Showing posts with label Pont-en-Royans. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Pont-en-Royans. Show all posts

Monday, January 20, 2014

Celebrated Dutch painter of Pont-en-Royans

Bob ten Hoope [1920-2014]

One of the most interesting individuals I encountered when I came to live in Choranche in 1994 was the Dutch painter Bob ten Hoope, who had decided to set up his home in Pont-en-Royans back in 1954. In the beginning, I was impressed by his sketches of men playing cards in a local café.



But I soon learned that this was a small domain of his work, which encompassed large oil paintings of nudes and many local landscapes.


It was through her friendship with Bob ten Hoope that the sculptor Tineke Bot discovered this region, and decided to settle down in Choranche.

                        — photo by Roger Latton [2013]

The last time I saw Bob, maybe a decade ago, he had set up his easel and painting material on the Rouillard Bridge, just down the road from my place. He was already afflicted with arthritis in his hands, making it extremely difficult for him to carry on painting. Finally, he decided to move back up to his native land.



And that is where he died, last Saturday, 18 January 2014.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Strange fruit

Whenever a village is flooded, small boats arrive on the scene, seemingly out of nowhere.


Then, as soon as the floodwaters subside, the small boats disappear magically. One might wonder where they've gone. Where are they stored, up until the next flood, awaiting their reappearance? It's a mystery... as Christine liked to point out from time to time (so our children tell me).

In Pont-en-Royans, an old photo shows us a small boat on the Bourne, with fishermen.


These days, there are no longer any boats on the Bourne. I suspect that boating has become hazardous because of surges of fast-moving swirling water whenever the operators of the hydroelectric dam at Choranche decide to open valves releasing huge quantities of accumulated water. As in the case of flooded villages, the same question might be asked: Where have all the boats gone?

Yesterday, while wandering along the right bank of the Bourne, I found a partial answer to this question. At a spot roughly behind the head of the fisherman in dark clothes, I came upon an old boat (maybe the one in the photo) that had been hoisted up into the branches of a tree.

[Click to enlarge]

Although the context is far removed from the happy context of boat fishing on the Bourne, I was reminded of the title of a celebrated song by Billie Holiday, evoking the ghastly massacres of black slave workers in the American South.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Magic water

In the domain of magic, maybe the most celebrated liquid of all time was mercury.


Medieval alchemists looked upon this weird substance as primeval matter—in the spirit of Aristotle—out of which all metals evolved. As a schoolboy at Grafton High School, I remember well my first encounter with this amazing but dangerous metal, under the guidance of our aging chemistry teacher Jerry Spring. Once upon a time, it was used by dentists: a bit like installing a toxic battery in the patient's mouth.

Questing after miracles, modern believers in the supernatural seem to be placing their trust in a far more humble liquid: ordinary water.


Jacques Benveniste was a distinguished French specialist in immunology. In 1971, he discovered an organic chemical substance known as PAF [platelet-activating factor], which plays a basic role in the process of hemostasis (the stopping of bleeding) and other vital physiological functions. Benveniste—maybe with a Nobel Prize in the pocket of his lab gown—might have gone down in medical history as a result of this discovery. Alas, the curiosity of Jacques Benveniste led him into an esoteric field of research, inspired by the beliefs of homeopathy. Working under contract for the French pharmaceutical company Boiron [click here to see my article entitled Herbal and homeopathic products], Beneveniste published a controversial article in a 1988 issue of Nature in which he put forward the hallucinating idea that molecules of plain water might possess a mysterious "memory".

If so, then it would be quite normal (!) that the functions of an active ingredient within an enormously-diluted homeopathic preparation might in fact be "remembered". Quod erat demonstrandum. When shit of this superior nature hit the science media fan, it provoked a huge scandal that I won't attempt to summarize here. [See the Wikipedia article on Jacques Beneviste.] The discoverer of "water memory" retired from the French INSERM medical research organization, and the scientific community wondered whether their prestigious colleague might not have been led astray... into ridicule. Today, few serious scientists believe that Beneveniste's speculations incorporate the slightest grain of objective truth.


Whereas Jacques Benveniste obtained nothing more than an ignominious pair of Ig Nobel Prizes in Chemistry in 1991 and 1998, the French biologist Luc Montagnier was awarded a genuine (shared) Nobel in 2008 for his discovery of the Aids virus, HIV. Since then, at the height of his scientific glory, Montagnier has made astonishing claims that homeopathy works, and that Benveniste might have hit the nail on the head. Once again, I leave my blog readers to follow up this affair through Google and Wikipedia.

