Showing posts with label Choranche. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Choranche. Show all posts

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Jazz at Presles

On the rare occasions that I encounter a hitchhiker on the road below my house, I feel obliged to halt and see if I can be of help, particularly if it's a moment, like this afternoon, when there aren't too many vehicles in the vicinity. The young lady named Nina, from Katoomba (Blue Mountains, Australia), was more than happy to share the front seat with Sophia. She had made a booking to spend a few days up at Presles, with intentions of maybe doing a bit of rock climbing.

Nina had found the best address in the world, chez Ezio.

My wonderful friend Ezio is transforming his place, in an idyllic mountain setting, into a celebrated temple of modern jazz.

It's just twenty minutes up the road from Gamone. Yet I've never got around to attending Ezio's concerts… through laziness, Internet addiction, and my perfectly-understandable wintry-evening habit of snuggling into a cozy fireplace spot and watching TV.

I promised Ezio that I'll abandon these apathetic habits for a concert at Presles next Friday evening… and maybe even a long weekend of jazz. What a wonderful cultural environment, here in the wilderness!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Special spire

In the village of Choranche, our church is humble but ancient. It was one of two churches in the commune of Choranche, mentioned for the first time in a financial assessment [pouillé] carried out by the diocese of Grenoble in 1104. In that document, the village church was referred to in Latin as ecclesia Beata Mariæ de Chauranchis : the church of Saint Mary of Choranche.

The stone structure that we see today has resulted, no doubt, from numerous modifications to the primitive church over the centuries. The square church bell-tower, of a distinctive Dauphiné style, is surely quite ancient. Its squat red-tiled spire is surrounded at the base by four short stone pillars, standing like sentinels at the points of the compass. Now, you have to walk around to the other side of the church to discover that this red spire of the tiny church of Saint Mary of Choranche has an unexpected feature that maybe makes it unique among all the countless village churches of France.

As you see, the spire of our ancient church has a square skylight, of the modern velux variety, to let in the light of the Holy Spirit. Tineke tells me that the decision to install this roof window resulted from a municipal vote that was carried out a couple of decades ago, when the mayor of Choranche was Jean-Louis Salazard. But nobody, today, seems to be able to throw light upon the precise technical purpose of this velux. As far as we know, the spire has never been the abode of a dwarf Quasimodo. So, we have no idea why the municipality decided, once upon a time, that light was needed in this remote extremity of the ancient church. Let's call it a Christian mystery.

God said: "Let there be light."
And there was skylight.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Views from the village

I don't spend much time in the village of Choranche, because it's a couple of kilometers up in the "wrong direction". What I mean to say is that, when my destination is Pont-en-Royans or Saint-Marcellin, not to mention Grenoble or Valence, I'm obliged to turn my back on the village of Choranche. Besides, there's not much to do or see there… unless, on rare occasions, I need to visit the municipal office. But I often drive into the village of Choranche out of curiosity, to see if anything has changed. In general, needless to say, nothing has changed there. I lay my head willingly on a block in saying that nothing could ever change in the village of Choranche. A village observer has the impression that everything stopped, long ago, with the following image:

Today, the village offers us a magnificent view of my magic mountain, the misty Cournouze:

In the opposite direction, we have the fabulous cliffs of Presles:

And, between these two geological masterpieces, there's a humble but beautiful stream, the Bourne:

From my lookout up on the slopes of Gamone, I sense constantly the mystical tellurian presence of these three great entities that dominate our landscape: the fairy-tale mountain to the south, the stark cliffs to the north, and the river in between. But it's a fact that Choranche village is a good place to take photos of these geological giants.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

French website on medieval Latin parchments

After years of refusal, the people in charge of the archives of the Sassenage family finally gave me an authorization, a week or so ago, to publish copies of some of their medieval parchments on the web. Click the following image to visit my new website, which is in French.

Click the fourth line of the menu to see a sample of a few lines of one of the six parchments.

