The Basin of Berre - A neglected harbour - The diluvium - Formation of the Crau - The two Craus - Canal of Craponne - Climate of the Crau - The Bise and Mistral - Force of the wind - Cypresses - A vision of kobolds.

On leaving Marseilles by train for Arles, the line cuts through the limestone ridge of the Estaque, and the traveller passes from the basin of Marseilles into the much more extensive basin of Berre, surrounded by hills on all sides, a wide bowl like a volcanic crater, with the great inland salt lake of the Etang de Berre occupying its depths. This is a great natural harbour, seven times the size of the port of Toulon, and varying in depth from 28 to 32 feet; it is perfectly sheltered from every wind, and entire fleets might anchor there in security, not only out of reach, but out of sight of an enemy, for the chain of l'Estaque intervenes between it and the sea. It would seem as though Nature herself had designed Berre as a safe harbour for the merchant vessels that visit the south coast of France. It is almost inconceivable how this sheet of water, communicating with the sea by the channel of Martignes, can have been neglected; how it is that its still blue waters are not crowded with ships, and its smiling shores not studded with a chain of industrial and populous towns. "The neglect of this little inland sea as a port of refuge," says M. Elisee Reclus, "is an economic scandal. Whilst on dangerous coasts harbours are constructed at vast expense, here we have one that is perfect, and which has been neglected for fifteen centuries." But though the Romans or Greeks had a station here, they did not utilise the lagoon. At S. Chamas are remains of the masters of the ancient world, but no evidence that they had there a naval station.

The line cuts again through the lip of the basin, and we are in the Crau.

At a remote period, but, nevertheless, in one geologically modern, the vast floods of the diluvial age that flowed from the Alps brought down incredible quantities of rolled stones, the detritus of the Alps. This filled up a great bay now occupied by the mouths of the Rhone, and spread in a triangle from Avignon as the apex, to Cette in the west, and Fos in the east. This rubble, washed down from the Alps, forms the substratum of the immense plain that inclines at a very slight angle into the Mediterranean, and extends for a considerable distance below the sea. Not only did the Rhone bring down these boulders, but also the Durance, which enters the Rhone above Arles, and formed between the chain of Les Alpines and the Luberon another triangular plain of rolled stones, with the apex at Cavaillon and the base between Tarascon and Avignon. But the Durance did more. There is a break in the chain on the south, between the limestone Alpines and the sandstone Trevaresse; and the brimming Durance, unable to discharge all her water, choked with rubble, into the Rhone, burst through the open door or natural waste-pipe, by Salon, and carried a portion of her pebbles into the sea directly, without asking her sister the Rhone to help her. Now the two great plains formed by the delta of the Rhone, and that of the Durance into the Rhone, are called the great and little Craus. They were known to the ancients, and puzzled them not a little. Strabo says of the Great Crau: "Between Marseilles and the mouth of the Rhone, at about a hundred stadia from the sea, is a plain, circular in form, and a hundred stadia in diameter, to which a singular event obtained for it the name of the Field of Pebbles. It is, in fact, covered with pebbles, as big as the fist, among which grows some grass in sufficient abundance to pasture herds of oxen."

Then we are given the legend that accounts for it. Here Hercules fought against the Ligurians, when the son of Jove, having exhausted his arrows, was supplied with artillery by a discharge of stones from the sky, showered on his enemies by Jupiter.

This desert, a little Sahara in Europe, occupies 30,000 acres. "It is composed entirely of shingle," says Arthur Young, "being so uniform a mass of round stones, some to the size of a man's head, but of all sizes less, that the newly thrown up shingle of a seashore is hardly less free from soil; beneath these surface-stones is not so much a sand as a cemented rubble, with a small admixture of loam. Vegetation is rare and miserable, some of the absinthium and lavender so low and poor as scarcely to be recognised, and two or three miserable grasses, with Centaurea calycitropes and solstitialis, were the principal plants I could find." A mineralogical examination of the rolled stones presents peculiar interest. In the Little Crau, the mouth of the Durance, are found prodigious numbers of green and crystalline rocks, granite and variolite brought down from the Alps of Briancon, but nine-tenths of the pebbles of the Great Crau are white quartz brought from the great chain of the Alps, together with mica-slate and calcareous stones, and only a few of the variolites of Mont Genevre. One may say that the Great Crau is a complete mineralogical collection of all the rocks that form the chain of the Alps, whence flow the Rhone and its tributaries.

The aspect of the Crau is infinitely desolate, but it is no longer as barren as it was formerly. It is in fact, undergoing gradual but sure transformation. This is due to a gentleman of Provence, named Adam de Craponne, born in 1525 at Salon, who conceived the idea of bringing some of the waters of the Durance through the gap where some of its overspill had flowed in the diluvial epoch, by a canal, into the Great Crau, so that it might deposit its rich alluvium over this desert of stones. He spent his life and his entire fortune in carrying out his scheme, and it is due to this that year by year the barren desert shrinks, and cultivation advances. There are to-day other canals, those of Les Alpines, of Langlade, and d'Istres, besides that of Craponne that assist in fertilising the waste. Wherever the water reaches, the soil is covered with trees, with pasture-land, with fields of corn; and in another century probably the sterility of the Crau will have been completely conquered.

In its present condition, the Crau may be divided into two parts, that which is watered, and which has been converted into a garden, and that which is not as yet reached by the rich loamy waters of the Durance, and is therefore parched and desolate, overrun by herds of sheep and cattle, driven down in winter from the Alps, when a certain amount of herbage is found on the desert, which in summer is utterly dry and barren. These migrations date back to a remote epoch, for they are mentioned by Pliny.

