Showing posts with label Royans. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Royans. Show all posts

Friday, August 28, 2009

Place with a name

I can safely predict that the chances of my name being given to a village square in France are slim, to say the least. And I might add that this improbability has never discouraged me unduly, or prevented me from sleeping soundly through the night. But I think the next best thing to having your name attached to a village square is to propose the name of somebody whom you admire... and then to find that your proposal has been accepted.

The individual in question was a 19th-century priest, the historian Jean-Louis-Alexis Fillet [1840-1902], commonly referred to as Abbé Fillet. He was the author of several scholarly monographs (published in Valence) on townships and villages in our Royans district, including:

Religious History of Pont-en-Royans

Religious History of Saint Laurent-en-Royans

Historical Notes on the Parish of Choranche

Historical Notes on the Parish of Sainte Eulalie-en-Royans

Aware that Abbé Fillet was born in the nearby village of Saint Laurent-en-Royans, I suggested to the municipal authorities that their illustrious native son should be honored in the village. The place they chose is modest, like almost everything in this village.

It's a tiny square behind this monumental gate, located between the church and the former presbytery (seen on the right).

Abbé Fillet paid such microscopic attention to names, events, dates and terms in Old French and Latin that he would have surely been dismayed to find that the municipal authorities of his native village have left a letter out of his surname. But it's better than nothing. And I'm happy to think that the abbé has at last come home, in a way, to his beloved Royans.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Vegetal rock

My Antipodes blog contains so many references to rocks that I must pardon readers who might feel that the author has rocks in his head. Let us admit, in a scientific spirit, that it's a debatable point...

The precise geological name of the rocks that concern me today is calcareous tufa. Here's a specimen from a low wall at Gamone:

Once you scrape away the moss, it's pure calcium carbonate, of the kind that once blocked the ancient ceramic water pipes at Gamone:

Tufa rock forms rapidly in places where highly-calcareous water emerges into the open air and meets up with mossy vegetation, which enters into the production of the rock. That's why I refer to this tufa as vegetal rock. It's a soft substance, easily cut with a saw, which was often used in the construction of houses. Here's an example from the corner of my house at Gamone:

In this photo, you can see fragments of Gamone bluestone (ancient hard rock) interspersed among the blocks of tufa.

The calcareous tufa at Gamone came surely from the domain of the Carthusian monks at Val-Sainte-Marie, Bouvante (Drôme), known for such deposits. But the most famous source of calcareous tufa in the region happens to lie to the north, in Isère, at an equal distance from Choranche. I'm talking of the ancient village of La Sône, which I mentioned in recent blog articles entitled An old map talked to me of trees [display] and Weaving machines [display].

The name of the village, La Sône, comes from its Latin reference: aqua sonus, the sound of water. What a splendid name for a village! Here's an image of the place where that archaic sound was first heard:

Since time immemorial, water filled with 315 mg/liter of limestone (compared to 10 to 50 mg/liter for ordinary mineral water) has been tumbling into the Isère at La Sône, at the following magnificent spot:

And that's what the phenomenon of calcareous tufa is all about. Here's a close-up view of the formation of this vegetal rock:

Today, at La Sône, visitors can admire splendid gardens at the base of these water-falls. Before the calcareous waters disappear into the Isère, they are collected in a series of beautiful ponds.

It would appear that the vegetation and the frogs have had time to get adjusted to the high degree of calcium carbonate.

Needless to say, the hand of humans is omnipresent in these gardens, as it should be, just alongside the place where the hands of weavers once produced a century of silk.

The garden's attractions include weird hand-made inventions that use the falling waters to produce ethereal sounds.

