Friday, 26 September 2014

Walking in Nietzche's footsteps

The last time we were in Nice – last September – a summer-long celebration of Matisse was just drawing to a close, so we spent a lot of time in galleries. This time was different: armed with John and Pat Underwood’s sublimely-titled Walk and Eat around Nice we spent a good part of our stay taking advantage of the excellent public transport system, travelling out of the city to experience some of the Underwood’s recommended walks.

The first walk we embarked on began at the hilltop town of La Turbie, followed the north side of the Grande Corniche crest with superb views of the snow-clad Mercantour mountains before crossing the shoulder and heading for the medieval hilltop town of Eze. From there we dropped down to the sea, following an old mule track known as the Nietzsche Trail.  There were magnificent coastal views and a profusion of springtime wild flowers.

La Turbie is a bustling place, a working town as much a tourist stop-off, with the old village rising up the hillside that is topped by the large Roman monument, the Trophy of Augustus, erected by Augustus to celebrate his victory over the Ligurian tribes of the area.  The old village is partly built with old stones from the ruins of the Trophy and is mentioned in Dante’s Divine Comedy (at the time the village was ruled by Genoa and was the western limit of the city republic). Now partly-restored, the Trophy monument dominated the skyline behind us as we left La Turbie following the gently-rising path onto the ridge.

With one exception, we found the Underwoood’s directions clear and easy to follow.  Unfortunately the one exception came right at the start of this walk.  Instructions to turn left ‘at a square reservoir’ led me to look for an English-style stretch of open water.  Not seeing one, we forged on through increasingly dense maquis shrubland, following a track that soon petered out.  Retracing our steps after about 20 minutes, I realised my mistake: ‘reservoir’ hereabouts refers to an enclosed water tank, rather like a second world war pillbox.  Oh well, after that there were no more misunderstandings about what the guide meant.

The path continued through scrubland ablaze with all kinds of wild flowers, many of which I can’t put names to: purple, rose-like papery ones with leaves like sage; a sort of dandelion with a dense black centre; brilliant blue, star-like flowers; delicate pink convolvulus, rosemary and thyme, and red spikes of Valerian.

At times it seemed as if we were surrounded by carefully-planted scree gardens: dense arrangements of grasses, herbs and pillows of wild flowers. Soon we arrived at a place where a large basin had formed when underground caves, carved out by water percolating through the limestone rock, had collapsed.  Nearby was a small geological museum and picnic tables with stunning views down towards Eze village perched dramatically on a crag overlooking the sea, with Cap Ferrat beyond.

Now began the steep descent to Eze, a village occupied since prehistoric times and dominated by the ruins of a 12th-century castle. Romans, Moors, and the House of Savoy have ruled this place in the past.  After the steep descent we caught our breath over a drink in the main square.  Then it was onwards, to make our final descent to the sea, following the trail now named after Nietzsche.

One of Friedrich Nietzsche’s more intelligible remarks, I think.  It’s a thought he might have had while walking what has become known as the Nietzsche Trail, an old mule track that ascends from sea level to the mediaeval village of Eze perched on a rocky outcrop some 1400 feet above.

In the early 1880s Nietzsche lived for a while in Eze Bord de Mer, east along the coast from Nice, and would apparently walk up the steep mule path to Eze every day – an undertaking described by Nietzsche himself as ‘a most onerous ascent’.  It was during these rigorous ascents that he found the inspiration for the third part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, much of which was composed in his head while scrambling up the precipitous path (at least that’s how the story goes).

What possessed Nietzsche to make this ascent every day is unclear. He was always regarded as eccentric, a little odd, even crazy. He was afflicted with numerous physical ailments: splitting headaches, near-blindness, constipation, feelings of general paralysis, and complete blackouts.  To further complicate matters he was a regular abuser of drugs, including hashish, opium, potassium bromide, chloral hydrate, and a mysterious ‘Javanese’ preparation.  All of which might explain the mysterious and impenetrable ramblings of Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

But maybe we shouldn’t be too harsh or judgemental: he was ill, and perhaps liked the challenge of the arduous ascent in the fresh air, filled with the scents of the Mediterranean.  Later, he recalled the time spent here: ‘I slept well, I laughed a lot, and I found a marvellous vigour and patience’.  What more to ask?

The trail starts off paved, but soon becomes a mixture of steps and rough path, winding steeply between dramatic rock formations.
About half- way down the path descends through a steep,V-shaped valley called the Vallon du Duc.  Geologically, it’s a calanque - a deep valley ending in the sea, sometimes called a Mediterranean fjord.

Along the way there were occasional reminders of the man who gave his name to the path: plaques with quotations from Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, such as this one in which animals give voice to the philosopher’s concept of ‘eternal return':

O Zarathustra, for those who think like us, all things dance : they come and offer a hand and laugh and flee – and return. Everything goes, everything returns; the wheel of existence turns eternally. Everything dies, everything is reborn; the cycle of existence goes on eternally.Everything breaks, everything reforms again; the same structure of existence is created eternally. All things separate, all things greet one another anew; the ring of existence remains eternally true to itself.

Oddly, this idea was fresh in my mind, having just watchedTrue Detective, in which detective Rustin Cohle often gives voice to it with thoughts such as: 
This is a world where nothing is solved. Someone once told me, ‘Time is a flat circle.’ Everything we’ve ever done or will do, we’re gonna do over and over and over again.

 To return again and again to this walk would be no bad thing: it’s a great experience (at least going downhill), descending through banks of wild flowers, honeysuckle and pines, breathing in the scents of the Mediterranean, the azure sea spread below.

Indeed, this must be what drew Nietzsche repeatedly to this path, as a quotation from the philosopher, displayed another trailside plaque, suggests:
The next winter, under the halcyon sky of Nizza [Nice] , which then shone into my life for the first time, I found Zarathustra III—and was finished. Scarcely a year for the whole of it. Many concealed spots and heights in the landscape around Nizza are hallowed for me by unforgettable moments; that decisive passage which bears the title ‘On Old and New Tablets’ was composed on the most onerous ascent from the station to the marvellous Moorish aerie, Eza.

"The suppleness of my muscles has always been greatest when my creative energies were flowing most abundantly. The body is inspired: let us keep the ‘soul’ out of it … Often one could have seen me dance; in those days I could walk in the mountains for seven or eight hours without a trace of weariness. I slept well, I laughed much; my vigour and patience were perfect.'
Gerry Cordon (words and photos) 2014 First published on 'That's How the Light Gets In'