I'm expected to keep an eye on requests to examine the files of the parchments, so I've installed a password device. If any readers of this blog happen to be particularly interested in accessing the 59 folios available through my website, please let me know.

The purpose of this website, as I've explained at length to the person in charge of the Sassenage archives, is to find a scholar (maybe at the Sorbonne) who would be prepared to accept a contract to transcribe (into typewritten documents) and translate (into French) these six terriers (land registers drawn up for a feudal lord) describing Sassenage lands in the Royans. Personally, of course, I'm interested most of all in the parchment concerning Choranche, since it contains a description of my property at Gamone (known then as Chaléon) in the middle of the 14th century.

Monday, March 8, 2010

More snow

On Saturday, the annual lunch for senior citizens of Choranche and Châtelus took place up in the restaurant at the entrance to the famous limestone caves of Choranche.

There you see some of my neighbors. The fellow on the left is Gilles Rey, mayor of Châtelus. Then there's my neighbor Madeleine. The woman in red is Bernadette Huillier, alongside her husband André, whose property is located on the opposite side of the Bourne with respect to my place. Finally, at the end of the table, there's Georges Belle, who resides in the old dilapidated building that was once the residence of the Chartreux monks who made wine at Choranche.

This man in a red pullover is Bernard Bourne, a farmer: the mayor of Choranche. The woman is Monique Rancoud-Guilhon, whose late father was once the mayor of Choranche. These are the two oldest families in Choranche. Their Bourne and Rancoud-Guilhon ancestors have lived here since before the French Revolution. Every time I see Monique, she asks me to send her all the most recent printed results of my research into the history of the commune. As for Bernard, when he saw me taking these photos, he asked me to send a few of them to the local newspaper... which I did, this morning. The journalist at Pont-en-Royans was happy, because I'd done his work for him.

After this lunch, snow started to fall again. It continued throughout the night. Early Sunday morning, the donkeys managed to burst through the damp electric fence, and I found them knocking on my kitchen door. I gave them a generous supply of oats. Besides, the snow was so powdery that the donkeys had no trouble brushing it aside and devouring the grass on my lawn. Then they took advantage of their relative freedom (since I couldn't patch up the fence in such conditions) and wandered all around the property... which meant that I had to install rapidly a barrier to prevent them from going down into my future rose and peony garden.

The next thing I knew, they had discovered the seeds for wild birds, just below my bedroom window. I was surprised to see that, within reasonable limits, the presence of the donkeys didn't deter the finches and tits from dropping in to get seeds. Later, I noticed that the three suspended balls of fat had disappeared. By that time, the donkeys had strolled down to the former sheep shed, to settle in for the night. And this morning, I was finally able to get them back into their paddock and fix up the electric fence. So, everything is back in order.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Forgotten mountain

I've been meaning for ages to correct an injustice. I've put up pictures on my blog of all the imaginable mountains and cliffs that surround me at Gamone. But I'm not sure I've ever included a full photo of the great bald peak up behind my house, to the west.

The reason for this negligence is that I have to move at least several hundred meters away from my house, to the east, in order to get a good view of this mountain, named Les Trois-Châteaux (the three castles). My stray sheep have been living on the lower slopes of this mountain for over three years. There are a few wild mountain goats up there, too.

On the righthand side of the photo, you can glimpse a corner of my house sticking out behind a low hill in the foreground. The road to my house runs up alongside Gamone Creek, which flows in the hollow between that low hill and my property.

This mountain is located entirely on the territory of the commune of Choranche. On its lower slopes to the left, a much lower mass of rock, located on the territory of Pont-en-Royans, bears the same name, indicating that three ancient castles down on the nearby plains could be observed from these vantage points.

Not only have I never climbed up onto this mountain, but I've never seen or even heard of anybody doing so. The rock appears to be rather flaky and crumbly, making it a relatively dangerous place for casual visitors. On the other hand, I've spent a lot of time sliding around on its lower slopes (in the adjacent valley that belongs to my neighbor Gérard Magnat) trying to catch up with my stray sheep... who no longer consider me—if ever they did so—as their good shepherd.