Bamboo-lovers like me are equally enchanted. La Sône is a magic place!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

An old map talked to me of trees

I took the following fuzzy photo of an old map with my hand-held camera in poor lighting conditions at the Isère Archives in Grenoble:

Let me point out a few relevant elements in this map. Midway between Grenoble (Isère) and Romans (Drôme), I've drawn a blue rectangle around the town of Saint-Marcellin, and I've marked the location of my homeplace, Gamone (Choranche), with a yellow dot. Now, according to this map, when I drive to the supermarket at Saint-Marcellin, I should normally pass through a vast forest—shown as a green blob—just before crossing the Isère River at La Sône. The truth of the matter is that, if you were to question most drivers concerning this itinerary, they would swear that they didn't drive through any great forest whatsoever. In fact, I've always known that the roads go either along the top of the green blob, or along the bottom of it (corresponding to the location of bridges over the Isère), but not through the middle of it. Consequently, as I said, most people simply don't imagine for a moment that there's a forest here. But there is indeed...

To get a feeling for the presence of this forest—known as the Bois de Claix—you have to find a local hill with a good view, not blocked by buildings or trees... and this is not as easy as it might seem. Finally, last week, my friends Tineke and Serge took me to an ideal observation point: a splendid domain named Combelongue on the edge of a hill above the river at La Sône. In fact, Combelongue is a country estate that is operated as a luxurious guest-house and function center. Here's the main building, set in a wonderful park with ancient cedar trees:

[Click the photo to visit their website. The exquisite Combelongue domain is surely a marvelously romantic place to spend a night or two, and no more expensive than an urban hotel.]

And here, seen from a typical bedroom at Combelongue, is the view out over the valley of the Isère and the hills of the Royans, with the cliffs of the Vercors in the background:

What you see here corresponds to the green blob in the old map. I've labeled the two familiar mountains that I admire daily from my house at Gamone.

Friday, June 12, 2009


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 24, 2009

Spring renaissance

As well as designating an amazing era of Italian achievements in art and architecture, the term renaissance is everyday French for rebirth or revival. My title is somewhat pleonastic, since everything is reborn in spring, even old ideas, old loves and old illusions. I've often said that, as a native Australian youth living on the tropical eastern coast of the continent, I was simply unaware of the profound sense of the four seasons. I knew, of course, that we sweltered in summer, and that we no longer went swimming in winter, but that was about all. I didn't fully realize that Nature was a giant machine that operated cyclically in four seasonal phases. In fact, grasping the sense of the seasons was yet another of the myriad common lessons taught to me, generally in subtle ways, by my Breton wife.

A week ago, my neighbor Pierre Faure (the municipal employee) came along to Gamone with his huge tractor, at my request, and plowed rapidly the rectangle in front of the house. Since then, I've divided the area of 12 m x 6 m into four rectangles, with room in the middle for a future pergola covered in roses. The earth in each of the four beds, 2.5 m x 1.5 m, will be raised to a height of about 25 cm, and surrounded by wooden beams. Later on, I'll cover the alleys between the beds, and the interior of the pergola, 4 m x 2 m, with white limestone gravel. Before then, there's a lot of work to be done in preparing the soil, heaping up the earth for the four beds, and building the pergola. My first major task, next Monday, will consist of renting a rear tine tiller (in French, motoculteur) and going over the entire rectangle. So, I hope there's no rain before then...

Meanwhile, in the small plot on the edge of the lawn where I grow herbs, tomatoes and strawberries, the young fig tree that was given to me by Natacha and Alain has just sprouted, not only leaves, but a couple of dozen baby figs.

A few days ago, I drove to the nearby village of Beauvoir-en-Royans, not far away from Saint-Marcellin, on the banks of the Isère River. Little remains today of the elegant medieval castle that was the home of the last Dauphin, Humbert II, when he donated his vast Dauphiné province to the king of France, in 1349. A few years earlier on, he had set up a convent in the grounds of his castle for sixty monks belonging to the order of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

Recently, the ancient convent buildings were purchased and restored by an administrative consortium comprising the municipalities of Pont-en-Royans, Choranche and other communes along the Bourne River. At the end of May, the splendid buildings, referred to as the Carmes, will be opened as a museum dedicated to the dynasty of ancient Dauphins, and they will be surrounded by horticultural displays of native flowers and plants of the Vercors.

