corners. Mirrors were used to show drivers whether there was any traffic coming from some of the side alleys.
We climbed higher and higher and the rain which had set in got worse as we climbed. Photos. were impossible.
We reached the perfume factory and a girl who could speak English showed us through. It takes tons of flowers to make a bottle of good scent. The flowers are boiled for hours and the liquid is then distilled. There were several processes according to the kind of flowers used. We were sprayed with the best scent, “Moments Supreme” and, of course, were expected to purchase some of it afterwards. We drove back a shorter and easier road, but very interesting all the same.
At night we could not go to the pictures as we could not understand the language. A dance for the party had been suggested, but that did not appeal so we went for a walk and visited the best casino where we were permitted to have a look round. The architecture and furnishings were simply marvellous and of course they are all paid for by money lost by the common herd, who are always ready to risk their cash in order to become rich quickly.
Saturday morning, the 30th April, we were up early to get started for Monte Carlo and Mentone. This was a whole day’s outing and we went in two large motor buses with open tops. We drove over the hills out of Nice and followed the high road which was wonderfully built and was certainly part of the defence scheme. The road was fortified at every vantage point and military barracks were in operation.
We looked down on Monte Carlo from the heights and it was a wonderful scene. It is situated in Monaco, a small kingdom of but a few miles in area, which was once part of France but was afterwards given its independence.
By lunch time we reached Mentone and went half way over a stone bridge across a chasm which is the beginning of the Italian border. We could not go any further, nor could we take any photos. The French gendarmes were on one side and the Italian soldiers on the other.
After a very good lunch we drove along the lower road to Monte Carlo where we were given 1¼ hours in which to “try our luck”. Naturally, I thought I would take some photos. but I was disappointed, at any rate, as far as the interior of the casino was concerned, for when I reached the entrance with my camera I was directed to a small counter and there I had to hand it in and pay 2 francs for giving them the privilege of minding it for me.
We first visited the roulette tables. They were crowded. Scarcely a word was spoken. The faces were all grim and horribly serious. Some must have been winning, and yet they showed no pleasure. Each had his little bag or card on which he was writing figures after every spin of the wheel. The house was winning all the time and yet the bidding never stopped or slackened for a moment. There were people of all nationalities and yet French appeared to be the only language spoken when there was anything said. It was all a business, a horrible business which was depressing to me. Someone would get up from his seat to go away and it would be taken by one of those eagerly waiting.
Outside I was permitted to have my camera and I photographed the “terraces” where people go to delight in their winnings or contemplate, yes and even do suicide when they have lost heavily.
The grounds were kept in beautiful order, there were comfortable seats and they could look out across the blue Mediterranean Sea.
Being day time there was nothing on in the theatre of the Casino, but from making a few persistent enquiries our party of four was given permission to see it. It was undoubtedly the most elaborately furnished theatre I have seen. The appointments and statuary were most costly and there must have been thousands of pounds spent on the leafed gold with which it was decorated. We were glad we saw this, as the others missed it.
We stopped outside the Prince’s Palace on the way home, but once more we were not permitted to take a photo. I managed to sneak one while the bus was moving, but so far I have not had it developed.
We went through several small coastal towns on the way back, including Villefranche where we had landed. These were really beautiful, as the country is mountainous and the roads winding. We were able to look down and see the many bays with the homes and gardens dotted amongst the olive trees. Every available foot of land is cultivated. I thought I had made a good job of cultivating the hillside at the bach at Plimmerton, but that is nothing to what is done in France. On the steep hillsides everywhere they build terraces of stone and a flat piece two or three yards wide is made level. Here they grow vegetables and grape vines. The grapes seem to grow best on the hillsides. At first sight these terraces reminded us of the terraces in Ceylon where the rice was grown, but in this country the hills are much steeper and of course the terraces take much more building. The mountainous nature of the country also makes it very costly to defend, especially when the dividing point is only a mark on the land.
Sunday morning. Here I am, sitting out in the sun in the public gardens at Nice. Rozie is with me reading and watching the people pass by. We are in arm chairs, for which we had to pay 1d. in our own money. We look out across the Mediterranean in one direction, on either side we see all kinds of traffic and other interesting and amusing sights. In another direction we watch the people feeding the many pigeons. It is a beautiful spot for a rest and that rest is much enjoyed after the busy days we have been having lately. It is a holiday here – “Labour Day” – and all the shops are closed. It has given us all an opportunity to get our writing up to date.