Let us move from "water memory" to the equally-exciting theme of "water fuel".


Agha Waqar Ahmad is a 40-year-old Pakistani engineer who operates normally in fields that are far removed from the Nobel domain. This employee of the police department claims to have invented an automobile that runs on ordinary water. Ahmad's scientific credentials: a degree in mechanical engineering from a technical college in Khairpur, in the southern province of Sindh. Water is water, universal and ubiquitous, and it knows no geographical, intellectual or cultural barriers. So, it is tempting to to draw parallels between the magic homeopathic memory of Benveniste's water and the magic power of water as the unique fuel in Ahmad's experimental cars. In both cases, we are faced with phenomena that modern science refuses to accept.

In Pakistan, there was intense excitement after the release of demonstrations of Ahmad's water-fueled automobile. TV journalists presented him as a savior of Pakistan, stricken gravely by the energy crisis. Once again, I invite my readers to use Google to learn more about Ahmad's miraculous invention.

Meanwhile, I remain an old-fashioned adept of the 2nd law of thermodynamics, which I once learned in 1957, as a student at Sydney University, in the celebrated textbook of Mark Zemansky, which has accompanied several generations of science enthusiasts. I therefore refuse to believe that you can obtain an energy advantage by attempting simply to extract the oxygen and the hydrogen that compose water. The challenge is real, but Ahmad's alleged solution is surely chimeric.

An amusing detail of the Pakistani affair was the high-level support given by the Pakistani Minister of Religious Affairs, Khurshid Shah, who drove the engineer’s car during his demonstration and said he was amazed by the performance of the water kit.

It's unlikely that that the inventor Ahmad might have been aware of, let alone inspired by, our Judeo-Christian beliefs, but there's a strong case for alleging a possible infringement of Roman Catholic patent rights concerning the power of water. After all, we've been using this powerful stuff for ages in baptisms, and we continue to sprinkle so-called Holy Water upon the coffins of our deceased.


In a nutshell, if ever Vatican lawyers were smart enough to demonstrate convincingly that the sacred Popemobile runs purely (as we all believe) on Holy Water, then this Pakistani heathen will be well and truly screwed. Here at home, in Pont-en-Royans, we are proud (?) of our Water Museum, imagined by the mayor Yves Pillet.


Don't ask me, though, what on earth this local museum is supposed to exhibit. Homeopathic health-impregnated water? Pakistani energy-impregnated water? Exotic shark-infested waters from afar? Maybe simply the water of the Bourne? Or the wind upon the waters...

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Virtual house in Pont-en-Royans

I've been pursuing my investigations into the possibility that a thatched house drawn in 1870 might have actually existed in Pont-en-Royans, in the vicinity of Blackbird Street [rue du Merle].


If this were indeed an ancient scene at Pont-en-Royans (as I firmly believe), then the main structure in the foreground would have been located on the lower slopes of Mount Barret, on the left bank of the Bourne, whereas the line of buildings in the background would have been located on the other side of the river, in the center of the village of Pont-en-Royans, on the lower slopes of the mountain (vaguely visible in the background) called Les Trois Châteaux. If we don't actually see the Bourne in the drawing, that's because it was hidden behind lots of trees and vegetation that lie between Blackbird House and the river.

Notice the presence of part of a second building behind the main house:


I shall refer to the main house as Blackbird 1, and to the second building (whose roof appears to be tiled, not thatched) as Blackbird 2. Both structures have ample balconies, supported by hefty wooden beams and diagonal props. This is an architectural feature of the so-called "hanging houses" (maisons suspendues) that have made Pont-en-Royans famous.


Clearly, there was no water beneath the balconies of Blackbird 1. But the balconies of Blackbird 2, as well as those attached to the line of buildings in the background, probably all jutted out over the Bourne, like the balconies and lofts that we find on today's hanging houses.


Residents and shopkeepers have always been preoccupied by the challenge of finding as much usable space as possible (both for living and for storing wares) on the precious real estate in the vicinity of the bridge linking the Vercors mountains to the plains.


To ascertain the likely locations of Blackbird 1 and 2, I was guided above all by the angles of the background buildings in the drawing.


Today, to be able to see the façades and the side walls at that angle, you have to move to an observation point quite close to the Picard Bridge. Finally, when I take account of all relevant factors, I'm convinced that Blackbird 1 was located on allotment #127 of the Napoleonic Cadastre.