Just behind the Carmes and the ruins of Humbert's castle, a prairie of wildflowers extends to the gentle slopes of the Vercors. You might say that Choranche is located on the other side of that bank of mountains: not so far away, as the crow flies, from Beauvoir-en-Royans. But, at that place, there's no direct up-and-over route. To get home, I usually drive around the southern extremity of that line of mountains, through the villages of Saint-André-en-Royans and Pont-en-Royans.

That fragment of a map (in fact, a three-dimensional plastic wall map of the Vercors created by the French National Institute of Geography) has always amused me, because it shows Gamone in relatively big letters (I've inserted a red dot there) as if it were a significant spot on the globe... which it is, of course! The Bourne River crosses the map from east to west, passing alongside the Chartreux domain where the monks made wine (not to be confused with the above-mentioned monks of the Carmes, whose convent at Beauvoir-en-Royans lies just beyond the left-hand border of my map). Imagine a rectangle formed by Saint-André-en-Royans (upper left), Presles (upper right), the village of Choranche (lower right) and Pont-en-Royans (lower left). That is truly what you might call my home territory. The map also indicates my two mountains: the Bec de Châtelus (the pointed extremity of the Cournouze) and Mount Baret (which I admire every morning, to the south, through my bedroom window).

On the way home, at the place where the commune of Saint-André runs into Pont-en-Royans, I stopped for a moment alongside the charming manor-house that belongs to the family of my doctor, Xavier Limouzin. I've always considered the familiar silhouette of the pair of lovely circular towers, seen from a distance, as the first visual symbol of our territory called the Royans... which was once a modest principality, with a prince named Ismidon.

Turning my back on these humble "twin towers" of the Royans, I looked across the fields and slopes in the direction of Choranche... which lies in a hollow circus (geological term, indicating a circular valley surrounded by vertical cliffs) just beyond the central ridge in the photo, below the white walls of Presles, visible in the background.

As I soaked in this glorious spring scene, a flood of interesting thoughts entered my mind, unexpectedly. I realized that I have the privilege of living in a beautiful corner of France that was once inhabited, back in the Middle Ages, by fascinating historical individuals such as Prince Ismidon and the dauphin Humbert II. It was a territory that attracted monks, seeking peace and God. But it was also a land devastated by the Wars of Religion between Catholics and Protestants, during the second half of the 16th century.

Thinking of the cliffs and mountains, I said to myself that this land is not an easy place in which to get around. You can glimpse various localities, often just short of the visible horizon, that give the impression of being not too far away. And it's true, as I said, that a crow flying in a straight line would reach these places rapidly... just as jet fighters, in training flights, sweep over the entire Vercors so quickly that I often wonder whether the pilots have time to realize that they're flying over a fabulous landscape of snow-capped mountains and rocky abysses. Even though you can easily imagine a virtual itinerary from one spot in the Royans to another, it often happens that there are simply no routes in the areas that interest you. So, you have to discover indirect ways of reaching your goal. And, as you move, your instantaneous vision of the mountainous landscape evolves constantly, to an extent that often baffles me completely. Certain summits seem to rise, while other peaks descend out of sight. In a word, the mountains seem to move, magically. In this context, to succeed in going from A to B, you have to merit your journey, as it were. Living here can be a pleasant metaphor of the challenges of existence.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Place of the skull

All four evangelists agree on the name of the place where Jesus was crucified. It was called Golgotha, which is a Hebrew term meaning the place of a skull. Note that the word "skull" is singular. There's no suggestion whatsoever that Jesus might have been crucified in a place strewn with skulls, in the plural. Golgotha may have got its name because it was a small hill that looked like a skull. In other words, a skull-shaped mound. Look at the following photo:

Does that image correspond to your vision of the place where Jesus and the two thieves were nailed to crosses? Unfortunately (or fortunately, if you prefer), that curious mound does not lie in the Holy City. In fact, it's a limestone outcrop located in a corner of the cemetery of Saint-Romans, a village about twenty minutes away from where I live, on the road between Pont-en-Royans and Saint-Marcellin.

Many Christian pilgrims who visit Jerusalem are frankly disappointed by the place that is alleged to be the real Golgotha. It simply does not correspond to what most people imagine as the place of the Crucifixion. Visitors are astonished to discover that, to reach Golgotha, they have to enter a dull-looking church and then walk up a tiny narrow staircase. It's as if a tourist in New York were to be told that the Statue of Liberty is in fact hidden away in a basement zone of Rockefeller Plaza.

In the Greek gaudiness of the official Golgotha, there's nothing in particular that might remind us of a skull. It's no more nor less than a kitsch bazaar. If ever you approached the site with surging thoughts of the terrifying tales of the final hours of Jesus as related in the Gospels, these mental images are soon chased away by the omnipresent garishness, and the bustle of excited Orthodox pilgrims who must find the atmosphere just right. It's a question of culture and sensitivity. Nobody brought up, like me, in the subdued harmonious ambiance of Anglican traditions could feel at home in the church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. On the other hand, I have no trouble envisaging their Golgotha as a great place for a good Christian fight.

In another corner of the Holy City, there's a place known as the Garden Tomb which corresponds more closely to the legendary image of Calvary on the top of a small hill. With a little imagination, the rocks at this place might be seen as skull-shaped... except that they're half-hidden behind an Israeli bus depot.

That faded photo, attached to a pole, is intended to show Protestant pilgrims what this particular "place of the skull" once looked like, at an unspecified date in the recent past, when the surroundings of the Garden Tomb might indeed have reminded passersby of a skull.

Frankly, between the Scylla of having a brass lamp thrown at me by an Orthodox monk, and the Charybdis of having a bus back over me while meditating religiously in the vicinity of a Byzantine rock tomb, I would find it far more fulfilling to embark upon a research project aimed at revealing that the real Jesus was whisked away at the last moment by CIA operatives and brought in chains and an orange jumpsuit to the village of Saint-Romans, where he died in mysterious circumstances.

When you think about, that name is surely a code that starts to explains various loose ends: Saint, because Jesus was saintly, and Romans because Pontius Pilate and his Roman employers were behind this whole execution affair. Admittedly, there are quite a few details that have to be filled in before we can expect hordes of pilgrims to start thronging to the cemetery of Saint-Romans. But I'm sure the local tourist authorities will help me to assemble the missing facts. Maybe a local stone mason and sculptor might be employed in remodeling a little that limestone façade, to make it look even more like a human skull. Here's a view of this fabulous site as it would be seen by approaching pilgrims, gazing with fervor across fields that have been plowed by humble pious peasants ever since Biblical times (which could be transformed at little cost into a vast parking zone):

The convenient thing about religious beliefs and traditions is that nobody ever expects you to be overly concerned about reality, or even plausibility. On the contrary, the taller the tale, the better it generally goes over.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Spring parade

Once again, the village of St-Jean-en-Royans has chosen a queen and two princesses for the annual spring parade.

The weather was sunny, and local girls danced divinely in the street in front of Chez Ernest.

Among the onlookers, a young filmmaker was recording scrupulously every moment of the artistic performance of her friends.

As usual, there were several bands in the parade. And they did not, of course, play the same music, every when they were separated by a distance of no more than fifty meters. Obviously, if they were to play the same music, in unison, there would be no point in having more than one band in the parade.

Notice that the fellow with the hunting horn has an ordinary trumpet hung over his left shoulder, just in case he gets bored with the limited tones of a hunting horn.

The theme of this float was the comical image of a priest's housemaid, seen as a pious lady who can get up to mild mischief. There were no less than three men dressed up as old-fashioned priests in cassocks, a couple of middle-aged maids in black, and even a young woman in a red devil's costume. Their church was a copy of the village church of St-Jean, and the float made its way slowly past this edifice just as worshipers were leaving with Palm Sunday branches in their hands.

On the edge of the parade, there were dozens of typical attractions for children and teenagers. I suppose there are cases where parents give their kid a handful of coins to go and have fun at the fair, and the child returns home later on, proudly, with this kind of a prize:

I'm not sure that many onlookers were fascinated by this train:

On the other hand, I was totally charmed by the hair style of this smiling princess:

All in all, this spring parade at St-Jean-en-Royans is a rather quiet event, bordering on dullsville. There were no Japanese tourists, and it's not at all the kind of happening where Sarkozy's riot police have to be called in to subdue the excited crowds.

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, 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, June 20, 2008

Old times, forgotten places

I've often been amused by the fact that few folk around Pont-en-Royans, not even so-called old-timers, have a realistic grasp of the sheer depth of local history. They often reason as if our villages of Le Royans came into existence around the time of the grandparents of the oldest individuals whom they can recall: that's to say, roughly towards the end of the 19th century. Before that period, in the minds of these old-timers, everything was blurry, and no traces remain today.

In the commune of Châtelus, on the opposite side of the Bourne, it has often been said that there may have been a small Roman stronghold at the foot of Mount Barret. A local resident once showed me big cubic blocks of limestone that had been lying in the fields since time immemorial. When I suggested that a vast mound alongside his property might cover traces of the alleged Roman construction, he replied: "No, I don't think so. When my ancestors settled down here, a century or so ago, they would have surely noticed any such vestiges... and I don't recall any family stories of this kind." He seemed to be telling me that his pioneering ancestors, back at the time they decided to start farming at Châtelus, had never been obliged to get into conflict with Roman soldiers.

Here at Gamone, visitors often ask me if I know the origins of a twenty-meter tunnel in the hillside just behind my house. They expect me to explain, say, that the former proprietor Hippolyte Gerin [1884-1957] was probably looking for water. Consequently, when I tell them that I imagine that winegrowers may have started to dig this vault to hide their precious tools and produce during the Wars of Religion in the 16th century, when Protestant marauders devastated the great vineyards of Choranche, my visitors look at me in amazement, as if I had just started to rave on about invaders from the planet Mars.

The following document proves nevertheless, if need be, that our Dauphiné villages have been around for a long, long time:

This extraordinary map, drawn by Jean de Beins [1577-1651], dates from 1631. Click the image to access the French website, Gallica, that displays the entire map. The big river that flows down through Romans is, of course, the Isère. The Bourne tributary, which flows down below Gamone, is seen in the lower right-hand corner of this fragment of the map. Not surprisingly, Choranche was not significant enough to be indicated.

An old map of this kind is doubly fascinating. It indicates not only what has remained over the centuries, but what is no longer there. In my article entitled Neighbors who dwell in castles [display], I mentioned the lovely castle of La Sône, on the road from Pont-en-Royans to St-Marcellin. In the 17th-century map, between the villages of Pont-en-Royans, St-André-en-Royans and "La Saune", there's a vast forest, which appears to extend northwards up until the Dauphin's castle at Beauvoir. Today, I drive through vestiges of this phantom forest whenever I go to the Leclerc supermarket in Chatte, but it's sadly no more than a skeleton.

In the Royans region, the most surprising name in this old map is La Batye, south of the Bourne at Pont-en-Royans. It designates the celebrated castle of the Bérenger family, lords of Sassenage.

Today, the magnificent castle has disappeared, and no more than a mound remains.

The view to the north encompasses the giant mass of the Cournouze [in the upper center of the above photo], with the pointed Mount Barret to the left.

A handful of stones from the ancient castle lay scattered in the grass.

I feel like saying to this venerable witness of glorious centuries: "Tell me please, Old Stone, all that you have seen!" But we all know that old stones don't talk. They prefer to keep their secrets for themselves... and maybe for their ancient human companions, now dead.

It would have been nice to find that 20th-century folk, having stolen all the Sassenage stones [to build their own modern dwellings], might have erected a reminder of the medieval glory of the Bérenger family. On the contrary, in 1944, local folk preferred to erect a stupid Catholic statue, in concrete, evoking the silly story of Mary and her alleged sexless procreation of a child. Once upon a time, the lords of Sassenage were real, all too real. Their memory has been replaced mindlessly and shamefully, at the very site of their great home, by the evocation of a myth.