The most celebrated fortified town in France is the Cité of Carcassonne, yet, even in the days of its practical strength, it was scarcely a type. It was rather a marvel, a wonder,—the “fairest Maid of Languedoc,” “the Invincible.” And now the citadel is almost deserted. The inhabitants are so few that weeds grow in their streets, and one who walks there in the still mid-day feels that all this completion of architecture, these walls, perfect in every stone, may be an enchanted vision, a mirage; he more than half believes that the cool of the sunset will dispel the illusion, and he will find himself on a pleasant little hill of Languedoc, looking down upon the commonplace “Lower City” of Carcassonne.
At Entrevaux there is no suggestion of illusion. This is not a show-place that once was real; it is one of a hundred little agglomerations of the French Middle Ages. They had no great name to uphold; no riches to expend in impregnable walls and towers. They clung fearfully together for self-preservation, built ramparts that were as strong as might be, and dared not laugh at the “fortunes of war.” Except that there is safety outside the walls, and a tiny post and telegraph office within, they are now as they were in those dangerous days. The fortress of Carcassonne is dead; but in the back country of Provence, Entrevaux is living, and scarcely a jot or tittle of its Mediævalism is lost. Among high rocks that close around it on every side, where, according to the season, the Chalvagne trickles or plunges into the river Var, and dominated by a fort that perches on a sharp peak, is the strangest of old Provençal towns.
The founding of the tiny episcopal city was after this wise. Toward the close of the XIV century, in a time of plagues, Jewish persecutions, the growth of heresies, and the uncurbed ravages of free-booters, the city of Glandèves, seat of an ancient Bishopric, was destroyed. The living remnant abandoned its desolate ruins. Searching for a stronger, safer home, they chose a site on the left bank of the Var, and commenced the building of Entrevaux. The Bishop accompanied his flock, and although he retained the old title of Glandèves, in memory of the antiquity of the See and its lost city, the Cathedral-church was established at Entrevaux.
The first edifice, Saint-Martin's, built shortly after the founding of the town, has long been destroyed; and the second, begun in 1610, to the honour of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, held episcopal rank until the See was disestablished by the great Concordat. Although this Cathedral was built in the XVII century, a date perilously near that of decadence in French ecclesiastical architecture, it was situated in so obscure a corner of Provence that its plan was unaffected by innovating ideas; it is of the old native type, a building of stout walls and heavy buttresses, a single tower, square and straight, and a tunnel-vaulted room, the place of congregation. This interior, with no beautiful details that may not be found in other churches, has as many of the defects of the Italian school as the treasury could afford,—marble columns, frescoes, gilding, and other rococo decorations which show that the people of Entrevaux had no higher and no better tastes than those of Nice; and that the old, simple purity of the church's form was rather a matter of ignorance or necessity than of choice. The attraction of the episcopal church pales before the quaint delight of the episcopal city, and it is as part of the general civic defence that it shares in the interest of Entrevaux.
Leaving the train at the nearest railroad station, the traveller followed the winding Var, and he had scarcely walked four miles when he saw, across the river, the sharp peak with its fort, and the long lines of walls that zigzag down the hillside till they reach the crowded roofs that are clustered closely, in charming irregularity, near the bank.
Along the water's edge, the only part of the town that is not protected by rocks and hills, there is another line of stout walls and two heavy, jutting bastions. From a mediæval point of view Entrevaux looks strong indeed. The only means of entrance, now as in those olden days, is by one of three small drawbridges, and so narrow is every street of the town that no wagon is allowed to cross, for if it made the passage of the bridge it would be caught hard and fast between the houses. As the traveller put foot on the drawbridge he felt as though he were a petty trader or wandering minstrel, or some other figure of the Middle Ages, entering for a few hours' traffic or a noon-day's rest, and when he paused under the low arch of the portcullis-gate, people stared at him as they do at a stranger in little far-off towns.
Once inside, he turned into a street, and was immediately obliged to step into a door-way, for a man leading a horse was approaching, and they needed all its breadth. Houses, several stories high, bordered these incredibly dark, narrow ways, and some of the upper windows had the diminutive balconies so dear to the South. It was a bright, hot day, but the sun seldom peeped into these streets; and in the shops the light was dull at mid-day. As he thought of the men and women of Mediævalism, who did not dare to wander in the fields beyond the town, because their safety lay within its ramparts, suddenly, the little public squares of walled towns appeared in all the real significance of their light and breadth and sunshine.
Space is precious in Entrevaux, and open places are few. There is one where the hotels and cafés are found, another across the drawbridge behind the Cathedral-tower, and a tiny one before the church itself. This is the most curious of them all; for, far from being a “Place de la Cathédrale,” it is a true “Place d'Armes.” Near the portals, on whose wooden doors the mitre and insignia of papal favour are carved, a few steps lead to a narrow ledge where archers could stand and shoot from the loop-holes in the walls. As the traveller sat on this ledge and wondered what scenes had been enacted here, how many deadly shots had sped from out the holes, what crowds of excited townsfolk had gathered in the church, what grave words of exhortation and of blessing had been spoken from the altar or the threshold by anxious prelate, robed and mitred for the Mass of Supplication to a God of Battles, an humble funeral appeared,—a priest, a peasant bearing a black wooden Cross with the name of the deceased painted on it, a rope-bound coffin carried by hot and sorrowing women, and a little procession of friends. The pomps and vanities of the past disappeared as a mist from the traveller's mind, and he saw Entrevaux as it really is, without the comforts of this world's goods, without the greatness of a Bishopric, a small Provençal village whose perfection of quaintness—so charming to him who passes on—means hardship and discomfort to those who have been born and must live and die there.
And yet so potent is that charm, when the traveller re-crossed the drawbridge and looked up at the sharp teeth of the portcullis that may still fall and bite, when he had passed out on the high-road and turned again and again to watch the fading sunlight on the tangled mass of roofs, the illusion had returned. The bastions stood out in bold relief, the church tower with its crenellated top stood out against the rocky peaks, the sun fell suddenly behind the hill, and the traveller felt himself again a minstrel wandering in a mediæval night.
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