North-west corner of my house

I'm trying to get a feeling for the newly-acquired visual aspect of the north-west corner of my house, so that I'll know how to best handle the various operations that will be facing me as soon as the warm weather arrives. Here's a rough sketch of the basic ideas I have in mind:

That's to say, I would build a carport, 3 meters wide and 6 meters long. The roof of this carport would join up with a new roof over the small stone structure (a former pigpen) that juts out from the façade on the left. The empty inside space at the far end of the carport would be used to store my firewood, and a staircase would lead down from there into the main house.

To take the following photo, which looks down onto the start of the new ramp, I climbed up the slopes behind the house:

Here's a side view of the old pigpen as it exists today:

And here's a view of the place under the present roof that I'll be using to store my firewood:

The total surface of the new ramp is quite large, and only the upper half of that area will be used for the carport. The total area of the ramp will be covered in pale gravel.

Finally, here's an unexpected feature of this corner of the house: an intriguing hole into the hill!

In fact, it's the entrance of a horizontal tunnel, about 20 meters long, which ends abruptly in a vertical wall of earth. It appears to be an ancient construction, and I've never found any obvious traces of the place where all the excavated earth might have been placed. Most people who try to imagine the reason why this tunnel was dug evoke the idea of a farmer (winegrower?) hoping to find water. But that idea doesn't add up, because there has always been an ample supply of spring water a hundred yards further up the road. Besides, at the place where the tunnel has been dug, there are no visible indications whatsoever suggesting the presence of subterranean water. The interior of the tunnel is perfectly tidy, and devoid of vegetation, as if it were dug quite recently. I prefer to imagine that the tunnel was dug as a hiding-place for wine-making tools and equipment, or maybe for stocks of wine in small casks or bottles. When would the owner of Gamone have wanted to hide such stuff? And from whom? I believe that a plausible answer is provided by events that took place long ago at Choranche. One of the rare books mentioning the history of Choranche, written by the Abbé Jean Morin, states that Carthusian monks acquired their first vineyard in this commune in the year 1381. Then, in the 16th century, the Royans region was the scene of bloody conflicts between Catholics and Protestants. Here is my translation of a paragraph from the book by Abbé Morin:

At the end of the wars of religion, in 1593, a former prior of our Chartreux monastery wrote that "the grapevines of Choranche have been cut down and ruined, and the cellars demolished, by the adepts of the reformed religion who lodged their garrison here".

I have always imagined—without being able to prove my beliefs in this domain—that the wine cellar at the heart of my house was built during that century of the so-called Wars of Religion, because it resembles a similar construction of that epoch that still exists today in the ruins of the Carthusian monastery at Bouvantes. So, I believe that the mysterious hole behind my house could have been a hiding-place for the possessions of the vineyard, which was dug rapidly at some time during the devastating Protestant raids of the 16th century.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Democracy has caught up with me

I've just received my French voter's card, and I'm tremendously proud.

It has my name and address inside, with a municipal stamp, and it's signed by Bernard Bourne-Branchu, mayor of Choranche. For the first time in my life, I shall be voting in a French election. What elections? Learn all you need to know from this excellent English-language Wikipedia page. And for whom shall I be voting? Now, you should know that it's not democratically correct to ask people to reveal the party for which they're going to vote. It's like asking somebody to identify the individuals with whom he/she has been sleeping lately. But I'll tell you, all the same. You shouldn't be surprised to learn that I'll be voting for the Greens.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Choranche Circus

At the Choranche Circus, don't expect to see any clowns... apart, maybe, from me. I shouldn't really have to make an excuse of that kind, because tourists who drop in on Piccadilly Circus won't normally see too many clowns. In the everyday language of the Ancient Romans, known as Latin, a circus is a round ring. And the mountains and cliffs around my adoptive village of Choranche do indeed form an oval.

