Saturday, August 7, 2010

Legendary bridge

This is a photo of Natacha and me standing on a legendary bridge over the Cholet in the nearby village of St-Laurent-en-Royans:

This massive archaic structure is known as the Pont des Chartreux: that's to say, the bridge of the Chartreux monks.

I heard about this fabulous bridge for the first time back in 1993, soon after I purchased the property at Gamone. A monography on the Chartreux monks of Bouvantes explained that they had owned vineyards in Choranche ever since the 14th century, and that they transported wine from Choranche down to their monastery along a track known as the Path of the Chartreux. The bridge over the Cholet was therefore an ancient element of this infrastructure. But I was often intrigued by the fact that such a huge "heavyweight" stone bridge was necessary to enable a few mules to cross a small stream.

I wondered, too, about the obvious question of how the monks might have built such a splendid bridge. They must have devoted enormous resources to this project. Seeking the Almighty day and night, through their non-stop prayers, didn't the monks have a sufficient density of divine preoccupations without getting involved in such an enormous worldly engineering task as the construction of this bridge over the Cholet? That's a line of rhetorical reasoning that I'd often used in my discussions with Natacha, while visiting splendid monastic sites.

I would imagine that I was trying to say something like that to Natacha on that beautiful day when we were strolling over the lovely old bridge.

Besides, for someone like me who suffers from vertigo, it was frankly weird that the monks would have built a bridge without parapets. OK, the height wasn't frightening… but I would have imagined that animals such as donkeys and mules might have balked at crossing a stream on such a structure. There's the question, too, of why the monks would have decided to build a bridge at this particular spot, which doesn't lie on the beaten track between, say, Saint-Jean-en-Royans, Pont-en-Royans and the Choranche vineyards.

As you can see on this map, the bridge is located on the edge of the vast forest of Lente. Last but not least: How could the monks of Bouvantes have obtained an authorization to carry out bridge-building on territory that simply didn't belong to them? (Saint-Laurent-en-Royans was the ancestral home of the Bérenger/Sassenage lords.)

There's another interesting question concerning the wine-making and wine-selling industry. Everybody knows that the monks didn't make wine at Choranche merely in order to satisfy their eucharistic needs. To call a spade a spade, only a tiny portion of their beverage was transformed regularly and miraculously into the blood of Christ. The rest was sold, maybe to remote clients, to make money enabling the monks to pursue at ease their life of meditation. Now, if they resided in a secluded mountain abode at Bouvantes, whereas their money-making vineyards were located in Choranche (where they owned comfortable premises), why would they cart their produce from Choranche up to their mountain retreat? That doesn't make sense. They would have done much better to drag their heavy barrels of wine down to the Bourne at Pont-en-Royans, where they could be floated to Saint-Nazaire-en-Royans and then placed on barges drifting along the Isère. The idea of moving these barrels up to the monastery in Bouvantes is totally illogical. So, no stone bridge at Saint-Laurent-en-Royans would have been required.

Faced with such doubts, one falls rapidly into the idea that the monks and the Holy Spirit operated surely in mysterious ways. Our humble interrogations merely accentuate the fact that marvelous operations were enacted in unbelievable, indeed miraculous, ways. So, let's keep our minds and mouths shut, and believe what we're told.

Today, I attended a wonderful regional-history colloquium at Léoncel organized in the context of the Cistercian monastery of Léoncel.

The star speaker was Michel Wullschleger, a celebrated professor of history and geography from Lyon, pillar of the Léoncel heritage community, whom I've known and admired for years. At the start of the afternoon session, he promised us that the day would end with a bombshell. Finally, it exploded:

"The so-called Chartreux Bridge was in fact erected by forestry engineers and workers during the Napoleonic era, at the beginning of the 19th century." The absence of parapets reflects the necessity of having to rotate bovine-drawn log wagons, on this delicate corner over the Cholet, without damaging the bridge.

I was startled by this unexpected announcement, because part of the charm of the meager history of Choranche has always been associated with the image of the monks and their mules traveling back and forth between their monastery and our village by means of the famous stone bridge over the Cholet. But the monks had disappeared from our region about a quarter of a century before this forestry bridge was built.

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