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

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Restaurant facelift at Pont-en-Royans

The restaurant and bar known as Le Picard at Pont-en-Royans are composed of two former cafés, which were united a few years ago by the present owner, my friend Jean-Noël Soulié. Attempting to sell his establishment, he has just given the combined façades a new coat of paint, to make them look a little more uniform.

I wondered why Jean-Noël didn't take advantage of this repainting to create a spectacular vision: for example, the name LE PICARD plastered across the entire combined façade. Well, I've just learned that this whole repainting operation was carried out under the strict control of French state authorities who dictated exactly the colors, dimensions and forms that were to be employed. The outcome, in any case, is high-class. It'll be interesting to see what kind of potential buyers might be attracted by this exceptional but high-cost affair. An obvious restraint must be respected. The future purchaser will need to step into the shoes of a fellow who actually played rugby in the local team. But, whenever we start talking about such-and-such an individual who cannot possibly be replaced, facts and imagination inevitably replace him overnight.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Awkward doorways

I've always been intrigued by this series of three doorways that give out directly onto the main road entering Pont-en-Royans from the Drôme.

A passerby has the impression that it's a long while since anybody ever opened any of these doorways. In the case of the one on the right, severely attacked by humidity, its days of being opened are surely a thing of the past. I refer to them as "awkward" because the proprietor of a doorway, prior to opening it, would need to ask the gendarmes to halt the traffic on the road. And I don't think these busy officers would be happy to intervene in that way for any significant length of time.

The proprietor of the middle doorway (and the space behind and above it) is none other than my neighbor Dédé Repellin, whose photo appeared at the top of my recent article entitled Down by the riverside [display]. A few weeks ago, Dédé told me the full story of his curious doorway. To appreciate the details, you need to know that, at the rear of this building with the road-level doorways, there's a prominent and ancient street: the rue du Merle (Blackbird Street), which lies two or three stories higher than the doorways and the road. Dédé purchased this place long ago, and he used the upper space (not shown in these photos), giving out onto Blackbird Street, as his workshop, enabling him to look after his trade vehicle. In the space above his doorway, to the right of the wooden ladder, you can see a curious box structure, composed of concrete bricks and apparently fixed to the far wall. Well, this was in fact a cavity that Dédé built so that he could drive his vehicle into the workshop, up at the Blackbird Street level, and then crawl down underneath it, inside this concrete box, to change the sump oil. Fair enough. He could still do that, if he wanted to… but Dédé's personal garage at Choranche offers him, today, a more comfortable environment in which to replace his sump oil.

The most amusing part of the story concerns the stuff to be found today behind Dédé's road-level doorway. Apparently, long ago, he bought a secondhand metal lathe, weighing a ton, and installed it in the space behind that door. It's still there, and Dédé would be thrilled to be able to make use of this precious equipment. But this is unthinkable as long as he's faced with the problem of opening and closing that doorway. So, the ideal solution would consist of extracting the metal lathe from that place and reinstalling it up at the Repellin home in Choranche (just down from my place at Gamone). But this transfer would be a major undertaking, requiring that the road be blocked for a period of at least a few hours, so that a mobile crane could be brought in to grab the lathe and lift it onto a truck. Dédé has concluded that a such a project is far too complicated to be imagined. Consequently, his precious metal lathe is likely to remain forever imprisoned behind the old brown door.

Incidentally, this story suggests that vague dreams may have been unfolding in Dédé's mind, a few days ago [see my earlier blog], while he watched the movements of the giant mobile elevator work platform…

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Down by the riverside

It takes a special attraction to bring my neighbor Dédé Repellin down to Pont-en-Royans, and get him leaning over the stone parapet and staring down into the Bourne like a run-of-the-mill tourist.

Here's the special attraction:

This huge mobile elevator work platform enabled a couple of workers to install a plastic tarpaulin trough along the stone wall. Repair work will soon start on this section of the wall, and the purpose of the trough is to catch fragments of old stone and mortar instead of letting them drop down onto the vegetation on the banks of the Bourne. In other words, the future stone craftsmen will be able to work cleanly (no doubt from cables hung down over the parapet) without making a mess of the surroundings. Incidentally, the installation of the tarpaulins demonstrates the extent to which environmental issues are handled seriously these days. Not so long ago, workers would have simply let their rubbish fall down into the river.