Critics might point out that the Cournouze mountain, on the southern side of the Bourne, is located on the territory of Châtelus, not Choranche. They would be wrong, in fact. The upper surface of the mountain lies within the commune of St-Julien-en-Vercors, in the département of the Drôme. But what the hell about administrative boundaries. For me at Gamone, the Cournouze—as I've often pointed out—is my own sacred mountain: my mythical Uluru... which happens to be the first magnificent specimen of godless Creation that I witness every morning, as soon as I look out of my bedroom window.

In my recent article entitled Second look at iPad weaknesses [display], I evoked the immensely rich Flash approach to website creation... which is not reflected, unfortunately, in either the iPhone or its miserable big half-brother iPad.

Admittedly, at Gamone, this is the wrong time of the year to get involved in landscape photography. The lighting is minimal, and everything looks uniformly grayish. But, this afternoon, I had a sudden urge to wander up the road with Sophia to take a few photos, which I then patched together with Photoshop and inserted into a Flash context. If you click the above winter photo of the Cournouze, you'll see the resulting website: a sweeping half-circle panoramic view from Gamone towards the Vercors plateau, the eastern edge of the French Alps. To stop the horizontal scrolling, move the cursor to the middle of the image. I would hope that this modest Flash exercise might have the merit of providing you with an approximate visual idea of the mountains and cliffs that enclose and enthrall me. Nothing, of course, beats being here with me and Sophia.

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.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

More fallen rocks

Last Monday morning, I set out early to drive into town. Half a kilometer down the road, a roadblock had been set up just before the Pont Picard (which marks the entry into Pont-en-Royans) due to rocks that had tumbled down from Mount Baret during the night. This sight is becoming familiar.

The employee told me that several rocks had fallen, reaching the roadway at distinct spots over a distance of fifty meters. There seemed to be four separate rocks.

The "footprints" of rock #1, before it terminated its itinerary in the middle of the road, can be seen in the macadam. Rock #2 must have bounced off the slopes at a certain height and landed directly like a bomb on the edge of the roadway, where the violence of the impact shattered it into fragments of creamy limestone.

Rock #3 was halted by the protective net, whereas rock #4 smashed a wooden post, broke through the netting and left a telltale hole in the roadside earth where it bounced before ending its trajectory down on the edge of the Bourne.

An hour later, a civil-security helicopter was flying over the scene, taking a close look at the spot on the top of the mountain where the rocks had been dislodged. Their verdict: Bigger rocks were poised, ready to roll down the slopes. So, the road was immediately closed... probably for several weeks. To escape from Gamone without going through Pont-en-Royans, there are several solutions, all of which involve roundabout routes up over the surrounding mountains. You might say that this is the price I pay for living in such an exotic setting as Choranche.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Intrusive views of my street

The Google Maps squad arrived in town. Apparently in the first week of April 2009. They've worked through my street—that's to say, the D531 road—from Choranche down through Pont-en-Royans, and the results are spectacular and surprising. Google's street-view approach produces a shock when you see it applied in a sparsely-populated rural zone, and I have the impression that certain local residents are likely to be somewhat scandalized by this invasion of privacy. Indeed, I find it hard to believe that the French authorities would have given Google the green light to carry out such an operation, of an intimate village nature.

[CORRECTION: As explained in a comment, Google's visit actually took place on Friday, 13 March 2009.]

To see the images on your computer, start up Google maps and type Choranche, France. Here are some specimens of what you'll find, with my comments:

I start out with the image that shocked me most of all: the patio of the Jorjane hotel-restaurant in the village of Choranche. The photo gives the impression that the place is in a sad state of abandon. Now, it's a fact that my friend George Pontvianne often puts his business into hibernation for short periods. Besides, he has been trying to sell the Jorjane for some time. But it's quite unfair that Google should display this particularly dismal image for anybody and everybody, in the future, who might happen to look up the Jorjane for one reason or another. It's the static and permanent nature of the fallout of Google's intervention that shocks me. What I'm trying to say is that, a few days later, a photo taken at the same spot would have shown a patio thronged with joyful bikers. So, the Google photo is wrong, in that it's not at all a typical vision of the Jorjane. In any case, I've just phoned up George and suggested that he should ask Google to delete their images of the Jorjane.

