Showing posts with label Gamone. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Gamone. Show all posts

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Work at the southern end of my cellar

In my blog post of 11 April 2013 entitled Spring has sprung... at last [display], I mentioned my intention to construct, in my ancient stone cellar at Gamone, an old-fashioned wood-burning oven for baking bread and pizzas. This is likely to be a long and arduous project, since I first have to prepare the cellar for the installation of this massive object. In the present blog post, I shall describe the very first operation in this project, which I'm carrying out at the southern end of the cellar. This information is relatively technical, and is designed to be appreciated primarily by François, Emmanuelle and Christine, who have always remained interested by the evolution of the property at Gamone.

Let me start at the beginning. Here's a view of the southern façade of my house, taken in November 1993 (several months before I became the official owner of the property):

The scene reveals why, at that time, we took few photos from this viewpoint. A giant linden tree prevented an observer from obtaining a meaningful view of the southern façade of the house. But this photo indicates clearly the proportions of the roofed area behind the house (above the cellar), where a white van is parked. To reach this spot, the vehicle had to approach the house (on the opposite side of the photo), pass in front of the house (on the gravel down on the right-hand side) and then reverse up the grassy slope alongside the linden tree.

A long time ago, I asked René Uzel to remove that linden tree, along with the old apple tree that you can see on the left-hand edge of the photo. Since then, the southern façade of my house has been clearly visible, as you can see from this photo that I took this morning:

It's not easy to compare details in these two photos, 20 years apart, since it's hard to see anything at all in the first photo. It should nevertheless be apparent that a huge amount of earth has been removed from beneath the wheels of the vehicle in the old photo, enabling us to observe almost the entire southern wall of the cellar (which was completely buried in the old photo). You can even distinguish the upper half of an entrance into the cellar, shown here in an enlargement:

A decade ago, I had asked René Uzel to use his mini digger to remove the earth under which this southern entrance into the cellar had been buried, maybe for several centuries. As soon as the stone wall and the entrance became visible, I was in for a major surprise. Noticing the way in which fragments of hard earth remained attached to every rough stone in the façade, I suddenly realized that this was no doubt the first time ever, since its construction, that this wall had been brought out into the open daylight. I had always imagined that the entrance (which formed an alcove when seen from inside the cellar) had been blocked by earth, a long time ago, for unknown reasons. I now realized that, on the contrary, this entrance had never, at any point in time, been cleared of the earth that blocked it. In other words, this wall and entrance had been constructed from inside the future cellar, using the original earth as a formwork (coffrage in French). And nobody (up until my intervention) had ever got around to removing the formwork. Faced with this unexpected situation, I decided that a reinforced concrete retaining wall should be erected on the left, as soon as possible.

Here's a closeup photo of the entrance at the southern end of the cellar, taken a month ago from the top of the short earthen ramp that leads down from the level of the outside ground:

As soon as René had unearthed this new entrance into the cellar (and the house), I sealed it firmly by means of a pair of old wooden doors that I jammed in place. Now that this wood work has been removed, I can look out from inside the cellar towards the south.

Before thinking about having a door installed here, I needed to build a concrete threshold. So, I promptly tidied up the ground and laid down the formwork for the future threshold, as shown in the following photo:

Clearly, a previous owner seems to have used this alcove to support wooden shelves.

Here's a closeup view of the threshold formwork:

A fortnight ago, when I turned on my electric cement mixer with the intention of starting to lay concrete for the threshold, I was annoyed to find that the machine stopped turning after 20 seconds. I unscrewed the cover, and discovered that the cam belt had slid off the big cog on the drive shaft that makes the drum rotate.

Knowing nothing whatsoever about the mechanics of concrete mixers, I drove immediately to a big hardware company in Saint-Marcellin to seek guidance. Usually, as soon as I open my mouth in such a setting, full of professional tradesmen, the staff and onlookers realize that I'm a do-it-yourself tinkerer, and I sense their condescending regard. But everything changes in a positive sense when they hear you explaining that you've opened up your concrete mixer, discovered that the cam shaft has slipped of the big cog on the drive shaft, and that you need to fix it. Anybody who talks that kind of talk in a tradesmen's store must be taken seriously. So, I was thrilled to find a tradesman in overalls come over and tell me that, after having installed the new cam belt, I should rotate the drum manually for a few turns, to make sure that the new belt is in place. It was surely the first time in my life that French tradesmen seemed to be respecting me as a member of their fraternity. I felt elated, but I forced myself not to say much more, for fear of being revealed as a fake.

