Monday, November 14, 2011

Ruins of a medieval castle

The ruins of the medieval castle at Rochechinard (near the villages of St-Jean-en-Royans and St-Nazaire-en-Royans) are mysterious and romantic, the kind of place that is best evoked by a poet.

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Viewed from a helicopter, the outlines of the three surviving towers are perfectly visible. But the view from down on the surrounding plain is not nearly as clear, particularly when the sun has gone down below the crest behind the castle.

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You sense the presence of a gigantic rocky mound, covered in abundant vegetation, but it's hard to distinguished something that might be described as a castle. On the other hand, for an observer who decides to take advantage of a sunny morning and scramble up the slopes to the west of the castle, the form and layout of the ruins become quite clear.

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Besides, in the background on the left, you have a glimpse of the splendid tiny church of Rochechinard. Anecdote: One afternoon, several years ago, on one of my regular visits this lovely little isolated village, I heard a chant coming from inside the church. When I edged the door open, I came upon an unexpected scene. A white-robed monk was chanting a mass in Latin for a congregation composed of a single individual: a woman kneeling on the flagstones in a corner of the chapel. I would imagine that this was a ritual memorial offering for a deceased member of the lady's family.

The ruins of the castle were purchased in 2055 by a Parisian gentleman named Louis Arquer, whose unusual profession consists of designing and drawing new series of postage stamps (for foreign as well as French postal authorities). Last week, Louis phoned me up to let me know that he was spending a week or so in the region, and he invited me to a private visit of the castle.


I was obliged to make it clear that I'm incapable of strolling alongside precipices, but Louis told me that I should be able to steer clear of any treacherous zones inside the ruins. On the other hand, there was a very real danger—falling stones from the castle—which meant that I had to wear a protective helmet, and avoid loitering in zones that Louis knew to be risky. Whenever I saw Louis heading off in the direction of an area on the edge of the cliffs, I made a point of staying where I was.

While moving through the central tower—the cylindrical Keep, which is no doubt the best preserved element of the castle—I paused for a few seconds to point my camera up at the ceiling, whose central area remains perfectly intact.


The following photo shows a corner of the first building in the castle compound, known—for obvious reasons—as the Cannon Tower.


Those artillery slots point down towards anybody approaching the unique entry into the castle domain, shown in the following photo.


In the background of the above photo, you can see that the second building in the compound—the cylindrical keep that I mentioned earlier on—also has cannon openings. The general idea was that, if ever invaders succeeded in avoiding blasts from the Cannon Tower, and breaking through the portal into the castle, then defenders in the cylindrical Keep would start to blaze away with the intent of actually demolishing the Cannon Tower, so that its stones, in falling, would crush the invaders. Apparently, this extreme situation never arose.

The shield of the noble Alleman family was carved on a huge block of stone sealed into the wall above the gate. The revolutionaries of 1789 obliterated expertly, with stone chisels, all allusions to French royalty: the fleurs-de-lys and the crowns worn by the lions.

Here's another view that reveals the mutual proximity of these diabolical twin towers, whose primordial combined role was purely defensive and indeed deadly.


The residential zones of the castle were located well beyond the defensive towers. In the following photo, Louis is stepping up into the section of the castle known as the Turk's Room, which is an allusion to an amazing but perfectly authentic story that I related briefly in my blog post of 23 February 2009 entitled Fabulous legends [display].


In 1482, in a battle for the throne of Constantinople, the two sons of the Sultan Mehmet IIBayezid and Djem (called Zizim)—set out upon yet another Cain and Abel act. And Zizim lost. The defeated brother then made the mistake of seeking assistance from the kindly Knights Hospitaler on the island of Rhodes… who promptly saw him as a potentially-valuable hostage, and decided to hang onto him. So, next, they had to decide what to do with their precious hostage. The French knight Charles Alleman suggested that his castle at Rochechinard might be a nice holiday home for Zizim, and that's where he ended up residing during the winter of 1483-1484. I'll let you discover (through my above-mentioned blog post) the romantically tragic rest of the extraordinary story of Zizim…

Today, an observer might ask: What is Louis Arquer hoping to achieve through his acquisition of this fabulous pile of stones? He answers this often-posed question in a realistic and convincing spirit.

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 Louis used to come here to the Royans when he was a child, to spend vacations with his grandparents. He would look up at the medieval castle, and dream of ancient times. And he hoped that the castle would never disappear, for that would be the end of his childhood dreams. So, he started already to imagine ways and means of making sure that the magic castle of Rochechinard would be eternal. Today, through a series of happy circumstances, the dreams of Louis Arquer have been transformed into a down-to-earth challenge of saving everything that can possibly be saved. That's what he's doing at present, with enormous personal energy and the help of a lot of friends, gathered together into an association. It's not a matter of restoring the castle, in the patrimonial sense of this term, but of doing everything that's possible to make sure that the magnificent edifice doesn't disappear completely.

Louis appears to me as an other-worldly dreamer endowed with a solid sense of our earthly realities: the kind of individual whom I admire, who strikes me immediately as a friend who speaks the simple truth. His adventure into the past—into the Arabian nights of Zizim in our Royans—is marvelous and almost impossible. But Louis Arquer will succeed, I'm sure, and fragments of Rochechinard will reappear simply, if not gloriously, one of these days, enrobed in their rich memories.

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