About a kilometer to the east of the village (a few clicks on Google maps), this is a view of the house of my great friends Tineke Bot and Serge Bellier, who are clearly recognizable in this Google image. Their two visitors are probably recognizable, too, for professional viewers. Here again, it's unacceptable that the entire planet should be offered the image of Serge and Tineke accompanied by X and Y. And, for reasons of security (Tineke is a famous sculptor), it's equally unacceptable that roadside views should indicate precisely the fenced edges of their Rochemuse domain. Clearly, Google is going too far. And I wouldn't be surprised if Serge and Tineke were to raise their voices at this level...

Much further to the west, Google lets you explore the roadside house of my neighbors Dédé and Madeleine. As for my place, Gamone, up on the slopes, you can't see too much. Google has not yet provided me with justifications for updating my existing old-fashioned resources in the way of self-defensive firearms. (I'm joking!)

I'll let you follow Google Map down along the D531 into Pont-en-Royans... where there are other surprises. I've just been sitting in on an Internet session on this subject in the home of neighbors in Chatelus. Their kids were thrilled to find perfectly-recognizable images of themselves on a sporting arena in the village. Is this good? Sure, the kids in question are going to astound their school friends with the revelation: "We're all on the Internet!" But that raises an obvious delicate question: Is it right that a giant US corporation should be able to move into our French villages and then display recognizable images of school kids at play? The answer, I think, is a resounding no.

I conclude by a quiz question: How have my neighbors and I been able to determine the exact date at which these images were obtained?

Friday, August 28, 2009

Dog know-how

The question I'm trying to answer is: Who taught my dog to swim?

It wasn't me. I have no experience whatsoever in teaching animals to swim. Besides, I wouldn't have the financial means to hire a talented swimming coach to give Sophia lessons... which are no doubt highly expensive. The only plausible answer that comes to mind is that my daughter Manya has gone to the trouble—secretly, without ever informing me—of initiating Sophia into this sporting activity.

To be frank, I find that Sophia's style in the water could be improved considerably. For the moment, it's fairly primitive: a sort of paddling action, like a child. I don't think my dog has ever tackled anything in the way of breaststroke, butterfly or backstroke. But I guess that'll come, if she continues regular training.

Suddenly, I'm reminded of a delightful true story concerning a knowledgeable but eccentric lady in Sydney named Beatrice Miles. She was notorious because of countless amusing and less amusing incidents, often involving city taxis. Although "Bea" (as she was called) had inherited amply financial resources, enabling her to reside in the posh suburb of St Ives, her specialty consisted of often taking lengthy taxi rides, and then refusing to pay the fare... for reasons that were hard to fathom. Whenever she was in need of cash, she would resort to highbrow busking, reciting lengthy extracts of Shakespeare on street corners in Sydney.

The anecdote that just sprung into my mind has nothing to do with taxis or Shakespeare. Miss Miles had decided to visit the famous surfing beach of Bondi with a pet sheep. An inspector complained that it was against the law to bring animals to the beach.

Bea Miles: "The sign says that dogs are prohibited. This is a sheep, not a dog. The sign says nothing about sheep."

Beach inspector: "Lady, this is ridiculous. There's no grass here for your sheep to eat."

Bea Miles: "My sheep hasn't come to Bondi Beach to eat. It merely wants to do some sunbathing."

Getting back to my dog, Manya and I noticed that, after a minimum of swimming and basking in the sun, Sophia definitely likes to visit the Bourne with eating in mind. That's to say, she's likely to forget suddenly the chilly stream and the warm limestone rocks, before disappearing into the riverside weeds and bushes and searching excitedly for scraps of food left there by campers and other visitors. She always seems to be tremendously happy to find a fragment of abandoned food in the wilds, so to speak, as if her archaic hunting genes were getting back into momentary action.