Specialists in the domain of mobile work platforms (which is not my case) will recognize immediately that the device is not being used here in an orthodox fashion. The telescopic boom is designed to take the platform up in the air to a maximum height of some fifty meters, whereas it's being used here to attain a "negative height" (expression employed by the operator) whose maximum value is merely ten meters.

The French truck-driver operates the platform. The two fellows installing the tarpaulin were Portuguese and Polish, and they didn't appear to speak a word of French.

This stretch of the Bourne appears to be turbulent, but the volume and behavior of the water vary constantly, depending on the recent meteorological conditions up on the Vercors plateau. For the last few days, there has been no rain here, and this is a view of the Bourne this afternoon, taken at approximately the same spot:

Behind the big square rocks in the foreground, the waterfalls have disappeared. So, what is actually happening here as far as the river is concerned? To answer that question, we need to move upstream some fifty meters, to a point just above the patch of white frothy water in the upper right-hand corner of the previous photo. Here's what we find:

As you can see, somebody has built a small primitive dam here. The river is channeled into what looks like a tiny cavern, where it promptly overflows, as shown here:

Normally, the stream of water created by the dam should flow along the channel cut into the cliff, which you can see distinctly in the above photo. The problem is that a big chunk of the stonework has fallen out of this channel, creating a big hole that allows all the water to escape… whence the white frothy stream.

Exceptionally, the other day, when I was taking photos of the mobile platform, there was a huge volume of water in the Bourne. Consequently, some of the water leaving the dam actually got past the hole at the start of the channel. Then, however, it encountered a section of the rock channel where a dozen meters of the stone wall have disappeared, as seen here:

The waterfalls that I photographed the other day were caused by water spilling through this big break in the old channel.

Now, what was the intended purpose of the dam and the stone channel? A century ago, a local engineer built this system in order to canalize part of the flow of the Bourne into a narrow tunnel through the rock. At the point where this falling water rejoined the Bourne, a hundred meters downstream, it drove a turbine to generate electricity for the village of Pont-en-Royans. In the following photo, you can see the rusty remains of the equipment used to regulate the volume of water about to enter the tunnel.

But, because of the damaged channel, no water has entered this tunnel for half a century.

Today, down below the famous dwellings attached to the cliff face, visitors to Pont-en-Royans probably wonder why the ugly red-brick structure in the middle of the following photo is left standing.

This building, located at the exit of the tunnel, housed the turbine and other equipment for the generation and distribution of electricity. As far as I know, it's still full of archaic hardware. Meanwhile, it remains an element of the riverside landscape of Pont-en-Royans, protected automatically by the French national heritage authorities. So, even though the structure is unattractive and has been useless for ages, it's likely to be around for a long time to come.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Riverside excursion

This afternoon, it was warm enough for an excursion with Sophia to the edge of the Bourne at Pont-en-Royans. Seeing me getting ready to leave the house with my Nikon, Sophia sensed that something interesting might be about to happen. She stood tensely in front of me, staring me in the eyes. I stared back at her in silence for a few seconds. Sophia realized that the absence of a negative stay-at-home order (such as "Guard the house") indicated that she was being invited along. So, she dashed outside and waited for me alongside the Citroën.

She appreciates a minimal contact with the water.

I don't know whether it might be called "swimming". I think that "cooling off" is a more honest expression.

People come here with bags of stale bread, to feed the ducks. This means that Sophia always manages to find a few chunks for a riverside snack. She has become an expert at convincing people, particularly children, that she's starving.

Are those ducks naive enough to imagine that Sophia is getting ready to throw them a bit of bread?

I think the ducks are starting to realize that Sophia won't even be leaving them a few crumbs. We bid farewell to the ducks and wander upstream to the pool beneath the cliff houses.

An optimistic angler imagined that he might find a trout lurking beneath the Picard bridge (the "pont" in the name of the village: Pont-en-Royans).

Above us, the sharp crest of the slopes marks the dividing line between Pont-en-Royans and Choranche.

Normally I'm not particularly good at leaning out over parapets to take photos, but I was enticed by this interesting view of the foundations of the ancient bridge alongside the flimsy wooden poles supporting the cliff houses.

