Thursday, July 7, 2011
The Cruise of the Vanadis
From the snowy mountains of Massachusetts to the sunny shores of the Mediterranean, Culturissma has always been fascinated by the life and times of the Amercian authoress Edith Wharton.
For many years Culturissima organised cultural tours to the Berkshire Hills, not so very far from Boston, that included visits not only to Wharton's former home, The Mount, but also to Melville's Arrowhead and Hawthorne's House of the Seven Gables.
Wharton, America's first woman of letters and a Pulitzer Prize winner to boot, was also an adventurer. In the following abridged extract from The Cruise of the Vanadis, which details Wharton's travels across the Mediterranean, we read about her impressions of Algeria, a country we frequently visit on behalf of www.expertalgeria.com.
On the 17th of February after two weeks of icy fog in Paris, we left Marseilles for Algiers, in the steamer Ville de Madrid. The Gulf of Lions was in its usual disturbed condition, and it was after a very rough passage that we reached Algiers on the following night. The steam-yacht Vanadis, which we had chartered in England for our Mediterranean cruise, lay awaiting us in the harbour, and the gig came alongside the steamer as soon as we anchored.
We had to row ashore first, to pass through the Custom House, in common with all the other passengers; and on setting foot in the sea of mud which covered the landing-place, we were surrounded by the first Arabs we had ever seen - startlingly picturesque in the flashes of lanternlight, with their white burnouses and long white cloaks. A few minutes later we were again in the gig, being rapidly rowed across the wide harbour, under a sky glittering with stars, and our first view of Algiers, stretching its illuminated curve high above the dark waters of the bay, was extremely fine. We were soon alongside the yacht, and presently found ourselves peacefully seated at supper in the brightly lighted saloon, which had been filled with roses and violets in honour of our coming.
Never was town more nobly placed. Backed by the green slopes of the Sahel, the tiers of white houses follow the long curve of the bay, above which they are raised by the high arches of the terrace - like Boulevard de la République, and over the denser roofs of the city lie the scattered villas of Mustapha Supérieur, their horse-shoe windows glancing seaward through groves of orange and palm, their white walls tapestried with crimson bougainvillea. The harbour, crowded with shipping, is bounded on one side by a mole of modern construction, on the other by the jetty which 30,000 Christian captives toiled to build less than 400 years ago. But the reality of Christian slavery in Africa is brought much closer to us by Goethe's description of Prince Palagonia whom he saw, hardly more than 100 years ago, clad in black small-clothes, with silk stockings and silver buckles, begging in the streets of Palermo for money to ransom the Christian captives of Algeria. Even in 1816, 3,000 still remained to be released by Lord Exmouth when he destroyed the fleet of the Algerine pirates.
It seems incredible that such things should have been within the memory of living man, when one walks today through the street of the French quarter, crowded with carriages and tourists, and lined with shops as inviting as those of Nice.
To see the Arab side of Algiers one must go to the market or the mosques, or better still, climb the steep lanes which lead upward from the Parisian arcades of the Rue Bab-Azoun. In these narrow streets, we saw veiled women hurrying along with the peculiar shuffling gait due to those loose slippers of the East, their painted eyes shining through the thin white yashmak; then there were dark doorways in which old Arabs sat squatting over their tailoring or shoe-making; and groups of stalking Bedouins in ragged garments which had once been white, and negroes and Jews and half-clothed children, and all the other fantastic figures which go to make up the pageantry of an eastern street scene. We hired a little phaeton one day, and drove out to Mustapha Supérieur, catching charming glimpses of walled gardens and Mauresque villas, and meeting omnibuses crowded with wild-looking figures, and driven at a headlong pace down the muddy suburban roads.
Mustapha, though quite as pretty as any of the suburbs near Cannes or Nice, lacks the neatness and garden-like look which we associate with the Riviera; but perhaps the general air of slovenliness is atoned for, to many eyes, by the picturesque populace filling the untidy streets. And nowhere in Europe could one see anything so Oriental as the little arcaded café at Mustapha, where white-robed Algerines sit crouched on the terrace, drinking their coffee under a group of plane-trees. We passed the summer palace of the Governor, getting a glimpse of well-kept gardens through the gateways, and then drove through the Vallon de la Femme Sauvage... This wild little ravine led us to the quarter called Mustapha Inférieur, lying near the sea on the lower slope of the Sahel; and here we found the Jardin d'Essail which I was particularly anxious to see.
We walked under avenues of India-rubber trees as large as oaks, and between trellises of tea-roses in bloom, and high clumps of Arundo donax, but a cold wind sweeping through the long alleys made the scene cheerless in spite of this southern vegetation. It was, however, a bad time to visit the Jardin d'Essai, for it had been very cold for some days in Europe, and we heard afterwards that there was snow at Avignon and skating near Marseilles, while we were shivering under the India-rubber trees of Algiers. Perhaps it may have been owing to the exceptional weather that all the more delicate palms such as Lantana borbonica, Phoenix, Cycas revoluta, etc, were sheltered by tents of matting.
On the 22nd of February, at about 3pm, we started for Tunis, but the wind was so high and the sea so rough, that on the following afternoon we put in at Bone. Never was tranquil harbour more welcome, and as soon as we could get pratique [formal permission] we were set ashore and took a walk through the town. It is charmingly situated on a bay surrounded by mountains, and close by lie the ruins of Hippone, the Bishopric of St Augustine. The town itself is clean and pretty, with an arcaded French quarter, as usual, and a square planted with palms, and beds of roses and violets. At the head of this square stands the modern Catholic cathedral, and a little further on a gate in the wall of the town leads into the country. In the Arab quarter we saw many striking figures - children in bright frocks, with broad gold bracelets, women in white burnouses, with black silk yashmaks over their faces, and strangest of all, the Jewesses with silk turbans over their plaited hair (like 17th-century pictures of Judith or Herodias), loose flowing sleeves of embroidered gauze or muslin, and flowered silk dresses with jackets braided with gold.
The afternoon of our arrival we went ashore in the steam-launch, and drove to Hippone. The road lies through a lane overshadowed by high hedges of prickly pear and aloes, behind which we caught glimpses of orange and lemon groves full of fruit. The ruins stand on a hill overgrown with olives and consist of the piers and vaulting of a very old church, covered with a climbing mass of green. Whether it is the church destroyed in the 7th century or a later one, I do not know. Higher up the hill, Catholic ardour is raising the walls and columns of a new cathedral, the crypt of which is already finished and used as a church. Here we met some Sisters of Charity, who showed us the French Orphanage nearby, and after lingering for some time to look at the beautiful view of mountains, plain and sea, we drove back to Bone. This time our road led through the valley behind the town, skirting a stream overhung with cactuses and blooming mimosa. All the trees were in full leaf, and the land was a blaze of young spring green.