It's a fact that Sophia at Gamone, like Bea's sheep at Bondi, likes to spend a lot her time simply sunbathing. And, these days, there has been a lot of sun around. Then, as soon as her internal temperature has peaked, Sophia dashes into the kitchen to cool off by lying on the cold floor tiles.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Doors are either open or closed

This little book—written by a local priest, Joseph Parsus (aged 84 today)—provides a detailed history of the Résistance in the vicinity of the village of Malleval, in the valley of the Isère to the south-west of Grenoble. Among other things, it describes tragic events at Choranche towards the end of July 1944, when German troops moved down from Presles to Pont-en-Royans. Their rule of thumb was simplistic. If the front door of a house were open, the house and its occupants didn't interest them. On the other hand, if the door were closed, then the occupants clearly had something to hide, so the house was promptly set on fire.

At the start of the 19th century, there were two houses on the banks of Gamone Creek. Notarial documents of that period, in the departmental archives at Grenoble, use the ancient Gallo-Roman term mas (derived from the Latin verb manere, to reside, as in mansion) to designate both houses. On that fateful day when the Nazis swept down alongside Gamone Creek, the door of the house up the road was closed. Here's a photo, taken today, of the remains of a kitchen wall:

Concerning the house that I own today, its front door had been left open. And, thanks to that trivial criterion, I'm able to live here today, in the ancient stone house, in the company of my dog.

Talking of my dog (which I do constantly), I'm obliged to admit that Sophia has a distinctly storm-trooper attitude towards lizards. Normally, she's totally uninterested in the colony of lovely little lizards that inhabit the stone wall in front of the house. But, if ever a tiny reptile happens to hide innocently behind her wicker basket, Sophia changes instantly into search-and-destroy mode. She stands there tensely, wagging her tail and barking, hoping that her would-be enemy is going to come out of hiding, so she can pounce upon the harmless little beast. Often, in this situation, I intervene by raising the back of the basket a little, enabling the lizard to scamper away into the grass or stones, where Sophia immediately loses its trail.

I often reflect upon the likely relationship, once upon a time, between wolves and dinosaurs. OK, specialists are going to tell me that they never existed on the planet Earth at the same time. But I prefer to imagine that they did. It's possible that wild wolves were in fact quite fond of dinosaurs... as friends, that is, not merely as meat. But woe betide any dumb dinosaur that tried to hide behind a tree...

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Work of art signed Tineke

I often mention my friends and Choranche neighbors Tineke Bot and Serge Bellier, creators of the magnificent Rochemuse floral park. Here's a photo of the couple that I took ten days ago, when they invited me to a delightful restaurant, Chez Brun, on the banks of the Isère:

I'm so backward from a social viewpoint that I wasn't even aware that this fine restaurant existed on the river bank, just alongside the road to Romans. The outdoor terrace, shaded by a pair of huge trees—a lime and a plane—is so close to the bottle green waters of the Isère that you could almost go fishing between dishes. And there's a lovely old-fashioned suspension bridge just a few meters upstream, with the Vercors mountains in the background.

Let me get around to a visual presentation of Tineke's latest work of art: a plate of home-made French macaroons.

You might ask: How come this celebrated Dutch sculptress is baking cookies, and offering them to you as a gift?

Well, it all started a fortnight ago when I showed Tineke an irresistible book I had just bought, with "easy" recipes for making macaroons. When I say "irresistible", what I mean is that everybody in France loves macaroons, and everybody knows that they're terribly expensive to buy in top-quality cake shops. So, it's naturally very tempting to discover a nice little book that claims to provide you with the secret of making macaroons in a few easy lessons.

The truth of the matter is that, even with the magic book and all the right ingredients and kitchen devices (including an electronic thermometer), making macaroons remains a highly difficult challenge. My initial results, a month ago, were edible, but not exactly glorious: not sufficiently spectacular, in any case, to merit a blog article. But Tineke's macaroons are a different kettle of fish. She seems to have cracked the secret. As far as I'm concerned, the basic secret is clear: Authors who write books claiming to tell you how "easy" it is to bake macaroons are basically fabulists who should try their hand at writing fairy-tales for kids. Well, no, they shouldn't... because they're no doubt already earning a fortune (enough to purchase gastronomical macaroons in an expensive cake shop) through their recipe books.