Local people are proud to point out that these ancient dwellings have never yet slid down into the Bourne, so it's quite possible, indeed probable, that they never will. (Poor logic!)

Personally, I wouldn't be happy residing in such a scary place.

Here's a view from the other side of the bridge, looking downstream from the road that leads up to Choranche.

Sophia, still soaked (with that marvelous smell of a wet dog), scrambled into the car and we drove back to Gamone, a kilometer up the road.

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?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Hot dog

When I arrived back home after my trip to Valence yesterday, it was so hot at Gamone that I decided to drive Sophia down to Pont-en-Royans for a dip in the Bourne.

Sophia obviously appreciates this kind of excursion. First, of course, she can cool off. More importantly, I think, there's the pleasure of exotic odors and encounters with the vast world beyond Gamone.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Fabulous legends

There are countless reasons for visiting Paris, which include the possibility of climbing to the top of the cathedral of Notre-Dame, taking a boat trip along the Seine, or spending an evening at the Crazy Horse. [Personally, during my thirty or so years in Paris, I never did any of those three things.] As far as I'm concerned, one might decide to spend time in Paris solely in order to visit the medieval museum of the Hôtel de Cluny in the Latin Quarter.

Here, in the curious vault-like setting of a circular room with dimmed lighting, you can gaze upon the six magnificent tapestries of The Lady and the Unicorn.

Now one comes upon them by chance, among chance corners, and is almost frightened to be here uninvited. But there are others passing by, though they are never many. The young people scarcely even halt before them, unless somehow their studies oblige them to have seen these things once, because of some particular characteristic they possess. Young girls one does occasionally find before them. For in the museums there are many young girls who have left the houses that can no longer keep anything. They find themselves before these tapestries and forget themselves a little.
Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Rainer Maria Rilke

The tapestries were commissioned by a wealthy judge in Lyon named Jean Le Viste, and woven in Flanders towards the end of the 15th century. These masterpieces are extraordinarily beautiful. They exploit a narrow palette of colors—mainly reddish orange, greenish blue and pale gold—but the hues are blended exquisitely to produce enchanting visual poetry. The themes are strangely sensual, although we cannot readily decipher the coded language of the scenes. One wonders, obviously, why the fair lady is accompanied constantly by that exotic white beast with a huge horn jutting out from its forehead.

The most mysterious of the six tapestries is the one shown above, in which the elegantly-attired lady stands in the opening of a luxurious tent labeled with an enigmatic inscription: A mon seul désir (To my desire only). She has removed her necklace, and is placing it in a jewel box held by her maid. Is she simply starting to undress, or does this ritual removal of the necklace have a deeper signification?

Not surprisingly, the beauty and the mysterious nature of these amazing medieval creations gave rise to legends about their origins. I'm particularly fond of the most ancient and tenacious legend, because it places the origin of the tapestries of The Lady and the Unicorn in the immediate vicinity of my home alongside Pont-en-Royans. Funnily enough, although the story I'm about to relate culminates in a fictitious explanation concerning the reason why the tapestries were created, almost everything else in the tale is perfectly authentic. Like all good stories, this one will take a little time to be told... particularly when it's me, the story-teller.

One of my earliest blog articles, appearing on 23 December 2006, was entitled When is a castle not a castle? [display]. I pointed out that there's an ancient watchtower on the slopes of a nearby mountain, just above Pont-en-Royans, at a place designated as Three Castles. It has that name because, once upon a time, from that observation point, you could in fact see three great castles down in the valley, in the territory known as the Royans. In my article of 20 June 2008 entitled Old times, forgotten places [display], I evoked the greatest of these three castles, called La Bâtie, which was the home of the Sassenage lords. Today, it has totally disappeared. But the ruins of one of the three ancient castles still stand, at Rochechinard, seen here:


In the 15th century, this fairy-tale castle received an unexpected and exotic guest, and modern authors are still writing books about him. Everybody has heard that the great Byzantine city of Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, whereupon its name was changed to Istanbul. In fact, many scholars consider this event and this date as marking the end of the Middle Ages. The conqueror of Constantinople was named Mehmed II. He had made it clear that he wished to be succeeded by his second son, Djem Sultan, also known affectionately as Zizim. Understandably, the elder son, Bajazet, didn't like this idea one little bit. So, after Mehmed's death, Bajazet chased his brother away. Zizim sought refuge in Rhodes with the knights of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem.

