I've always been amused by the following innocuous joke: A tourist is driving in the Australian outback, looking for a friend of a friend whose property is located at a place named Stumpy Hollow. Having asked for directions in a roadside pub, he receives precise information from the publican: "No problem, mate. Just keep driving straight along the road here. In another hour or so, you'll see a road sign marked Stumpy Hollow 1 mile. Carry on driving. Two miles further on, you'll see another identical road sign, but pointing back in the direction from where you came. The place you're looking for is located midway between the two road signs."
In the Cartesian spirit of France, with later inspiration from a methodical Corsican soldier named Napoléon Bonaparte, every square meter of the land bears a precise geographical reference, composed of the names of the commune in which the place is located, and the département to which that commune belongs. For example, my property at Gamone is located in the commune of Choranche, with an official population of about a hundred inhabitants, which is a part of the department named Isère. In a typical rural commune, there's often a central village or bourg in which the mairie [offices of the mayor] is located, along with the commune's main church, possibly a school and a post office, and usually a few cafés. In the same rigorous manner that I just mentioned, French road authorities place a huge name-panel at the entry to every village in France.
Friends in automobiles, knowing that my address is Choranche, often have trouble in finding me because they don't understand the difference between a village (bourg) and a commune. So, they drive to the tiny village named Choranche, located some 3 kilometers further down the road from my house on the slopes at Gamone.
Why am I talking about all this? Well, in France, many villages are affected by what we might call the Stumpy Hollow Syndrome. That's to say, you don't realize you've arrived in the village before you start driving out of it. One such village, not far from where I live, is L'Albenc... which appears to motorists as little more than a few buildings grouped around a bend in the road from Saint-Marcellin to Grenoble. In fact, I'm exaggerating, because you encounter a village "square" at L'Albenc [a round-shaped intersection of a few streets] with a church, set against the backdrop of the Vercors mountain range.
Nearby, the dull façade of an old house overlooks a sad fountain:
On the other side of the road, there's an attractive restaurant:
But the place is so clogged up with parked automobiles that it's hard to appreciate its charm. In fact, as for countless tiny French villages, you have to stop for a moment in L'Albenc to see what lies behind the Stumpy Hollow bend in the road. And, once you stroll away from the busy road that has mortally wounded the village, there are charming surprises, including even an ancient castle:
The greatest surprises of all are to be found in the archives, which inform us that a strange tourist named Nostradamus once spent an evening in L'Albenc, in 1545, at an inn named La Croix blanche [The White Cross].
The village looked like this about a century ago:
The mairie of L'Albenc informs me that nobody, today, knows exactly the location of the auberge where the celebrated seer spent an evening. A possible site is this ancient building, whose façade looks as if it might date from the 16th century... but that is pure speculation on my part. So, let us abandon present-day L'Albenc, and look at what the archives tell us about the famous evening that Nostradamus spent in this Dauphiné village.
Charmed by the quiet elegance of the 42-year-old Provençal tourist who signed in as Michel de Nostredame, the female innkeeper of La Croix blanche, named Christine Châtaigner, invited Nostradamus to dine at the table of half-a-dozen local dignitaries, who had ordered a simple but tasty local dish of roast chickens. Nostradamus wanted to know how such fabulous "slow food" might have been prepared, and he learned that the secret consisted of feeding the chickens with crushed wheat macerated in milk.
The L'Albenc hosts of Nostradamus imagined their curious guest, at first, as a reformist preacher of one kind or another. Nostradamus corrected this error by informing his friends that he was in fact a medical researcher. He had been summoned to Lyon to investigate an outbreak of the plague, and he was now wandering through Provence in a non-directive manner. As fine an after-dinner orator as Bill Clinton, the charismatic Nostradamus declared: "We are entering upon a huge schism. From a religious viewpoint, your village [L'Albenc] will not escape from the normal order of events. Invaders, claiming to interpret liberally the teaching of the Bible, will burn down your churches. For forty years, civil war will bring iron and fire to the Dauphiné. Even when peace treaties have been drawn up, the cost of supporting troops sent here to maintain peace will devour your resources. In the end, however, your village will return to its ancient beliefs. As in the case today, there will be a single religion here." Those in the tavern who listened in bewilderment to the speech of Nostradamus wondered whether the chicken meat of L'Albenc possessed the curious power of turning a tourist into a soothsayer. As for the oracle himself, he took leave of those who had listened to his words, and went to bed, for he intended to leave L'Albenc early the next morning.
Shortly after the visit of the strange tourist, L'Albenc and a good part of the Dauphiné province were devastated by religious wars between Huguenots and Catholics for nearly forty years, from 1561 to 1598.