Blackbird 2 would have been located on allotment #128, quite close to the edge of the Bourne, and the woman and child were seated on the grassy slopes of allotment #126. The stone wall in the drawing corresponds to the curved path leading down towards the river, which still exists today. Here's a view of the Picard Bridge from an upstream vantage point:


Blackbird Street rises behind the car on the left, at the place where a blacksmith's forge was located for ages, and up until only a few decades ago. (My neighbor Madeleine told me that, from her grocery shop at the other extremity of the Picard Bridge, she looked out over the blacksmith's place for 30 years!)  The pair of buildings, Blackbird 1 and Blackbird 2, would have been located (preceded by a short row of hanging houses on the allotments #102, #103 and #104) within the empty space that I've encircled.

There have been several fine illustrations of the blacksmith's workshop, at the southern extremity of the Picard Bridge.


The following nice illustration in color is no doubt a relatively recent copy of the monochrome engraving:


Notice that the central part of the building forming a portal over Blackbird Street has disappeared by the time the Napoleonic Cadastre was drawn, leaving only a narrow fragment overhanging the Bourne.

Normally we should be able to find representations of the Blackbird Street buildings in other old drawings. That's to say, we need to find drawings done from roughly the spot, in the following photo, where Sophia's tail is located.


Here is such a drawing:


I would say that the building in the upper right-hand corner is probably Blackbird 2. Notice, too, beneath the arch of the bridge, on the left bank of the Bourne, the presence of hanging houses that have long since disappeared. In the following engraving by General Bacler d'Albe [1761-1824], we've moved our vantage point a little further downstream:


In the upper right-hand corner, we're still looking up (I think) at Blackbird 2, with the balcony of a hanging house a little further back. The stone arch in the wall supporting Blackbird 2 can still be seen, in the photo of Sophia's tail, above the fisherman. The following elegant illustration was possibly inspired by the Bacler d'Albe engraving:


Finally, I have to admit that there seem to be no other illustrations in which I can clearly distinguish a house that would appear to be Blackbird 1. In a way, this is a positive conclusion, in that it suggests that my drawing of 1870 might in fact be a unique document.

Here's a montage in which I've tried to place the drawing in a modern photographic context:


My attempt to insert a distorted version of the drawing is rather clumsy (the image would need to be transformed magically into a three-dimensional representation, and then rotated in an anticlockwise sense through a third of a circle), but it gives you a rough idea of the location of the old house.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Exceptional entry into Pont-en-Royans

When Fitzroy became a family member at Gamone, a year or so ago, I was obliged to abandon my pleasant old habit of strolling down to Pont-en-Royans on foot, because looking after two dogs would not be easy, particularly on the stretch of road that runs alongside the Bourne, where's there's nothing you could call a pedestrian pavement. Here's a Google Street View presentation of the main road into Pont, a hundred meters after the Rouillard Bridge over the Bourne (midway between Gamone and Pont), which runs down the valley to the right of the road:


Pont is located not far beyond the bend at the far end of the main road with the white lines. In the vicinity of the point from which the photo was taken, if I were walking to Pont, I would be using a track through the woods up to the left, at the level of the tree line. Notice the knob up on the crest of the mountain to the right, the Trois Châteaux. You could see this knob clearly in the second photo in my recent blog post entitled Virgin Mary of Pont-en-Royans [display]. That's the ruins of the medieval watchtower enabling a few guardsmen to look out over three feudal castles located further down in the valley, to make sure that no assailants were moving towards any one of these castles.

The above photo contains another interesting detail. Notice the existence of the narrow road, with no signs whatsoever, that runs off to the left, and up the slopes, towards the woods. Let me ask you a trivial question. If you were a motorist, heading towards Pont-en-Royans (a few hundred meters down the road), is there anything that might tempt you to leave the main highway and drive up along that unmarked narrow road? Well, of course, there's always the possibility of an urgent need to relieve oneself in a natural setting. Apart from that, I shall explain in a moment that there's another theoretical reason, apparently, for setting off on a wild goose chase along a narrow wooded mountain lane. It's called GPS: the Global Positioning System. And this fabulous system can lead you into big trouble...

The pedestrian track joins up with that narrow road, a little further on, and you soon reach an entry into an ancient neighborhood of the village of Pont-en-Royans called Villeneuve (literally, "new town"). Here's the first house up there in the Villeneuve neighborhood:


Although the portal itself has disappeared, you can still see its traces to the left and the right of the road.