Previous to the construction of the canal by Craponne, who began it in 1554, the desert reached to Arles; the whole of the plain south of the chain of the Alpines was either marsh lagoon, or a waste of stones, where now grow and luxuriate mulberries, olives, almond trees and vines. The canal of Craponne was carried by the originator for thirty-three miles, sending out branches at Salon, Eyguieres, and elsewhere. In winter the meadows are green as those of Devon in spring, and the fields yield heavy crops. Indeed, the Durance acts to this region in the same way as does the Nile to Egypt. "The meadows I viewed," says Young, "are among the most extraordinary spectacles the world can afford in respect to the amazing contrast between the soil in its natural and in its watered state, covered richly and luxuriantly with clover, chicory, rib-grass, and Avena elatior."

The climate of the Crau presents contrasts most extreme. In winter the thermometer falls and remains below zero for many nights in succession, and the glacial bise sweeps over the face of the desert, curdling the blood; the flocks and herds seek shelter from this blast behind the long walls of dry stones, which sometimes the violence of the wind throws down upon them.

During the summer the phenomenon of the mirage is almost continuous. The bed of air in contact with the surface of stones scorched by the blazing sun becomes rarified and dilated, so that the horizon appears to be fringed on all sides with lakes of rippling water, most deceptive and tantalising to the eye of the traveller.

The troops of wandering bulls and wild horses, flights of rose-coloured flamingoes, of partridges and wild ducks give this region a pronounced oriental physiognomy, and however painful it may be at such a time to traverse this burning plain, it affords a curious picture of the Sahara in miniature nowhere else to be seen in Europe.

The great scourge of the Crau is the north-west wind, the bise, the black boreas of the ancients, so violent as to roll over the pebbles, and to blow away the roofs of houses, and tear up trees by the roots. In fact, the Crau may be regarded as the Home of the Winds.

It is easy to explain the origin of these furious gales, bise and mistral. The low sandy regions at the mouth of the Rhone, denuded of all vegetation, and the great stony plain of the Crau, heated by the direct rays of the sun, rarify the air over the surface of the soil, and this rises, to be at once replaced by the cold air from the Alps and Cevennes; the air off the snow pours down with headlong violence to occupy the vacuum formed by the heated ascending column of air off the plain, sweeping the valley of the Rhone, and reaching its maximum of intensity between Avignon and the sea, where it meets, and is blunted in its force by the equable atmosphere that covers the surface of the Mediterranean.

The violence of the wind is consequently due to the difference of temperature between the hot air of the plain and the cold air of the mountain.

An old saying was to this effect: -

  "Parlement, Mistral et Durance 
  Sont les trois fleaux de Provence."

Parlement exists no longer, or rather is expanded into a National Assembly that is a discredit to all France, and not Provence alone; the Durance has become, thanks to Adam de Craponne, an agent of fertilisation and wealth. But the mistral (magistral, the master-wind) remains, and still scourges the delta of the Rhone. In 1845 it carried away the suspension bridge between Beaucaire and Tarascon; the passage of the Rhone is often rendered impossible for days, through its violence. It has been found necessary to plant rows of cypress on each side of the line that crosses the Crau, to break the force of the wind upon the trains. Indeed, throughout the district, the fields will, in many places, be found walled up on all sides by plantations of cypresses from thirty to fifty feet high, as screens against this terrible blast, to protect the crops from being literally blown out of the ground.

When I was a child of five years my father's carriage with post horses was crossing the Crau. It was in summer. I sat on the box with my father and looked at the postilions. Presently I saw a number of little figures of men with peaked caps running about the horses and making attempts to scramble up them. I said something about what I saw, whereupon my father stopped the carriage and put me inside with my mother. The heat of the sun on my head, he concluded, had produced these illusions. For some time I continued to see these dwarfs running among the pebbles of the Crau, jumping over tufts of grass, or careering along the road by the carriage side, making faces at me. But gradually their number decreased, and I failed finally to see any more.

One June day in the year 1884, one of my boys, then aged eight, was picking gooseberries in the fruit garden at home, when, standing between the bushes, he saw a little man of his own height, with a brown peaked cap, a red jacket, and green breeches. He had black hair and whiskers and beard. He looked angrily at the boy and said something. The child was frightened, ran indoors and told his elder brother and sister. They brought him to me, and his elder brother repeated the story, but purposely varied the description of the apparition, so as to see whether the lad held to the same account, but the child at once corrected him, and told me his story, which his brother informed me agreed exactly with what in his alarm, he had first told. The little boy was looking white, and frightened. Again a case of sun on the head.

Now for another. A lady whom I know very well indeed, and who never deviated from the truth in her life - save when she swore at the altar to honour and obey me - was walking one day, when a girl of thirteen, beside a quickset hedge; her brother was on the other side. I believe they were looking for birds' nests. All at once she saw a little man dressed entirely in green, with jacket, breeches, and high peaked hat, seated in the hedge, staring at her. She was paralysed with terror for a moment, then recovering herself, she called to her brother to come round and see the little green man. When he arrived the dwarf had disappeared.

Now these are funny stories, and are to be explained by the fact that the sun was hot on the head. But it does not strike me that the explanation is wholly satisfactory. Why should the sun on the head superinduce visions of kobolds? Is it because other people have suffered from a hot sun, and that the hot sun reproduces year after year the same phenomenon, that the fable of little men, pixies, gnomes, brownies, fairies, leprechauns is to be found everywhere? Or - is it possible that there is such a little creation only visible to man when he is subject to certain influences?

Sir Charles Isham, of Lamport, has collected a good deal of evidence of a similar nature. I do not venture to express an opinion one way or another. I can remember still, with vividness, the impression produced on me by what I saw that hot day on the Crau, when but a child of five years; but I cannot for the life of me explain it satisfactorily to myself.