The next morning, I was able to examine closely the mechanism of the electric motor in my concrete mixer, and I discovered that the old cam belt was in perfect shape. The cause of the breakdown was a simple bolt that had escaped from the motor shaft, enabling the small cog to drop off. And, five minutes later, I was able to insert a new bolt, tighten it and get the machine running perfectly. Funnily enough, when I went back sheepishly to the hardware store in order to return the new cam belt and ask for a refund, I was received once again as a genuine "tradie" (as Aussies say). Not only had I taken apart the motor of my concrete mixer, but I had been able to detect an unexpected problem and repair it effortlessly. The fellow at the counter found it perfectly normal to refund the cam belt.

Finally, I used two bags of cement to lay enough concrete for the threshold, and the final result is perfectly acceptable.

The concrete slab might appear to be exceptionally thick. In fact, it needed to be a little higher than the level of the future elevated wooden planking that I intend to install (once I've finished the construction of the wood oven) throughout the entire cellar, which measures 6 meters long (from north to south) and 4 meters wide (from east to west).

The threshold slab is not solid concrete from top to bottom, since the level of the ground is located about halfway down the slab. As for the future staircase, it will reach the outside ground level at about the top of the wooden barrier, which holds a rock fill on the other side.

Yesterday, a carpenter from Pont-en-Royans dropped in to take measurements for a door at this place. Later on, I intend to build a concrete staircase from the threshold up to the level of the outside ground. It will be composed of exactly 9 steps, each of a so-called rise (height ) of 17 cm and a so-called run (depth) of 25 cm. See, I'm already starting to talk, once again, like a genuine tradesman. I must be careful not to get a swollen head, otherwise my tradesman's hard hat will no longer fit on my skull.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Peony time at Gamone

All four peonies of the shrub type are in flower, whereas my five herbaceous specimens are waiting for some prolonged sunshine.

Pink Adzuma Nishiki and white Godaishu.

Red Higurashi.

Crimson Hana Daijin.

They appear to coexist well with the surrounding plants and a few weeds.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Dog contemplating the greenery

With all the recent rain, it's not surprising that Gamone is surrounded in greenery.

Often, Fitzroy remains motionless, pensive, apparently contemplating the surroundings, soaking in the greenery.

On the roadside up beyond the house, he turned his head around for the photo:

Otherwise, he's more interested in the greenery than in me.

I wonder if he recalls the scene, not so long ago, when all this was covered in snow.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Spring has sprung... at last

Over the last few days, Gamone has been bathed in sunshine: a pleasant change from being bathed in chilly wetness. Prolonged periods of overcast skies, low temperatures and dampness end up by demoralizing us at a physiological level. Our brains run short of whatever it is that comes from sunshine (vitamin D, I'm told), and we start to slow down. It's as if an audacious Lance Armstrong were to tackle the tortuous slopes of Alpe d'Huez with nothing more in his athlete's body than miserable food and water. Sooner or later, you stop... and the only possible strategy is to wait around until the sunshine returns.

Around the house at Gamone, there are several indubitable signs that the time has come to stop hibernating, and get back into outside action. Here, for example, is one of the more obvious signs:

Once upon a time, I used half an old fuel barrel, screwed onto legs made out of steel bars, to erect a makeshift barbecue, but the heavy contraption was unstable, and it finally rusted away. A few days ago, I was attracted by the relatively low price of a charcoal barbecue at the local Leclerc supermarket. The model on display looked remarkably solid, and it seemed to be a better deal than similar-looking products (but with one less leg) from the German firm Weber. I soon realized that the low price was due to the fact that this barbecue—brand name Rhodes—came as a kit, made in China, which had to be assembled by the purchaser. Maybe I was intrepid, but I liked the sturdy style of the model on display, and I guess I was intrigued to see how a Chinese manufacturer would behave in the build-it-yourself world dominated by Ikea. Well, let me say that I was totally amazed by the high quality of the Chinese presentation, which made it a pleasure to assemble the barbecue on the basis of extremely detailed diagrams of a down-to-earth kind. I had the impression that I was being invited to perform the assembly tasks in an old-fashioned environment of nuts and bolts, solid steel and precise measurements. Fortunately, I went about things by examining closely the big pile of items that were crammed inside the cardboard box from China. And I also took time to analyze every minute detail in their almost-wordless diagrams. Opening a plastic bag full of an undocumented assortment of nuts, bolts, screws and washers, I said to myself that it was highly unlikely that I would discover the intended role of every small item in this pile. On the contrary, when I reached the end of the assembly tasks, I was amazed to find that I had succeeded in identifying every object in the pile (including dozens of metal and fiber washers of differing sizes), and that not one single surplus item remained. All in all, the Chinese approach to the manufacture and presentation of this product was perfectionist. I had the impression that every minor element of the product had been designed by a team of engineers, and manufactured according to millimetric specifications. I found myself in the old-fashioned world of sustainability, where things are made to last. Needless to say, this was a quite unexpected experience.

