The point from which to start, in order best to appreciate the change from ocean to sea, is perhaps Biarritz. The point at which to stop is Cette. And the change is important. Between the two points races are changed, climates are changed, scenery is changed, the very plants under your feet are changed, from a Western to an Eastern type. You pass from the wild Atlantic into the heart of the Roman Empire–from the influences which formed the discoverers of the New World, to those which formed the civilizers of the Old. Gascony, not only in its scenery, but in its very legends, reminds you of Devon and Cornwall; Languedoc of Greece and Palestine.
In the sea, as was to be expected, the change is even more complete. From Biarritz to Cette, you pass from poor Edward Forbes’s Atlantic to his Mediterranean centre of creation. In plain English and fact, whether you agree with his theory or not, you pass from the region of respectable whales, herrings, and salmon, to that of tunnies, sciaenas, dorados, and all the gorgons, hydras, and chimaeras dire, which are said to grace the fish-markets of Barcelona or Marseilles.
But to this assertion, as to most concerning nature, there are exceptions. Mediterranean fishes slip out of the Straits of Gibraltar, and up the coast of Portugal, and, once in the Bay of Biscay, find the feeding good and the wind against them, and stay there.
So it befalls, that at worthy M. Gardere’s hotel at Biarritz (he has seen service in England, and knows our English ways), you may have at dinner, day after day, salmon, louvine, shad, sardine, dorado, tunny. The first is unknown to the Mediterranean; for Fluellen mistook when he said that there were salmons in Macedon, as well as Monmouth; the louvine is none other than the nasty bass, or sea-perch of the Atlantic; the shad (extinct in these islands, save in the Severn) is a gigantic herring which comes up rivers to spawn; a fish common (with slight differences) to both sides of the North Atlantic; while the sardine, the dorado, and the tunny (whether he be the true tunny or the Alalonga) are Mediterranean fish.
The whale fishery of these shores is long extinct. The Biscayan whale was supposed to be extinct likewise. But like the ibex, and some other animals which man has ceased to hunt, because he fancies that he has killed them all, they seem inclined to reappear. For in 1854 one was washed ashore near St. Jean de Luz, at news whereof Eschricht, the great Danish naturalist, travelled night and day from Copenhagen, and secured the skeleton of the new-old monster.
But during the latter part of the Middle Ages, and on–if I recollect aright–into the seventeenth century, Bayonne, Biarritz, Guettary, and St. Jean de Luz, sent forth their hardy whale-fishers, who slew all the whales of the Biscayan seas, and then crossed the Atlantic, to attack those of the frozen North.
British and American enterprise drove them from the West coast of the Atlantic; and now their descendants are content to stay at home and take the sardine-shoals, and send them in to Bayonne on their daughters’ heads.
Pretty enough it was, at least in outward seeming, to meet a party of those fisher-girls, bare-legged, high-kilted, lithe as deer, trotting, at a long loping pace, up the high road toward Bayonne, each with her basket on her head, as she laughed and sang, and tossed her black hair, and flashed her brown eyes, full of life and the enjoyment of life. Pretty enough. And yet who will blame the rail, which now sends her quickly into Bayonne–or even her fish without her; and relieves the fair young maiden from being degraded into a beast of burden?
Handsome folk are these brown Basques. A mysterious people, who dwell alone, and are not counted among the nations; speaking an unique language, and keeping up unique customs, for which the curious must consult M. Michel’s interesting book. There may be a cross of English blood among them, too, about Biarritz and Bayonne; English features there are, plainly to be seen. And whether or not, one accepts the story of the country, that Anglets, near by, is an old English colony left by our Black Prince, it is certain that Bayonne Cathedral was built in part by English architects, and carries the royal arms of England; and every school history will tell us how this corner of France was long in our hands, and was indeed English long before it was properly French. Moorish blood there may be, too, here and there, left behind by those who built the little ‘atalaya’ or fire-beacon, over the old harbour, to correspond, by its smoke column, with a long line of similar beacons down the Spanish coast. The Basques resemble in look the Southern Welsh–quick-eyed, neat in feature, neat in dress, often, both men and women, beautiful. The men wear a flat Scotch cap of some bright colour, and call it ‘berretta.’ The women tie a gaudy handkerchief round their heads, and compel one corner to stand forward from behind the ear in a triangle, in proportion to the size and stiffness whereof the lady seems to think herself well dressed. But the pretty Basque handkerchief will soon give place to the Parisian bonnet. For every cove among the rocks is now filled with smart bathing-houses, from which, in summer, the gay folk of Paris issue in ‘costume de bain,’ to float about all day on calabashes–having literally no room for the soles of their feet on land. Then are opened casinos, theatre, shops, which lie closed all the winter. Then do the Basque house- owners flee into the moors, and camp out (it is said) on the hills all night, letting their rooms for ten francs a night as mere bed- chambers–for all eating and living is performed in public; while the dove-coloured oxen, with brown holland pinafores over their backs, who dawdle in pairs up and down the long street with their light carts, have to make way for wondrous equipages from the Bois de Boulogne.