The grand master of that order was Pierre d'Aubusson, from the Château de Monteil (known today as Le Monteil-au-Vicomte, to the south of Guéret, and to the west of the great tapestry town of Aubusson). Acting no doubt with the approval of the pope, Pierre d'Aubusson actually kidnapped Zizim, in the vague hope of using him as a hostage capable of playing a role in the recovery of Constantinople. So, poor Zizim, who had dreamed of becoming the prince of Istanbul, found himself transported to France.

A senior member of the knights of the Order of Saint John was a certain Charles Alleman, whose family owned the castle at Rochechinard, not far from Saint-Nazaire-en-Royans, at the delightful spot where the Bourne runs into the Isère. One thing led to another, and our Zizim soon ended up as a permanent castle guest at Rochechinard.

At this point in my story, the plot thickens through the inclusion of a delicate dose of sexy spices, or spicy sex (depending on your tastes, if I may be excused for using that soupy metaphor)... To appreciate this new dimension of the tale, you need to know that, just down the road from my place, at the time of Zizim's extended holiday in our charming countryside alongside the Bourne and the Isère, the village of Pont-en-Royans happened to be the home of one of the most beautiful noble females who had ever appeared on the surface of the planet Earth. Unfortunately, I don't have a picture of the lady in question, but I can tell you that her name was Philippine de Sassenage, and that she was the fourth child and second daughter of Jacques de Sassenage, the lord of the Royans. She was such a stunning female that people had given her the Grecian nickname Helen, evoking Helen of Troy. But I hasten to add that her three sisters—named Françoise, Huguette and Isabeau—were said to be equally attractive. Here's a contemporary description of Philippine:

"Her face was oval. Her mouth was small. Her eyes were profound, black and full of spirit. Her physionomy was happy, and her character was surprising. She was only sixteen years old when she emerged from the convent at Saint-Just where she had been educated. Upon her return to the family castle of La Bâtie in the Royans, she was pursued by a crowd of admirers, including Saint-Quentin, Baron de Bressieu, Philibert de Clermont, the young man of Hostun, the lord of Claveyson, the lord of Murinais, and several others." We are told that Prince Zizim "soon joined in, increasing the number [of admirers] by placing his Ottoman pride at the feet of lovely Philippine".

Now, we've almost got back to the tapestries. There are just a few final phases in our complicated story. At about the time that Zizim started to fall madly in love with Philippine, his crusader keepers decided that he should be moved to another region: the Creuse department in the center of France. [I drive through there, with immense pleasure, every time I visit Christine in Brittany.]

The crusader folk arranged for the construction of a tower to house Zizim in the village of Bourganeuf, not far from the family castle of the individual who had betrayed Zizim in Rhodes: the knight Pierre d'Aubusson. Zizim remained imprisoned in his tower at Bourganeuf for about four years, giving him ample time to forget about Philippine before being bundled off to Rome, where he was imprisoned and finally poisoned.

I return, at last, to the tapestries, which became the focal point of a lovely legend. Maybe this legend was fueled by the fact that the patronymic of Pierre d'Aubusson evokes a great tapestry town in the Creuse. Maybe the legend reached a climax when the famous tapestries of The Lady and the Unicorn, inherited by descendants of the judge Jean Le Viste, were hung for a century or so (before being purchased in 1882 by the museum in Paris) in the Château de Boussac, not far from Aubusson, Bourganeuf and the region associated with Zizim.

According to this legend, the tapestries are so splendid, so ethereal and so mysterious, that they were surely a gift that the Turkish hostage Zizim had commissioned for the most beautiful creature on Earth: his future bride Philippine de Sassenage.

One final word. It is said that, if he had been liberated and given the opportunity of marrying Philippine, Zizim would have gladly abandoned his Islamic faith to become, like his wife, a Christian. In such circumstances, the crusader armies would have surely helped him defeat his evil brother Bajazet and obtain the throne that his father Mehmed had bequeathed to Zizim at Constantinople. Lady Philippine and her exotic Turkish unicorn Zizim would have surely changed the entire future course of world history. And today, we would have hordes of tourists from the Bosphorus and the eastern Mediterranean flocking to Rochechinard to take photos of the place where it all began...