Tineke claims that she detected a malicious gleam in my eye, a fortnight ago, when I said to her: "Tineke, you're an artist. Why don't you read this little book and try your hand at making macaroons?" The difference between the artist and me, needless to say, is that Tineke succeeded... and the outcome is truly delicious.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Rocks in the garden

When people tell you they have rocks in their garden, you normally imagine an idyllic landscape with flowers, shrubs and trees growing on rocky lawns and slopes. The magnificent Rochemuse park of Tineke and Serge at Choranche is a splendid example of this kind of garden.

If, on the other hand, Tineke and Serge had told me that a few rocks had actually fallen into their garden, I would have immediately imagined that the culprit was the gigantic cliff up above Rochemuse, which is perfectly capable of discarding spontaneously a few crumbling fragments of limestone at any hour of the night or day.

That's what they thought, too, when they were woken up in the middle of the night by a huge thud like the bang of a jet fighter aircraft. Planes often fly over Choranche during the day, but not usually at midnight. They soon realized that the origin of the fallen rocks was closer to home.

They had fallen from a rocky outcrop, covered in delicate vegetation, just a few meters from Tineke's kitchen window. Exceptionally and fortunately, during the few seconds it took for the tons of rocks to drop and slide onto the tiny backyard lawn, there were neither people, dogs nor automobiles at that spot. And, once they hit the ground, the porous rocks shattered to a certain extent, but didn't roll any further.

Friday, June 12, 2009


A week ago, nothing was planned. But this Friday, in my personal circle, turned out to be a day of celebration. In the Antipodes, it was a matter of bidding farewell to my brother Don. Here in the corner of France where I live, my Choranche neighbors Tineke Bot and Serge Bellier invited me to celebrate the spring opening of their floral park, Rochemuse, which had taken place last weekend.

I had written them a small text in French, which I have translated here:


In the setting of the Rochemuse park, on the slopes of the Royans at Choranche, the terra concept can be declined in several ways. A gardener working the limestone soil of the Vercors might consider that a small error has slipped into Genesis. Surely, in the beginning, God created the heavens and the rocks. Long afterwards, petra gave rise to terra under the effects of time and nature. Then the first farmers arrived on the scene—quite recently here, merely six millennia ago—to plant crops and graze animals upon the earth of Eden.

In the name of the park, Rochemuse, the rock (roche) is the gigantic cliff that overhangs the circus of Choranche. As for the muse, she presides over the poetry of this place, inspiring Tineke Bot in the creation of works of sculpture that visitors encounter in every corner of the park.

The archaic alluvial deposits of the Bourne on the slopes of Choranche and Châtelus, referred to as terraces, were formed in the Quaternary era, when the river burrowed violently into the gorges surrounded by beige-colored limestone cliffs described by geologists, in French, as Urgonien. The soil on the slopes, full of fragments of stones called marne (which gardeners have to remove constantly), is not particularly rich. However the vegetation on this exceptional terrain has been taking advantage, for countless millennia, of the heat energy accumulated and then radiated by the cliffs, which endows the site with a Mediterranean micro-climate that encourages the blooming of wildflowers and shrubs.

Ever since the Middle Ages, the Choranche territory (to use another declension of terra) was dedicated primarily to grapevines, producing a highly-reputed wine.

At the castle in Sassenage, a territorial survey written in medieval Latin in the middle of the 14th century, referred to in modern French as a terrier, describes in detail the ancient vineyards of Choranche. That wine industry declined when the monks were chased away after the French Revolution, then the phylloxera disease ravaged the vineyards in the latter half of the 19th century.

To create Rochemuse, terra had to be accompanied by aqua. Thanks to an archaic spring, the park was able to come into existence. The forms of its creation were inspired, naturally, by the environment, which is magnificent and magic at Choranche.

