This travel story is an excerpt from A Motor-Flight Through France by Edith Wharton.
The motor-car has restored the romance of travel.
Freeing us from all the compulsions and contacts of the railway, the bondage to fixed hours and the beaten track, the approach to each town through the area of ugliness and desolation created by the railway itself, it has given us back the wonder, the adventure and the novelty which enlivened the way of our posting grandparents. Above all these recovered pleasures must be ranked the delight of taking a town unawares, stealing on it by back ways and unchronicled paths, and surprising in it some intimate aspect of past time, some silhouette hidden for half a century or more by the ugly mask of railway embankments and the iron bulk of a huge station. Then the villages that we missed and yearned for from the windows of the train—the unseen villages have been given back to us!—and nowhere could the importance of the recovery have been more delightfully exemplified than on a May afternoon in the Pas-de-Calais, as we climbed the long ascent beyond Boulogne on the road to Arras.
It is a delightful country, broken into wide waves of hill and valley, with hedge-rows high and leafy enough to bear comparison with the Kentish hedges among which our motor had left us a day or two before; and the villages, the frequent, smiling, happily-placed villages, will also meet successfully the more serious challenge of their English rivals—meet it on other grounds and in other ways, with paved marketplaces and clipped charmilles instead of gorse fringed commons, with soaring belfries instead of square church towers, with less of verdure, but more, perhaps, of outline—certainly of line.
The country itself—so green, so full and close in texture, so pleasantly diversified by clumps of woodland in the hollows, and by streams threading the great fields with light—all this, too, has the English, or perhaps the Flemish quality—for the border is close by—with the added beauty of reach and amplitude, the deliberate gradual flow of level spaces into distant slopes, till the land breaks in a long blue crest against the seaward horizon.
There was much beauty of detail, also, in the smaller towns through which we passed: some of them high-perched on ridges that raked the open country, with old houses stumbling down at picturesque angles from the central market-place; others tucked in the hollows, among orchards and barns, with the pleasant country industries reaching almost to the doors of their churches. In the little villages a deep delicious thatch overhangs the plastered walls of cottages espaliered with pear-trees, and ducks splash in ponds fringed with hawthorn and laburnum; and in the towns there is almost always some note of character, of distinction—the gateway of a seventeenth century hôtel, the triple arch of a church-front, the spring of an old mossy apse, the stucco and black cross-beams of an ancient guild-house—and always the straight lime-walk, square-clipped or trained en berceau, with its sharp green angles and sharp black shade acquiring a value positively architectural against the high lights of the paved or gravelled place. Everything about this rich juicy land bathed in blond light is characteristically Flemish, even to the slow-moving eyes of the peasants, the bursting red cheeks of the children, the drowsy grouping of the cattle in flat pastures; and at Hesdin we felt the architectural nearness of the Low Countries in the presence of a fine town-hall of the late Renaissance, with the peculiar “movement” of volutes and sculptured ornament—lime-stone against warm brick—that one associates with the civic architecture of Belgium: a fuller, less sensitive line than the French architect permits himself, with more massiveness and exuberance of detail.
This part of France, with its wide expanse of agricultural landscape, disciplined and cultivated to the last point of finish, shows how nature may be utilized to the utmost clod without losing its freshness and naturalness. In some regions of this supremely “administered” country, where space is more restricted, or the fortunate accidents of water and varying levels are lacking, the minute excessive culture, the endless ranges of potager wall, and the long lines of fruit-trees bordering straight interminable roads, may produce in the American traveller a reaction toward the unkempt, a momentary feeling that ragged road-sides and weedy fields have their artistic value. But here in northern France, where agriculture has mated with poetry instead of banishing it, one understands the higher beauty of land developed, humanised, brought into relation to life and history, as compared with the raw material with which the greater part of our own hemisphere is still clothed. In France everything speaks of long familiar intercourse between the earth and its inhabitants; every field has a name, a history, a distinct place of its own in the village polity; every blade of grass is there by an old feudal right which has long since dispossessed the worthless aboriginal weed.
As we neared Arras the road lost its pleasant windings and ran straight across a great plateau, with an occasional long dip and ascent that never deflected it from its purpose, and the villages became rarer, as they always do on the high wind-swept plains of France. Arras, however, was full of compensations for the dullness of the approach: a charming old grey town, with a great air of faded seventeenth-century opulence, in which one would have liked to linger, picking out details of gateway and courtyard, of sculptured masks and wrought-iron balconies—if only a brief peep into the hotel had not so promptly quenched the impulse to spend a night there.
To Amiens therefore we passed on, passing again, toward sunset, into a more broken country, with lights just beginning to gleam through the windows of the charming duck-pond villages, and tall black crucifixes rising ghostly at the cross-roads; and night was obliterating the mighty silhouette of the cathedral as we came upon it at length by a long descent.
It is always a loss to arrive in a strange town after dark, and miss those preliminary stages of acquaintance that are “so much more likely to be interesting in towns than in people; but the deprivation is partly atoned for by the sense of adventure with which, next morning, one casts one’s self upon the unknown. There is no conjectural first impression to be modified, perhaps got rid of: one’s mind presents a blank page for the town to write its name on.
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Edith Wharton (1862–1937) was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Having grown up in an upper-class, tightly controlled society known as “Old New York” at a time when women were discouraged from achieving anything beyond a proper marriage, Wharton broke through these strictures to become one of that society’s fiercest critics as well as one of America’s greatest writers. The author of more than 40 books in 40 years, Wharton’s oeuvre includes classic works of American literature such as The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country, The Age of Innocence, and Ethan Frome, as well as authoritative works on architecture, gardens, interior design, and travel.