On a nearby table, I've assembled a trivial demonstration of sustainability of a another kind.

On the left, you have the remnants of plastic Gardena devices that didn't survive the combined assaults of winter and Fitzroy. On the right, you see specimens of metallic items that I've just purchased to replace the cheap plastic junk (which turns out to be expensive when you have to replace it each year). I find it inadmissible that a manufacturer proposes an item such as the plastic nozzle while knowing full well that it will develop cracks if left outside in wintry conditions. And I have the impression that the orange parts of their plastic products have been designed deliberately to attract the teeth of dogs.

Now that the weather is starting to warm up, one of my first tasks will be to finish work on the carport, which needs to be boarded up on the far side.

The remaining firewood that was stacked up in the vicinity of the carport has now been shifted down to a place alongside Fitzroy's kennel.

Between now and next winter, I intend to erect a big wood shed in this zone, so that a truck can simply unload wood right alongside the shed.

Another sign of work about to start is the presence of a big pile of gravel at the entry into the front yard.

Meanwhile, a curious wall of small rocks has appeared on the edge of the huge embankment in front of the house, just to the right of the gravel heap.

So, what's happening... or about to happen? First, let me explain briefly—while refraining from jumping ahead in my story—that I spent a strenuous day raking up all those stones from inside the cellar of my house, and using a wheelbarrow to deposit them at this convenient spot. Now, as far as future Gamone projects are concerned, the following photo provides an answer:

Those pinkish objects are the elements of a future wood oven for baking bread, pizzas, etc. The dozen or so fragments have been molded out of a special refractory cement composed primarily of crushed volcanic rocks mined in the nearby Ardèche département. The oven I've chosen, produced by the Ephrem company in Provence [click here to visit their website] is called the Pizzaiollo... which is a Frenchified (but misspelt) version of the Italian word for a guy who makes pizzas.

Now, where am I going to install my future oven? For a long time, I imagined using a spot outside the southern façade of the house, where I discovered vestiges of an ancient bread oven (since turned to dust) when I first settled down at Gamone, some 20 years ago. But I've often wondered: Would I be prepared to wander outside the house on cold evenings, into the darkness, to fire up an oven to bake a loaf of bread or to cook a pizza? Maybe I would do so for a while, but I would probably drop the habit. No, the ideal solution would consist of placing the wood oven inside the house, where I can access it easily and use it regularly at all times of the year. But that would mean constructing an additional chimney to evacuate the smoke... and I haven't yet terminated the project of installing such a chimney for my wood stove. Well, it was Christine, in the course of a casual phone conversation, who first evoked a possible location: in a corner of the ancient cellar alongside my house. Why not?

It's not easy to take meaningful photos of my cellar at Gamone, because there's little light and you're in an essentially closed space surrounded by stone. Here's my attempt to take a photo of the far wall at the northern (cold) end of the cellar:

The vertical sections of the cellar walls are composed of irregularly-shaped blocks of calcareous stone (no doubt picked up on the slopes in the vicinity of Gamone) held together by lime mortar. Then, starting at a height of about 2 meters, the ceiling of the cellar is composed of finely-cut and precisely-assembled blocks of an exotic mineral substance commonly called tuf calcaire in French. I've only just discovered that the correct technical name of this sedimentary rock, in English, is travertine. [Click here to see the Wikipedia page on this subject.] In a blog post that I wrote back on 2 July 2009 entitled Vegetal rock [display], I referred to this substance (rightly or wrongly) as "calcareous tufa", but I shall make a point, from now on, of calling it travertine.

