Sir Frederick Treves on the smell of Nice

Found in The Riviera of the Corniche Road (Cassell896d404c280cb8f898f970a1ff20cf15, London 1921) by Sir Frederick Treves (1853 – 1923) this description of the old town part of Nice. Treves, of course, is well known as a prominent British surgeon  and for his friendship with Joseph Merrick, “the Elephant Man”. He was also a distinguished writer on travel, as well as surgery. In 1906 he had written on Dorset, the county of his birth, in the Highways and Byways series. He is particularly good on the smell of the old town. Odours are often neglected by travel writers. Does the area still smell the same?

 The old town of Nice is small and well circumscribed. It occupies a damp and dingy corner at the foot of the Castle Hill. It seems as if it had been pushed into this corner by the over-assertive new town. Its lanes are so compressed and its houses, by comparison, so tall that it gives the idea of having been squeezed and one may imagine that with a little more force the houses on the two sides of a street would touch. It is traversed from end to end by an alley called the Rue Droite.
This was the Oxford Street of the ancient city. A series of narrower lanes cross the Rue Droite ; those on one side mount uphill towards the castle rock, those on the other incline towards the river.

The lanes are dark, dirty and dissolute-looking. The town is such a one as Gustave Dore loved to depict or such as would be fitting to the tales of Rabelais. One hardly expects to find it peopled by modern mechanics, tram conductors, newspaper boys and honest housewives; nor do electric lights seem to be in keeping with the place. Its furtive ways would be better suited to men in cloaks and slouched hats…

The only thing that has not changed is the smell. It may be fainter than it was, but it must be centuries old. It is a complex smell ” a mingling of cheese and stale wine, of salt fish and bad health, a mouldy and melancholy smell that is hard to bear even though it be so very old. The ancient practice of throwing all refuse into the street has drawbacks, but it at least lacks the insincere delicacy of the modern dustbin…

From any one of the windows may protrude a mattress ” like a white or red tongue “..

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