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Rebuilt ruins

The main street of Pont-en-Royans, just before you reach the Picard Bridge over the Bourne, used to be narrow and dangerous. The situation improved considerably, a few months ago, after the removal of a couple of derelict buildings that used to form a blind corner. Last November, I took this photo of one of these buildings, built against the steep slopes of one of the two mountains that form a backdrop to the village of Pont-en-Royans.

Yesterday, I took a photo of the remains of the rear end of the demolished building.

As you can see, the stonemasons are quite expert at restoring ruins, to make them look as good as new. Obviously, this is not a mere matter of aesthetics, designed to fool passers-by into imagining that there might be a nice little room and balcony to rent up there (if only you could access the structure in one way or another). No, they've patched up the ruins, consolidated them and smoothed them over with fresh mortar (like the façade of my house at Gamone) for a practical reason. The presence of those old walls prevents landslides and falling rocks. So, what you see there is an excellent example of environmental sustainability.

PS I'm tempted, one of these days, to start spreading a rumor that, on certain wintry evenings, a ghostly female can be seen at the window, with a lit candle, reciting the names of the Huguenot soldiers who were slain by Antoine de Sassenage during the 16th-century Wars of Religion and then thrown from the nearby walls into the Bourne. From a touristic viewpoint, that's what's missing in Pont-en-Royans: a few good ghosts.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Ultimate travel

It was particularly hot yesterday. Towards the end of the afternoon, when Pif had reluctantly gone home (after ten minutes of persuasion from his mistress Alison, who wasn't happy with her dog's new behavior), I took Sophia down to Pont-en-Royans for a swim in the Bourne. Lots of people had gathered there for the annual Wood Festival... which is not very exciting. Hearing the sound of a lawnmower above my head, I looked up and saw a fellow flying a paraglider above the village.

An engine was attached to his back, with a propeller housed in what looked like a big silver bicycle wheel. In this way, he was able to fly/glide at a constant low altitude. He made it look as easy to get around in the sky as riding a bike. You could almost imagine him using this contraption to fly down to St-Jean-en-Royans to buy his groceries.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Rocky combat

In my article of 3 January 2008 entitled Fragile existence [display], I described a rock that had rolled down onto the road between Gamone and Pont-en-Royans. Shortly after, as indicated in my article of 12 January 2008 entitled Valley on the move [display], another rock rolled down onto that same stretch of road. And more recently, in my article of 27 March 2008 entitled Law of motion [display], I evoked an awesome stone column up on the slopes of Mount Baret, above that same road.

Over the last week, a small team of woodcutters, attached by ropes, has been cleaning up the area where the last rock fell, which lies directly beneath the above-mentioned stone pillar, and just a few meters above the roadway. By "cleaning up", I mean that they've removed trees and vegetation surrounding a pile of loose rocks.

The purpose of their intervention is to install heavy metal netting over these rocks, to prevent them from moving. I asked one of the workers why it wouldn't be preferable to dislodge the rocks so that they slide down onto the road, where they could be broken into small fragments and carted away. He replied in a sarcastic tone by a single word: "business"... meaning that such-and-such a company stood to make money by installing the metal netting.

Local folk with whom I've spoken, including our mayor, are highly critical of any technique that consists of destroying the vegetation that has been stabilizing the rocky slopes for so long. To fix the netting in place, holes have to be drilled in the rocks [at the places marked with orange paint], then metal rods are hammered into these holes. But everybody knows that these metal rods erode over time, allowing moisture to seep into the rocks. When this moisture freezes abruptly, the subsequent forces can split the rocks and cause them to budge, increasing the probability of the netting giving way. In the perpetual combat of man versus rocky slopes, there's no obvious winner.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Destination death

Last Tuesday afternoon, I dropped in at the cemetery of Pont-en-Royans to bid adieu to 46-year-old Muriel Magnat (wife of Jean, the brother of Gérard), who was one of the first neighbors I encountered here at Gamone, fifteen years ago. At one stage, I employed Muriel to clean up my house on a weekly basis, but she used to irritate me, whenever I made any specific request, by replying "Oui, chef", as if I were an army sergeant. So her role as my household employee didn't last for long. But we remained good friends... and I was saddened, over the last couple of years, to see Muriel slipping into a no-man's-land of social withdrawal, maybe exacerbated by alcohol.