This tiny neighborhood came into existence in the 17th century. The year 1674 is engraved in the stone window frame of one of the houses:


Residents of the three or four dwellings at Villeneuve can drive up here along the narrow road that you saw in my first photo. The owner of this red vehicle has then turned his car around and backed into this convenient parking spot, at the top of the stone stairs that run down to the Picard Bridge.


Last summer, an English tourist was driving down towards Pont-en-Royans. When he reached the place shown in my first photo, he seemed to receive curious advice from his GPS device, which told him to turn to the left. He interpreted this as meaning that he should head off up the hill along that narrow road leading to the Villeneuve neighborhood. At that time, when he drove through the narrow portal and past the house with the date 1674, there was no big block of stone at the spot where the red car is now parked, since the handful of local residents all knew that the road stopped there. However the English tourist didn't know this. And, since his GPS device reassured him that Pont-en-Royans was just a hundred meters down the hill, he kept on driving. When he started to bump down over these stone steps, the tourist must have felt that the road was extraordinarily narrow and in pretty bad shape:


But his GPS kept on telling him that the Picard Bridge and the entry into Pont-en-Royans were less than 50 meters away. Besides, it would have been particularly difficult to back up over those steep stone steps. So he kept on driving. Halfway down, he must have been an expert driver, and taken great pains, to get through this narrow passage:


After that ultimate difficulty, the tourist's downhill drive ended here, at the bottom of the Villeneuve stairway.


His automobile and his faithful GPS system had at last brought him to the village of Pont-en-Royans... or almost. Unfortunately, there was no way in the world that he could drive his car through the narrow opening at the level of the two final steps. So, his car got firmly wedged in between the stone walls. And he had a unique opportunity (for a tourist at the wheel of his automobile) of viewing the terrasse of the Picard bistrot from an unusual place and angle.


The only way of extracting the tourist consisted of calling upon a local guy with a backhoe loader to knock down the stone wall to the right, and nudge the car onto the road.

 

As you can see, the wall has now been repaired. I believe that a local newspaper has a photo of the trapped automobile at the foot of the staircase. Later on, if I can obtain a copy, I'll add it to this blog post. Meanwhile, I'm told that the English tourist was furious to discover how hard it was to drive down a quite ordinary road whose existence was indicated explicitly by his faultless GPS device. Back in the UK, where roads and road signs are impeccable, it would be unthinkable to get into such an annoying predicament. Bloody Frog highway authorities!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Virgin Mary of Pont-en-Royans

In my quest concerning the drawing of the thatched house in Blackbird Street, I had imagined that it might be a good idea to obtain a bird's-eye view of the houses that appear (I believe) in the background. So, I set off on a lonely morning excursion along the slopes of Mont Barret on sunny Christmas Sunday morning. A friend from Blackbird Street, strolling around with his dog, directed me towards the Virgin of Pont-en-Royans. After a rough climb along a track through unkempt shrubs, I finally found myself at the lady's feet.


I was thrilled to meet up with an effigy of the lady and her son on the very anniversary of the birth of the latter. This was surely my closest contact ever, and maybe forever, with the solitude of heavenly bliss. Taking advantage of this extraordinary moment, I took this photo of the nearby mountain that separates Choranche and Pont-en-Royans.


As attested in the Napoleonic Cadastre, this mountain, on the territory of Choranche, is called Trois Châteaux (three castles) because an observer, from this exceptional viewpoint, could clearly distinguish three medieval castles in the valley: Flandaines, La Bâtie and Rochechinard. Today, the first two have almost totally disappeared from the surface of the planet Earth, whereas vestiges of the third castle exist splendidly, as I explained recently [display].

When I started down the slopes from the Virgin Mary of Pont-de-Royans, I had the impression that our encounter had not proved anything much at all concerning my primary preoccupation: the identification of the thatched house of Blackbird Street. But nobody (and, least of all, a lusty heathen such as me) should ever begrudge a passing encounter with a replica of the Holy Virgin.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Thatched house in Blackbird Street

In the village of Pont-en-Royans, Blackbird Street (la rue du Merle) rises from the end of the Picard Bridge, just opposite the famous hanging houses above the River Bourne, and curves around the lower slopes of Mount Barret for a couple of hundred meters before descending to meet up with the main road to Sainte-Eulalie. Here's a view of the hanging houses seen from Blackbird Street:


In the lower center of the photo, you can see a fragment of the above-mentioned road that runs from Pont-en-Royans to Sainte-Eulalie, a couple of kilometers to the south. In the background, you can glimpse the stone arch of the Picard Bridge, high above the Bourne. On the opposite bank of the Bourne, you have the multi-colored façades of the hanging houses. Finally, at the spot where the photographer was located, in the lower right-hand corner of the photo, you can see the edge of Blackbird Street, with a stone parapet.