In the above photo, one has the impression that there's an arched doorway blocked by earth. This remains a basic Gamone mystery, which I have not yet elucidated satisfactorily. For the moment, I'm convinced that the earth blocking that would-be doorway has been there forever. That's to say, the doorway has never been open at any moment of its existence. The earth was there when the doorway was constructed, and it has never been touched since then (except by me, a year or so ago, when I started scratching at that wall of hard earth with the idea of maybe erecting a staircase at that place). Indeed, that earth is part of a layer that was used as formwork (coffrage in French) when that entire far wall was erected... maybe in the vicinity of the year 1600 (judging from similar constructions at the Chartreux monastery in Bouvante). And, if the builders never got around to removing the earth and transforming the alcove into an effective doorway, that was no doubt because their building operations were hindered by obstacles (maybe even religious warfare) and finally abandoned. But I've never succeeded in putting together a clear and convincing explanation of what might have happened. So, we're left with a blocked would-be doorway... which I will surely end up opening, one of these days, by means of a staircase ascending to the outside level, just beneath the arch.

As for the slanted and cemented opening near the summit of the vertical wall, that would appear to be the result of a relatively recent operation carried out by a grazier, rearing animals in the cellar (maybe goats), who wanted to be able to toss hay down into the cellar.

In any case, it's here, in the right-hand (north-eastern) corner of the cellar, that I intend to install the future wood oven, so that I can take advantage of the "hay hole" in the ceiling as a convenient exit for a smoke chimney.

The following maquette provides a rough idea of the form of the future wood oven:

The area covered by the oven is a square of 140 cm x 140 cm, which fits neatly into the corner of the cellar. I hasten to point out that the proportions and layout of this maquette are basically valid, but it's rather fuzzy as far as the external finish of the oven is concerned. For the moment, I can't guarantee that I'll succeed in covering the upper part of the structure with stone bricks (maybe composed of travertine). It's possible that I'll finally resort to a solution of roughcast ocher plaster (crépi in French). And I'm not yet sure of the way in which smoke from the oven will be channeled from a point just above the oven entry to the "hay hole".

Now that spring has sprung at Gamone, I've got "du pain sur la planche" (bread on the breadboard: a French metaphor for problems to be solved, work to be done). That's the way I like life.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Pink rock fragments

Accustomed to the usual colors of rocks around Gamone (gray, ochre, whitish and black), I was surprised to discover pink-hued fragments on the slopes, a few days ago, a hundred meters above the house.

Since these fragments were located in the middle of a flat pile of rocks covering a small zone of a few square meters, I first imagined that there might have been a fireplace at this spot. But that is almost certainly a false explanation. For the moment, therefore, this pleasant color remains a mystery.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Big-beaked finch has flown

An adjective that amuses me in the case of wild birds is "sedentary", which evokes a vision of a couple of tiny birds that have just flown in from Africa.

The male bird says to his wife:
"I don't know about you, dear, but I'm exhausted. In any case, I like this place. I got the address from a finch I ran into down in Morocco. He told me it's called Gamone, and the owner provides a regular stock of sunflower seeds. Why don't we settle down here for a while?" 
 And the female bird replies:
"Sure, dear, you're preaching to the choir. You know I've always told you I wouldn't mind leading a sedentary existence, at least for a while, instead of our usual jet-set lifestyle, traveling constantly from one land to another. I'd be happy to just sit around in the sun... as soon as it appears. And I'm sure we'd have more opportunities to spend time with the kids."

It's time that I got around to naming correctly the beautiful bird that stopped here at Gamone for a week or so. I used to referred to it disrespectfully, here, as the "Galapagos guy". That was a silly nickname, because everybody knows that the passerine birds studied by Charles Darwin on the Galapagos were not in fact real finches.

My ex-wife (and constant friend) Christine Mafart succeeded rapidly (I don't know how) in identifying my big-beaked visitor. He was a Hawfinch [Coccothraustes coccothraustes, known in French as a Gros-bec casse-noyaux]. I use the past tense "was" because I think my bird has finally flown, after a brief stay at Gamone. I'm left with a set of splendid images of this exotic big-beaked creature, while hoping that he'll retain my address for a visit next winter.

This morning, I found another family of finches hanging around in the same area.

These dark little birds don't match the majestic beauty of my glorious pink-legged big-beaked Hawfinch... who liked to tap on my bedroom window, imagining his mirror reflection as an alien bird. I hope he'll be back here at Gamone in a year's time.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Primroses in the snow

The burgeoning primroses of Gamone were surely surprised to discover that, during the night, flakes of late-winter snow had fallen upon their delicate cream petals.