The last time I ran into her, a couple of months ago, at the supermarket in Saint-Jean-en-Royans, Muriel looked like a very old woman. She invited me back to her place for a pastis. In the course of our conversation, we got around to envisaging the possibility that I might inherit their cat, because it appeared that her husband Jean hoped to replace this animal by a dog. Retrospectively, I believe that Muriel was in no position to offer the family cat to anybody at all, but she was the kind of woman whose friendly direct speech seemed to announce such possibilities as if they were certainties. That was part of Muriel's charm, you might say. Back at the time she worked for me, Muriel was immensely proud of their ancient house in the Rue du Merle, on the slopes of Pont-en-Royans. But drunken carelessness meant that a good part of the neighborhood disappeared in flames... and Muriel, the likely culprit, disappeared instantly, like the burnt buildings, from the daily village scene.

Muriel Faure was a descendant, through her mother, of the Bonnard family whose prestigious hotel, inaugurated in 1898 (still standing, but converted recently into private premises), used to be a touristic landmark at Pont-en-Royans. Once upon a time, the noble descendants of the ancient Bérenger-Sassenage families used to be lodged there... not to mention the king of Belgium along with countless New World visitors.

On the tombstone above the sepulcher where Muriel was buried, I was intrigued by an engraved name, with no date of death: Tintin Faure. Afterwards, I asked my neighbor Madeleine Repellin (an erudite aficionado—in modern terms, a database—of local births, deaths, marriages, divorces, funerals and sordid stories of all kinds) to tell me the relationship between this mysterious Tintin and the deceased woman who had entered his tombstone universe.

Madeleine: "Tintin—that's to say, the nickname for Augustin—is Muriel's father."

William: "Hang on, Madeleine. The other day, you introduced me to an old man, supposed to be Muriel's father, alongside his daughter's grave. Now you're telling me that it's his name that's inscribed on the tombstone above his daughter's grave."

Madeleine: "Right. Tintin has inscribed his name on his future tomb, without a date of death, but his daughter happened to die before him."

William: "I'm amazed. Is it normal for living people to have their names inscribed on tombstones?" I was suddenly reminded of ferry boats in Sydney Harbor that carry the names of still-living sporting heroes such as Dawn Fraser and Shane Gould.

I sensed that the subject was becoming serious, and that my questions were disturbing. My everyday neighbor Dédé RepellinDédé is the nickname for André—intervened in our discussion: "Yes, it's a common habit in this part of the Alps. Inscribing a name on a future tombstone provides us with a precise destination. While still living, we know where we're finally heading."

Talk about serious mountain guides!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Law of motion

The First Law of Motion of Isaac Newton seems to concern moving objects: Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it. In fact, it applies perfectly well to an object whose velocity happens to be zero; that's to say, a stationary object. In other words, as long as no external force is applied to a stationary object, it will remain eternally motionless. Now, I often encounter intelligent individuals who seem to be convinced that, if an ancient structure has never yet fallen, in spite of its superficially unstable appearance, then this "proves" that it isn't likely to fall in the foreseeable future. They refuse to imagine that even the legendary butterfly, flapping its wings, could provide an external force capable of making things move.

A decade ago, my English friend Adrian Lyons was leading me on an inspection of a local dilapidated medieval castle, and he tried to reassure me when he saw that I wasn't too keen on crawling over rotted rafters: "This place was built centuries before we were born, and it'll still be standing long after us." Shortly after that outing, daredevil Adrian lost his life in the UK when he crashed his veteran jet aircraft while pulling out of a tight turn too close to the ground.

Here in the Vercors, many folk seem to consider that a precarious rock structure that hasn't yet crumbled and rolled down the slopes will no doubt remain in place forever. So, they don't sense its presence as a constant menace.