Let's move to the other side of the Bourne. Here we view the Blackbird Street neighborhood from the vicinity of the hanging houses:


A couple of vehicles are driving along the road to Sainte-Eulalie. The first vehicle is about to pass in front of the three "awkward doorways" mentioned in my blog post of 23 May 2010 [display]. Above the middle doorway, the narrow building with a relatively bright red (new) roof was the garage of my late neighbor Dédé Repellin. The level of Blackbird Street corresponds to the base of the houses in the background.

You can associate the two scenes by means of a building that appears in both photos. In the first photo, it's the building in the forefront (half-hidden by a dilapidated shed), on Blackbird Street, with snow on the roof and a tall cream-colored chimney. In the second photo, the snow has disappeared, but this same building, a little to the right of Dédé's garage, is distinguished by its slanting roof, and a small balcony high above the road. Further along to the right, a massive concrete base and pillars support the dilapidated shed (seen in the first photo).

Now, if I've tried to describe the layout of this neighborhood, it's because I would like to share with you, if possible, my attempts at identifying a mysterious unsigned drawing, dated March 1870, which my ex-wife Christine discovered recently in her collections of antiquarian artwork. We come upon a big house with a thatched roof.


All the familiar old engravings of Pont-en-Royans show houses with tiled roofs. And the famous Picard Bridge appears inevitably in all such images. Consequently, Christine (who's quite familiar with Pont-en-Royans and its pictorial representations) was disinclined to imagine the house with a thatched roof as an element of 19th-century Pont-en-Royans. Nevertheless, in the background, there are buildings that look like our hanging houses, as well as a mountain. So, Christine decided to send me a copy of the drawing, to ask for my opinion. And, over the last week, I've been carrying out an investigation of the affair.

Today, my conclusions are firm. This was almost certainly a building located not far from the Picard Bridge, between Blackbird Street (on the right-hand edge of the drawing) and the Bourne. The house was no doubt eliminated, to a large extent, to make way for the new road from Pont-en-Royans to Sainte-Eulalie. But it's possible that vestiges of the building have survived in the vicinity of Dédé's garage and the house with the slanted roof.

Let me start out by explaining the reasons why I've reached these conclusions. Here's an enlargment of the buildings in the background, to the left of the thatched house:


When I showed the drawing to Paulette Ageron (the 84-year-old sister of my neighbor Madeleine), she was adamant that the block of three buildings to the far-left is the place where she was born. These buildings on the Place de la Halle (market square) were destroyed by Nazi bombs in 1944, but old-timers remember them well… no doubt because of the bombing. And Paulette needed no prompting to assure me that she recognized the place where she was born, on 27 April 1927, in her parents' second-floor residence in a house whose first-floor occupants were Monsieur and Madame Guillot. Let us leave aside this leftmost block, and turn our attention to the remaining 5 buildings. Here's what we find there today:


Although the buildings, their façades and even their heights have evolved considerably during the century and a half since the drawing was made, little imagination is required in order to associate significant elements in the two images.

A vital element in the elucidation of this puzzle was the Napoleonic Cadastre of Pont-en-Royans dated 15 March 1823. Significant fragments of this precious document are still accessible in the town hall of Pont-en-Royans, where the friendly employees Colette and Chantal allowed me to take photos. Here's a fuzzy map of Blackbird Street (photographed on a dull morning, without lighting, on the floor of the town hall):


In the drawing of the thatched house, the woman with a child is seated on an empty grassy slope. I would imagine that this is the allotment #130 in the Napoleonic Cadastre, stretching all the way down to the Bourne, and that the thatched house lies on the allotment #123. But my reasoning might be faulty. Maybe the house was located on the allotment #127, much closer to the Picard Bridge, in which case the grassy patch would have been the allotment #125.

To conclude, here's a well-known illustration of that area at the beginning of Blackbird Street:


To my way of reckoning, the artist who made this delightful illustration of the local blacksmith, at the start of Blackbird Street, must have been located with his back towards the thatched house. For the moment, I have no information whatsoever concerning the date and origin of this artwork. My investigations are not yet terminated...