Saturday, January 9, 2010


When you're talking about shirts and sweaters, the French noun col means collar. For a French bartender drawing beer from a tap, the col is the head that must appear at the top of the glass. For somebody serving wine, the col is the neck of the bottle. For a woman giving birth, the col of her uterus, through which her baby will encounter the world, is the narrow necklike part of her anatomy known in English as the cervix. So, col is a word that reappears in all kinds of contexts.

For people who live in mountainous regions, a col is a gap in the cliffs that can often be used as a pass enabling animals and humans to move from one valley to another. From my house, I can see two such mountain passes. To the north, the Col de Toutes Aures—literally, the "pass in several directions"—is an intersection of four roads on the territory of Choranche, one of which leads up from the vicinity of my house, while another takes you down into the valley at the delightful neighboring village (with a small castle) of St-André-en-Royans. To the east, on the other side of the Bourne, the Col de Mézelier separates the two mountains that I see from my house: the Cournouze and the Baret.

The reason I'm talking about nearby mountain passes is that the mayor of Choranche, Bernard Bourne, dropped in at Gamone a couple of days ago to give me news about the road down to Pont-en-Royans, which remains closed because of threatening rocks up on the slopes of Mount Baret. In particular, he informed me that certain people are contemplating a project for opening up a road that would enable the residents of Choranche and Châtelus to reach the valley through the Col de Mézelier. Now, that idea pleases me, not only for practical reasons, but because of the historical dimension of this itinerary. That was the route that enabled the Chartreux monks to travel to and from their vineyards at Choranche.

Their monastery of Val Sainte-Marie was located a dozen or so kilometers to the south of Choranche, at Bouvante in the Drôme, just beyond St-Jean-en-Royans. In 1543, they purchased a property at the Clos de Salomon (now known by two names: the Chartreux or Choranche-les-Bains), a few hundred meters away from Gamone. Their building is still standing today:

The track between le Val Sainte-Marie and their vineyards at the Clos de Salomon was known, for centuries, as the Path of the Chartreux, and it went over the Mézelier mountain pass. The following diagram indicates the general layout of this area:

In this diagram, I've only indicated the presence of the two most prominent mountains: Baret and the Cournouze. But readers must realize that most of the white area in this diagram (which is not drawn to scale) is a maze of cliffs and steep mountain slopes, with the two rivers flowing down from the right to the left. For the last century or so, a road has existed between Choranche and the region in which the Val Sainte-Marie monastery (now in ruins) was located. An observer, today, finds it difficult to understand why the monks didn't simply skirt Pont-en-Royans, to the left of the Baret, on their way to the Clos de Salomon. We are so accustomed to the modern road that we easily forget that this itinerary was unthinkable at the time of the monks. Arriving from the south, the monks would have had no problem in coaxing their mules across the Vernaison, a little further upstream from where today's road crosses that river. But, from that point, they would have found it impossible to climb up towards the Picard Bridge that leads out of Pont-en-Royans. Instead, they made their way up to the Col de Mézelier. After moving through the pass, it's quite likely that they crossed the shallow waters of the Bourne in the vicinity of the present-day Rouillard Bridge, before continuing their journey eastwards to the Clos de Salomon.

Today, this itinerary is once again "unthinkable", temporarily... because of the danger of rocks in the section of the road that lies between the two bridges over the Bourne. And that's why I'm thrilled by the idea that the Path of the Chartreux, through Mézelier, might be opened up for modern vehicles.

POST-SCRIPTUM: Readers in faraway lands such as the USA and Australia are likely to find the above details quite boring. I ask them to realize that I'm talking of primordial preoccupations for the residents of this secluded valley. So, please forgive me for being parochial.

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