I see these cliffs, on the other side of the Bourne, from my bedroom window. In the center of the photo, the detached vertical pillar is most impressive when you look up at it from the Rouillard Bridge, a few hundred meters down from Gamone. It's composed of two sections, separated by a fissure, and the righthand section appears to be leaning down towards the road to Pont-en-Royans. If ever these rocks were to fall, they might not hurt anybody [because the zone is devoid of houses], but they would create a huge mess at the level of the road and the river.

I've often wondered whether specialists inspect such situations, to evaluate possible risks. I don't think so, because I have no idea how such an inspection could be carried out. After all, limestone cliffs of this kind are so crumbly that you wouldn't even find experienced rock climbers in such a place. So, we're left with the subjective appreciations of local folk who, for one reason or another, have their personal ideas about whether such-and-such a site is risky.

My neighbor Gérard Magnat, at Sirouza, lives quite close to this double pillar. From his balcony veranda, you look straight across at Mont Baret, and his house is located at roughly the same altitude as the pillar. When I called in at his place a few days ago, Gérard said to me, spontaneously: "For the last few months, I've had a strange feeling that the fissure between the two vertical sections of the pillar has widened a little. But I can't be certain, and people think I'm crazy..."

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Fragile existence

A few hours ago, I drove down to the village of Pont-en-Royans to drop in on my local physician, Dr Xavier Limouzin. He was as proud as a successful angler to have guided me wisely, over a period of several years, into an expert medical context in which early traces of prostate cancer have been detected. At a practical level, this means that I'll no doubt endure an operation in the near future. My youthful mustached doctor (a distinguished member of the local fire brigade, and an amateur of antiquated motor cycles) leaned back in his armchair and allowed himself to be carried away by the apparent beauty of such a surgical intervention: "It's an amazing two-man team effort. The urologist operates with a colleague. They showed me a fabulous video that demonstrates how it's done." In watching Dr Limouzin describe with enthusiasm the work of his specialized colleagues, I had the impression that I was maybe missing out on some kind of superb Spielberg production, and that I should order immediately the DVD through Amazon. "The only access they need is a tiny set of holes in the lower abdomen. Once they've got their tiny instruments inside, in the prostate region, it's beautiful to see the way they operate, as a team." OK, we're surely talking about a couple of Olympic ice artists such as Torvill and Dean, or maybe a Russian/American pair of astronauts repairing their space station. Maybe, I thought, this expert couple fiddling around so aesthetically in the region of my old-fashioned sexual apparatus might be attempting to create an artificial offspring, possibly a monster.

After bidding farewell to my adorable doctor, I was halted by a minor catastrophe at the exit of the village of Pont-en-Royans, on the road up to Gamone.

While I was chatting about prostate surgery with Dr Limouzin, a giant rock had fallen down from the Baret mountain (which I observe from my bedroom window). After the impact, which would have surely squashed any automobile that happened to be moving up the road at that instant, the rock disintegrated into several fragments, one of which halted on the other side of the road, while the others jumped over the parapet and descended into the Bourne. As my friend Natacha put it, with what I see as a Marseilles sense of judgment, when I told her this anecdote on the phone: "Obviously, for God, your hour of doom has not yet come." Thanks Natacha, thanks God.

Seriously, life is fragile. Isn't it? Beautifully fragile. That's what makes the whole thing so amazing... whichever way you look at it. Meanwhile, if I were serious, I would start to think about looking at things from the point of view of those two surgical artists whose skill consists of being able to eliminate the bugs and other cellular intruders in my lower belly.

Shit, when I think about it, if Limouzin's conversation had bored me, and I had left five minutes earlier, my fucking prostate might now me some kind of French pâté spread out over the macadam on the road from Pont-en-Royans up to Gamone.

I love life! It's so unpredictable. Lively, as they say.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Blind corner

I've often said that this corner in the main street of the village of Pont-en-Royans, near the Picard bridge, is one of the worst I've ever seen in an urban context in France.

At the bend, there's only room for a single vehicle. But, up until you reach the corner, you have no idea whether another vehicle is approaching in the opposite direction.

All sorts of trucks and buses use this street constantly. And, if you find yourself face-to-face with a big fellow like this, the only way out is to reverse, often over a distance of twenty or thirty meters... provided that you're not being followed by a line of vehicles.

Fortunately, a solution is in sight. This old building is about to be sacrificed. Work started yesterday on the demolition. Drivers will then be able to see approaching vehicles.