This chilly remnant of the cold season will no doubt stimulate the tiny flowers, and incite them to hurry up in their urge to welcome the approaching spring. As they might say in Rome (if their Latin was as elementary as mine, and if they weren't preoccupied by other less natural arrivals): Habemus primulam, primum tempum. The primrose has arrived and, with it (soon, in any case), spring.

Owner of Gamone in 1823

For the first time in ages, I drove up to Grenoble yesterday and spent an hour or so in the archives. In the context of my research concerning the history of my house at Gamone, this short visit to the archives was most fruitful, in that I succeeded in obtaining the name and identity of the man who owned my house and property at Gamone some two centuries ago. Let me explain how this happened.

A few years after crowning himself in the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, on 2 December 1804, in the presence of the pope Pius VII, the emperor Napoléon Bonaparte created the interesting concept of a national cadastre: that's to say, a vast map indicating the ownership of every fragment of real estate in France. Here in the corner of the Isère department where I live, the Napoleonic cadastre was only published—as indicated in the following oval title box [called a cartouche in French]—on 19 March 1823, a year or so after the death of the former emperor on the remote island of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean.

[Click to enlarge]

Here's an outline of the central parcels of the Napoleonic cadastre for my house (parcel #717) and land at Gamone:

Today, my property includes parcel #723 (a former vineyard) as well as a group of additional parcels up in the top left-hand region of the map. As indicated in the diagram, I discovered yesterday that my Gamone property was owned in 1823 by Michel Grégoire Tézier [1761-1833], the mayor of the neighboring village of Pont-en-Royans... shown in this spectacular panoramic photo that I found on the web:

[Click to enlarge]

Now that I've unearthed the identity of this eminent landowner (who had used his personal fortune to acquire real estate that came onto the market in the wake of the French Revolution, when the great religious establishments were disbanded, and their possessions sold), I should be able to move further backwards in time, and discover the exact identity of the owner of Gamone on the eve of the French Revolution.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

What is there in common...

... between me and the Sistine Chapel?

Did I hear somebody say that, what's in common is that both William and the Sistine Chapel are fine examples of Renaissance splendor? Well, if you insist... but that's not the right answer. I'll give you a hint. The answer to my question has something to do with our respective roofs (or rooves, if you prefer).

Here's the answer.

Like me, the people at the Sistine Chapel are installing a new chimney on their roof.

Here's my Gamone chimney, which I intend to install as soon as possible.

I don't know what brand of chimney the Sistine Chapel has decided upon, but I can assure them that the French-manufactured Poujoulat product is excellent.

As soon as my new chimney and wood stove are installed, I intend to test the system by burning some old papers. If all goes well (that's to say, if the chimney joints are all OK), then I should see white smoke emerging from my new chimney. (If not, it's my house that's likely to fill up with white smoke.) Now, to avoid potential misunderstandings, I want to make it perfectly clear, by means of the present blog post, that I have no intention whatsoever of electing an antipope at Gamone. On the other hand, I cannot deny that I've often thought that my dog Fitzroy has all the necessary qualities for that job. There's a technical problem, though. Fitzroy has not yet become a cardinal.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Change of clothes

Over the last two days, the sun has reappeared at Gamone, after weeks of damp overcast skies. I decided to take out my my warm-weather working clothes, to give them an airing.

As you can see, from a sartorial viewpoint, they're not particularly attractive. I've been thinking that it might be a good idea for me to change to bright garments of the following kind:

Admittedly, if I were to start wearing stuff like that when I'm working outside at Gamone, I would have to make sure that Fitzroy didn't jump up onto me with his muddy paws, as he usually does. My summer hats, too, are rather dull:

Something of the following kind would add a gay note to Gamone:

There's no doubt about it: the ex-pope had a fabulous taste in clothes, and I'm sure we'll all miss him. Personally, I was particularly impressed by his early gold period, when Benny looked like an ancient Aztec chief.

Attired in gold lamé, the pope had a kind of Elvis look, which surely appealed to Catholic youth throughout the world.

Benny's gold period was a trend-setter for an all-too-brief moment. If only he had stuck to his job until the bitter end, the full impact of the pope's influence upon fashion would have been recognized throughout the world. Today, in any case, Catholics everywhere are hoping that his successor will look just as elegant as Benny.