To thank me for writing this simple evocation of their glorious park, incorporated into their brochure for last weekend's opening, Tineke and Serge insisted upon taking me out for lunch today. I wondered, for a moment, whether they intended to cheer me up after my brother's death... but I believe that the timing was purely serendipitous.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Sisyphus road act

Long ago, shortly after my arrival at Gamone, I learned that it can be a mistake to imagine that the weather at Choranche, at a particular moment, indicates the climatic conditions I might expect to discover five minutes later on, further up or down the road, if I were to decide to leave on an automobile excursion. For example, this photo I took today reveals that everything's fine as long as you stay on the lower slopes of the Cournouze:

After reaching the church of Châtelus, though, you would suddenly find yourself driving through snow.

Yesterday, late in the afternoon, I set off for Valence. A few hundred meters down from Gamone, I was called upon to do a Sisyphus road act. Maybe certain particularly bright blog readers have guessed what that means. I simply stopped my old Citroën on the slopes, got out and carried a big rock up to a place alongside the road where it would do no harm. Whenever the temperature climbs a few degrees after a cold period, rocks thaw and can roll onto roads.

In the environment of Greek gods and goddesses, Sisyphus (depicted in the above painting by Titian) was in fact a mere mortal, but he seemed to have special high-quality links with divine beings... much like the kind of exceptional relationship that exists these days between a humble sinner such as the pope and the Holy Trinity, if you see what I mean. At an earthly level, Sisyphus was renowned for having built the city of Corinth, on the northern coast of the Peloponnese. Alas, his cherished city was conquered by Theseus... the famous Athenian whom I mention briefly in my website that allows you to stroll virtually though the labyrinth of Lucca [access]. During the conflict, Sisyphus was killed and he went directly to Hell, where he was assigned the task of moving a big boulder up to the top of a mountain, and then letting it roll down again.

Insofar as Sisyphus is condemned to repeat this task endlessly, the French writer Albert Camus seized upon this assignment as an ideal symbol of existentialist absurdity. The book by Camus on the theme of Sisyphus played a primordial role in bringing me to France.

Now, getting back to the rock I moved off the road this morning, there was a tiny but interesting consequence. At exactly the moment I got out of my car and walked towards the rock, a four-wheel-drive truck halted alongside me. It was driven by a young guy named Frédéric, who has disliked me intensely ever since I arrived in his native commune of Choranche. This animosity was brought about by a trivial incident. Every winter, ever since he was a young teenager, Frédéric has been driving the family's tractor with a snow plow, to clear the roads of Choranche after heavy snowfalls. Well, during my first winter at Gamone, Frédéric dragged his snow plow across my lawn and tore up inadvertently a drain that I had spent a day or so installing. I was furious, and I complained about this accident in a letter to the mayor. To cut a long story short, Frédéric has never talked to me since then... up until this morning, when he came upon me doing my Sisyphus act. Maybe Frédéric never imagined that an urban gentleman such as me would be capable of performing such an altruistic act as stopping my automobile in order to remove a rock on the other side of the road: that's to say, a rock he might have hit. Whatever the explanation, Frédéric smiled at me in a friendly fashion, for the first time in fifteen years, and thanked me for removing the rock.

In his evaluation of the arduous task of Sisyphus, Camus may have gone a little too far. My personal experience suggests—as I've just indicated— that rolling a rock is not necessarily a totally absurd operation.

By the way, the personal autobiography on which I've been working lately, entitled Digital Me, opens with the following extract:

At that subtle moment when a man glances back over his life, Sisyphus, returning towards his rock, contemplates the series of unrelated actions that has become his fate, created by him, combined in his memory’s eye and soon to be sealed by his death. Convinced of the wholly human origin of all that is human, a blind man eager to see, who knows that the night has no end, he is therefore advancing still. The rock is still rolling. I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! We always return to our burden. But Sisyphus teaches a higher fidelity, which negates gods and raises rocks. He, too, considers that all is well. This universe, henceforth without a master, appears to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, forms in itself a world. The struggle towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. We must imagine Sisyphus happy.
— Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus.