Showing posts with label local history. Show all posts
Showing posts with label local history. Show all posts

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Medieval meat

Maybe I’m exaggerating when I refer to these huge pieces of freshly-shot wild boar as medieval meat.

You’ll have to excuse me. My head is in the historical clouds. I’ve been preoccupied for several weeks now by my work on the next book to be published by my Gamone Press.

It’s not so much the meat itself—which has been cooking slowly for the last few hours, in white wine, in my marvelous French-made SEB slow cooker (“crock-pot”)— that is medieval, but rather the means by which I obtained it. In a pure feudal spirit, one of the hunters who had killed the animal, on the outskirts of Gamone, dropped in yesterday with a big white plastic bag holding the pieces of wild boar. In contemporary terms, this spontaneous gesture is the way in which the hunting community (often denigrated by rural newcomers) expresses thanks to the land-owners on whose properties they’ve been operating.

To tell the truth, it took me some time to become accustomed to all the agitation and noise of hunters on the slopes opposite Gamone. I suppose I imagined naively that I might get hit by a stray bullet. These days, on the contrary, I’m fond of these wild weekends, which must be thought of as expressions of ancient traditions in the valley of the Bourne. Besides, Fitzroy and I are well-placed—on our Gamone balcony—to see and appreciate what’s going on. This afternoon, for example, two hunters were wandering around with their dogs in the tall grass on the slopes. Suddenly, the fixed gaze of my dog led my regard towards the presence of a big roe deer, sprinting down towards Gamone Creek, just a few meters below the hunters and their dogs… who were clearly unaware of the deer’s presence.

For Fitzroy, too, there’s the pleasure of gnawing into a wild boar bone.

Getting back to my future book, I’m often tempted to say that living in a place such as Gamone without seeking to find out a little about the previous occupants strikes me as mindless, indeed immoral. I didn’t invent Gamone. I only “own” the place in a short-lived legal sense: the time to write a book, you might say. To use a quaint Victorian term, Fitzroy and I are lodgers at Gamone.

My historical research unearths many surprises, some of which are pleasant with a touch of sadness. Today, if somebody in this corner of the world were to evoke the name of the Macaire family, they could only be thinking, normally, of my aging neighbor Paul Macaire and his dear wife. You have to delve into local history to learn that members of this family once attained great world heights… but outside of France. These illustrious Macaire individuals belonged to a celebrated category of French religious expatriates: the Huguenots. Funnily enough, insofar as these Huguenots disappeared from the local scene, the French are not particularly aware of their existence and of the gigantic role they played on the world scene. I would bet that, if you were to carry out random street interviews in nearby Pont-en-Royans (once 100% Protestant), few people would have the vaguest idea of the meaning of the term Huguenot.

In this global context of forgetfulness and false ideas, I am keen to write my Gamone book during the all-too-short time that I remain a lodger here…

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Pierrot wanted a wife

I devote time and energy to family history for two basic reasons. On the one hand, we have a moral responsibility to celebrate the lives of our forefathers. On the other hand, in the spirit of a detective, I'm thrilled personally by the pure problem-solving aspects of genealogical research.

In the rural French context where I settled down some two decades ago, I have no known ancestors, but I often carry out investigations of a family-history kind. I'm interested in the history of my house, and of individuals who were members of its various households. Today, we're accustomed to the idea that individuals and their families might move through several different houses, maybe located in different places. There's an obvious complementary notion: a particular house often supports the existences—births, lives and deaths—of numerous individuals and families.

[Click to enlarge]

Concerning the background of my old stone house at Gamone (which was in a deplorable state when I discovered it in 1995), I've already acquired quite a lot of information. I know above all that its occupant in the middle of the last century was Hippolyte Gerin [1884-1957].

Indeed, I think inevitably of my predecessor Hippolyte whenever I gaze out upon the glories of the Choranche Circus and the Cournouze.

Naturally, I've been intrigued by this man Hippolyte, who once lived here in the very room in which I'm writing this blog post. I sense his presence constantly, not as a ghost, but as a factual figure of the past. The spirit of Hippolyte accompanies me whenever I wander around Gamone, and I have come to hallow his memory as if he were an ancestor. Which he is, of course, in a certain sense. I often come upon tiny and trivial elements of my Gamone existence (such as a fragment of metal from an agricultural device, for example) that cause me to believe that Hippolyte must have surely been at the origin of such things. I was only half-surprised therefore, a decade ago, when I came upon a daft oldtimer stumbling up to Gamone, carrying bottles of red wine in a grocery sack, who informed me that he wanted to "have a little drink with Hippolyte". After phoning his alarmed daughter, I didn't have the courage to tell the old man that Hippolyte had disappeared from Gamone half-a-century ago. But had he, really and totally?

I've just learned that Hippolyte's ancestors came from a nearby village named Echevis whose current population is around 60.

Arriving in Echevis, you have a vague feeling that you might have reached a tiny remote Paradise, far from the agitations of the world. And you're right. Besides, Echevis was one of the six villages involved in the amazing survey known as the Terriers du Royans, carried out on behalf of the lord of Sassenage in the middle of the 14th century.

Click here to access my French-language presentation of these extraordinary medieval documents, which are currently being transcribed and translated.

Yesterday afternoon, I drove to mysterious Echevis for the nth time. But this time, I was like an obsessed pilgrim, because I was searching for the roots of my friend Hippolyte. And I struck up a conversation with an 86-year-old resident named Rochas. When I informed him that I was seeking traces of the Gerin family, he told me the terrible tale of Pierrot Gerin, who had been in love with Angélique. (I've been obliged to invent the given names of our characters, who have passed into obscurity.) Pierrot, mentally retarded, worked well for his widowed father, who did everything that was possible to take care of his son. But the caring father was taken aback when Pierrot informed him that he was in love with Angélique, and wanted to marry her.

"No, Pierrot, I can't allow you to marry Angélique and leave our home. As long as I'm alive, I must protect you, and take care of you."

One of Pierrot's dumb mates summed up the situation abruptly: "What a nasty bastard. As long as he lives, your father won't let you marry Angélique. Your only hope is to kill the old bugger."

That was bad advice for a simple-minded fellow such as Pierrot. That evening, he walked back down from Echevis towards the neighboring village of Sainte-Eulalie, to meet up with his father, who was returning from his agricultural labors in the valley. They met up in the middle of a series of five dark tunnels alongside the Vernaison, on the clifftops, known as the Petits Goulets (no more than two or three kilometers from my home in Gamone).

And Pierrot promptly pushed his dad down into the abyss.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Wine of a kind

In my post of October 2010 entitled History of wine at Choranche [display], I explained that I was working on an updated version of my article in French concerning the former vineyards of Choranche. An anecdote that I related in this article concerns my discovery, a few years ago, of a row of grapevines on the slopes just up behind my house. I collected leaves from one of the vines, and set about trying to determine the name of the grape variety.

My Macaire neighbors told me that my reemergent vines were surely a row of Herbemont planted over half-a-century ago by Hippolyte Gerin, seen here—with a nephew (wearing a cap) and a farm hand—in front of the house.

Now, Herbemont is a hybrid of the American species Vitis bourquiniana or maybe Vitis aestivalis (as opposed to authentic European wine-making grapes of the Vitis vinifera species), and it is one of the phylloxera-resistant plants imported into France from the USA towards the end of the 19th century as a means of recreating the devastated vineyards. The other varieties of American "grape weeds" (as I call them disparagingly) were Noah, Othello, Isabelle, Jacquez and Clinton. Well, a week or so ago, I received an email from a major French agricultural organization in charge of grape varieties, saying that they needed information about the Herbemont variety for their database. I had no idea that this variety had become rare in France. I was embarrassed to have to admit that all I could offer them, for the moment, were my samples of dried Herbemont leaves and my notes concerning this variety. As I explained, the Herbemont vines at Gamone are located in my donkey paddock, and I have every reason to suppose that the animals, in spring, appreciate fresh grapevines emerging from the soil. In any case, I promised the fellow who contacted me that I would erect a fence around the row of Herbemont vines, to protect them from the donkeys. So, he plans to get back in contact with me next summer, in the hope that there'll be some actual specimens of grapes.

As I explain in my article on the vineyards of Choranche, the six above-mentioned varieties of American "grape weeds" (Vitis americana as I call them) were meant to be used in France as phylloxera-resistant rootstocks for the grafting of the vulnerable European grape varieties. In Choranche, alas, some farmers didn't bother grafting anything whatsoever onto the Vitis americana plants. They simply picked the American grapes and made wine with them! Somebody once said, about the beverage called Canada Dry: "It looks like whiskey, and it tastes like whiskey… but it just ain't whiskey." One could make a similar criticism about wine made from the six US varieties of Vitis. But the peasants whose lives had been ruined by the phylloxera pandemic were content to discover that this easily-made liquor inebriated them to such an extent that they tended to forget their misery.

I should point out that, today, all the six above-mentioned varieties of the notorious American "grape weeds" are strictly banned by European wine authorities, and apparently banned also, now, even in Texas, where a few quaint old-style vineyards were experimenting with them a few years ago. It's not merely a matter of their giving rise to poor-quality wine. The particular kinds of alcohol produced by pressing and fermenting Vitis americana grapes are toxic.

Following my email correspondence with the fellow who was interested in Herbemont, I dropped in on a retired farmer and amateur wine-producer on the edge of the nearby village of St-Jean-en-Royans, to see if he was aware that living specimens of the old American "grape weeds" had apparently become collectors' items. We got involved in an interesting discussion on this theme. Basically, he claimed that the European wine authorities have surely made a mistake in denigrating the wine produced from Vitis americana. If it really poisoned drinkers, and damaged their brains, then how come that most of the local farmers seem to have survived? It goes without saying that I wouldn't dare attempt to answer such a question…

One thing led to another, and my farmer friend said: "It so happens that I've got a small stock of rich-red Clinton that I produced a month or so ago. Would you like to taste it?" I could hardly chicken out, as if I were a scared chemist working for the European Union. In view of its young age, the fruity product could have been confused with Beaujolais Nouveau. I limited myself to a single glass, and I seem to have survived with most of my brain and senses intact.

There's a funny twist to this whole story about the wine of Choranche and the neighboring region. The authentic old wine that existed up until the phylloxera invasion had an excellent reputation, particularly since it was used as the standard house wine in all the French pilgrim taverns (equivalent to our modern hotels) operated by the Chartreux monks. Today, it is impossible to say whether this Choranche wine was really as good as it was made out to be, because so many factors have changed completely in the wine industry since that epoch. Maybe people said it was excellent wine merely because they'd never had many opportunities of comparing it with other French wines. The toxic beverages produced more recently from the Vitis americana rootstocks have also acquired a good reputation among local farmers, and I'm starting to understand why. Essentially, it's because the local toxic "wine" doesn't taste like any other genuine wine you've ever encountered (for the simple reason that it isn't really wine), and it no doubt puts the drinker into a rather special state. So, why wouldn't the local farmers have spread the rumor that the wines of Choranche are extraordinary? But the local people also state naively that the Noah variety "sends you mad". And so it probably does, in a clinical sense. So, as I say in my title, the Choranche product is best thought of as "wine of a kind".

Saturday, October 23, 2010

History of wine at Choranche

When I arrived in Choranche and settled down at Gamone, many of the local folk were surprised to find an Australian in their midst. They seemed to imagine that, not so long ago, I had surely been sunbaking on a beach in the tropics, with kangaroos hopping up to me from time to time, and the lilt of didgeridoos in the background, and then I suddenly cried out: "Jeez, I just gotta get to Choranche, as soon as possible!" So, I jumped aboard a jet, and there I was. Naturally, the local folk were curious to know what exactly had motivated that sudden decision. I suppose they saw it as some kind of revelation, like Archimedes yelling out Eureka in his bathtub, or Newton inventing the laws of gravity after getting hit on the head by an apple. The locals wanted me to describe my bathtub, my apple tree. They were a bit disappointed when I explained that I'd been working in computers for most of my life, and that it was normal to accept an interesting job in a celebrated high-tech city such as Grenoble. Soon after that, the company that had hired me changed its marketing strategy, and they no longer needed a senior technical writer. But I decided to stay on here, because I had grown fond of the wilderness. Then it was time for me to retire…

Meanwhile, I've acquired a certain reputation here in an unexpected domain. It's a domain in which I was utterly ignorant when I left Paris. In fact, I still wonder whether I really have any genuine credentials in this field, because it's not exactly my cup of tea. You see, I've acquired a reputation here as a specialist in the history of the ancient monastic vineyards of Choranche.

Retrospectively, I can see how this has happened, as the outcome of a well-defined series of small events. Often, they were chance events. When I bought the property at Gamone, for example, I had no idea that it had once been a vineyard. I only started to realize this when I found that the vaulted stone cellar was full of the debris of rotted wine vats and casks.

At the same time, I was intrigued by an intriguing juxtaposition of names that can be observed both in a map and in the local road signs. The neighborhood below Gamone is known as Choranche-les-Bains, where the term "bains" (baths) indicates that this place used to be a spa.

But, if you turn around at that spot, there's another sign, suggesting that this tiny neighborhood has a second name.

The Chartreux were members of an ancient monastic order inspired by the life of the medieval hermit Bruno [1030-1101], who has become one of my legendary heroes. [See my humble website concerning this personage.] These monks journeyed regularly to Choranche from their ancient monastery of Val Sainte-Marie at Bouvante, located 15 kilometers to the south of Choranche.

Soon after my arrival, local people informed me that this neighborhood of Choranche-les-Bains (midway between Gamone and the village of Choranche) had been transformed into a fashionable spa just about a century ago, when the health properties of the local mineral springs were advertised. Here's an old postcard of the main spa building:

Opposite the spa, a fine hotel, the Continental, was erected to provide accommodation and meals to the throngs of visitors who came here to relax in the cirque de Choranche (cirque, meaning circus: a geological term designating a bowl-shaped landscape surrounded by cliffs).

The popularity of Choranche-les-Bains ended just before World War II, but the spa building remains, today, in a perfect state, and is used as a holiday place for children.

The hotel building, too, is still there, but in a rather sad state.

The other day, I happened to be chatting about that epoch with my neighbor Georges Belle, shown here with Madeleine Repellin at our recent annual dinner for senior citizens of Choranche:

Georges recalls that, as a child, he used to see crowds of tourists getting out of buses to have lunch at the Continental in Choranche-les-Bains, which was a most fashionable watering-hole (as we might say today), in spite of the fact that there was no entertainment for visitors, not even a gambling casino. Today, Georges resides in the house that was built by the monks after their purchase of this domain back in 1543. (I've found the actual notarial record of this purchase in the archives at Valence.)

And what were the links between the popular spa of Choranche-les-Bains and the Chartreux monks, to the point that today's signposts carry the two names for this single neighborhood? It has been suggested that Chartreux monks at Choranche might have been interested in these mineral waters. Why not? After all, the Carthusians (as they are called) have been associated over the years—rightly or wrongly—with all kinds of scientific and technological endeavors, from metallurgy to pharmacology. So, why shouldn't they have moved into the neighborhood of Choranche-les-Bains, at an unspecified date in the ancient past, to investigate the interest of running a "spiritual spa", based upon monastic solitude? Nice idea… particularly the spiritual angle. But this explanation of the presence of the monks is false.

Let's get back to the red stuff, wine, upon which much of southern France has been turning for ages, with or without the crazy notion that this excellent beverage might be associated with the blood of an ancient and obscure miracle-man, in faraway Palestine, named Jesus of Nazareth. I soon found out that wine, not mineral springs, was the real reason why various monks had moved into the commune of Choranche, as long ago as the Middle Ages. Today, people still evoke the existence of a Mediterranean microclimate at Choranche, because the commune is surrounded by cliffs, which capture the warmth of the sun and act like a giant energy accumulator.

At that stage, I started to explore the in-depth history of wine-making at Choranche, using many kinds of resources, often of an unexpected nature. For example, a neighbor showed me this ancient oaken vat which she had found in a cellar alongside her house.

Above all, I learned that an old man named Gustave Rey [1910-2001] was actually born in my house at Gamone. I invited him along here, and we had a lengthy conversation (during which I took notes) about olden days at Choranche. Later, when I organized all this precious information, I had before me the fascinating history of the cunning ways in which the local folk had reacted to the calamity of the phylloxera invasion (a plant louse imported inadvertently from the USA), which destroyed the totality of French vineyards during the second half of the 19th century, reducing countless winegrowers to poverty.

I've evoked this subject in my blog because I've just completed an article on the history of the Choranche vineyards [in French, downloadable here] at the request of Les Cahiers du Peuil: a reputed historical journal published by the communes up on the Vercors.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


This corner of my house was the place where the farmer kept pigs.

The big door on the right provides access to a kind of prison cell, about two meters wide and two meters deep: large enough to house a hog, a sow and their offspring. The trap door on the left opens inwards, enabling the farmer to feed the pigs. On warm days, this corner of the building must have had a powerful smell.

The earth in the corner below the trap door is unusually fine, almost sandy, for reasons I don't know. Maybe former Gamone dogs used it as a cool dusty place to drowse. I've noticed that my Sophia is vaguely interested in this soft earth, and the presence of an oval depression suggests that she probably takes a nap there from time to time. Well, this morning, I was intrigued to see Sophia using her snout energetically to eject three ceramic fragments from the depression. She even walked away with one fragment clenched between her teeth. Was it possible that these old fragments might still retain odorous molecules that my dog was keen to "taste"? I promptly washed the fragments, and tried to imagine their origin.

It had been a fine earthenware bowl, no doubt created on a potter's wheel. But much of the glaze coating on the inside has been chipped away, suggesting that it had been produced by an inexpert craftsman, who hadn't fired the object correctly, maybe in a primitive kiln. I glued the fragments together.

It looked like an ancient soup bowl.

Even with so much of it missing, the old bowl retains its elegant form.

I imagine a farmer, once upon a time, sitting here at Gamone, gazing out towards the Cournouze and scooping up his meager vegetable soup from this lovely old bowl.

Although I've always known that my dog was unusually intelligent, this is the first time she has displayed a taste for archaeology.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Four new blogs

For several reasons (both communicational and technical), I've decided to attach blogs to four of my existing websites. These new blogs have the following banners, which I've placed in the right-hand column of the present blog. In fact, all my blogs and websites are linked together in such a way that it's easy to move from one to another.

These are not diary-type blogs, like Antipodes, but rather forums for discussion. In the context of my family-history research, the first two blogs will of course be associated with my genealogical writing. As for the two blogs in French, Choranche is the commune where my Gamone property is located, and Pont-en-Royans is the neighboring village. Concerning these two places, I have been doing extensive local-history research.

In the case of any of these four blogs, I would hope that other individuals might join me as so-called team members, meaning that they can post their own articles in an autonomous fashion. People wishing to accept this proposal should contact me by email.

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.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Fulfilling day in Grenoble

Once again, I took the train to spend the day in Grenoble at the Archives départementales de l'Isère: a friendly and efficient patrimonial institution. I can think of no more enjoyable excursion than this return to rare documentary sources concerning Choranche. It's pure luxury: taking a comfortable train ride to a building in a nice city where I can simply look up the marvelous notarial documents revealing the background of my adoptive home place, Gamone. Every old document that I encounter [today, I was examining the years 1880 and 1881] is a mini-masterpiece of humanity. I skim through all kinds of consequential, less consequential, but often dramatic events.

This morning, as I was driving down from Gamone, I ran into my neighbor Georges Belle on his moped. He told me he was coming up here to see whether he could find saplings for his tomato plantation. Georges is an old-timer who lives in the splendid Carthusian building located midway between Gamone and the village of Choranche. He knows I'm interested in local history... but there's no way in the world that this grumpy old guy might invite me into his Carthusian abode, which is probably quite a mess.

Before my day in Grenoble was over, I had learned that the property of Georges once belonged to a certain Julien Chabert. I also learned that a former owner of Gamone, the carpenter Eugène Gerin [1843-1891], purchased a vegetable garden in Pont-en-Royans on July 11, 1881... which suggests that, at that date, he hadn't yet acquired Gamone. Why would a fellow buy a vegetable patch in Pont-en-Royans if he already had enough space to grow vegetables—as I do today—at Gamone? So, that leaves me with a decade of notarial archives within which I should theoretically be able to find a document concerning Eugène Gerin's purchase of Gamone. The vegetable plot thickens...

Searching through archives is in fact a relatively sporting activity. First, you need to be intellectually alert, in the sense that you're using your powers of reasoning to find needles in haystacks. You have to be able to manipulate the fat dossiers of rusty old documents. And you need sufficiently good eyesight to browse rapidly through piles of hand-written pages of notarial acts, trying to glimpse a significant term such as Choranche. Personally, in a normal day of researching, I find that I can get through some two years of notarial documents. After that, everything starts to get blurry... which is definitely not good for this kind of activity. Maybe, one of these days, genealogy and local history research will be accepted as Olympic sports.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Intriguing tourist

I've always been amused by the following innocuous joke: A tourist is driving in the Australian outback, looking for a friend of a friend whose property is located at a place named Stumpy Hollow. Having asked for directions in a roadside pub, he receives precise information from the publican: "No problem, mate. Just keep driving straight along the road here. In another hour or so, you'll see a road sign marked Stumpy Hollow 1 mile. Carry on driving. Two miles further on, you'll see another identical road sign, but pointing back in the direction from where you came. The place you're looking for is located midway between the two road signs."

In the Cartesian spirit of France, with later inspiration from a methodical Corsican soldier named Napoléon Bonaparte, every square meter of the land bears a precise geographical reference, composed of the names of the commune in which the place is located, and the département to which that commune belongs. For example, my property at Gamone is located in the commune of Choranche, with an official population of about a hundred inhabitants, which is a part of the department named Isère. In a typical rural commune, there's often a central village or bourg in which the mairie [offices of the mayor] is located, along with the commune's main church, possibly a school and a post office, and usually a few cafés. In the same rigorous manner that I just mentioned, French road authorities place a huge name-panel at the entry to every village in France.

Friends in automobiles, knowing that my address is Choranche, often have trouble in finding me because they don't understand the difference between a village (bourg) and a commune. So, they drive to the tiny village named Choranche, located some 3 kilometers further down the road from my house on the slopes at Gamone.

Why am I talking about all this? Well, in France, many villages are affected by what we might call the Stumpy Hollow Syndrome. That's to say, you don't realize you've arrived in the village before you start driving out of it. One such village, not far from where I live, is L'Albenc... which appears to motorists as little more than a few buildings grouped around a bend in the road from Saint-Marcellin to Grenoble. In fact, I'm exaggerating, because you encounter a village "square" at L'Albenc [a round-shaped intersection of a few streets] with a church, set against the backdrop of the Vercors mountain range.

Nearby, the dull façade of an old house overlooks a sad fountain:

On the other side of the road, there's an attractive restaurant:

But the place is so clogged up with parked automobiles that it's hard to appreciate its charm. In fact, as for countless tiny French villages, you have to stop for a moment in L'Albenc to see what lies behind the Stumpy Hollow bend in the road. And, once you stroll away from the busy road that has mortally wounded the village, there are charming surprises, including even an ancient castle:

The greatest surprises of all are to be found in the archives, which inform us that a strange tourist named Nostradamus once spent an evening in L'Albenc, in 1545, at an inn named La Croix blanche [The White Cross].

The village looked like this about a century ago:

The mairie of L'Albenc informs me that nobody, today, knows exactly the location of the auberge where the celebrated seer spent an evening. A possible site is this ancient building, whose façade looks as if it might date from the 16th century... but that is pure speculation on my part. So, let us abandon present-day L'Albenc, and look at what the archives tell us about the famous evening that Nostradamus spent in this Dauphiné village.

Charmed by the quiet elegance of the 42-year-old Provençal tourist who signed in as Michel de Nostredame, the female innkeeper of La Croix blanche, named Christine Châtaigner, invited Nostradamus to dine at the table of half-a-dozen local dignitaries, who had ordered a simple but tasty local dish of roast chickens. Nostradamus wanted to know how such fabulous "slow food" might have been prepared, and he learned that the secret consisted of feeding the chickens with crushed wheat macerated in milk.

The L'Albenc hosts of Nostradamus imagined their curious guest, at first, as a reformist preacher of one kind or another. Nostradamus corrected this error by informing his friends that he was in fact a medical researcher. He had been summoned to Lyon to investigate an outbreak of the plague, and he was now wandering through Provence in a non-directive manner. As fine an after-dinner orator as Bill Clinton, the charismatic Nostradamus declared: "We are entering upon a huge schism. From a religious viewpoint, your village [L'Albenc] will not escape from the normal order of events. Invaders, claiming to interpret liberally the teaching of the Bible, will burn down your churches. For forty years, civil war will bring iron and fire to the Dauphiné. Even when peace treaties have been drawn up, the cost of supporting troops sent here to maintain peace will devour your resources. In the end, however, your village will return to its ancient beliefs. As in the case today, there will be a single religion here." Those in the tavern who listened in bewilderment to the speech of Nostradamus wondered whether the chicken meat of L'Albenc possessed the curious power of turning a tourist into a soothsayer. As for the oracle himself, he took leave of those who had listened to his words, and went to bed, for he intended to leave L'Albenc early the next morning.

Shortly after the visit of the strange tourist, L'Albenc and a good part of the Dauphiné province were devastated by religious wars between Huguenots and Catholics for nearly forty years, from 1561 to 1598.