On a walk in this small Isère town, Kate Mcnally mar­vels at the grav­ity-de­fy­ing houses and dis­cov­ers a strong elec­tri­cal con­nec­tion

France - - Contents -

Mar­vel at the houses perched over the river in the Isère town of Pont-en-roy­ans.

As I travel along the main route from the Rhône Val­ley and head into the wilds of the Ver­cors moun­tains, the small town of Pont-en-roy­ans seems the point of no re­turn – a gate­way into the un­known. Good­bye gen­tle plains and civil­i­sa­tion, hello dark, im­pos­ing gorges and ir­re­press­ible na­ture.

What bet­ter way to sig­nify the cross­ing into another world than the Pont Pi­card, an an­cient stone bridge arch­ing pre­car­i­ously above a nar­row chasm, the River Bourne squeez­ing it­self fu­ri­ously before gush­ing into the wider flow at the mouth of the gorge. I find my­self mir­ror­ing the river’s grat­i­tude upon ar­riv­ing safely on the other side of the bridge.

If you have not done your tourist home­work, it is easy to pass through the town, on the bound­ary of Isère and Drôme, un­aware of what lies hid­den ei­ther side of the through-road. I start my stroll on the left bank of the Bourne, at the point where it is joined by its trib­u­tary, the River Ver­nai­son. This is where you get the best view of Pont-en-roy­ans’ other iconic architecture: the 16th-cen­tury sus­pended houses ( maisons sus­pendues). Cling­ing to the rock face, these match­box-thin build­ings dan­gle over the river, some with skinny balconies and ver­tig­i­nous wa­ter clos­ets hov­er­ing in the void that must have given half the res­i­dents con­sti­pa­tion back in the day.

Cas­cad­ing wa­ter­fall

I cross over a low and de­light­fully un­precar­i­ous foot­bridge to the other side of the river, briefly ad­mir­ing the small wa­ter­fall cas­cad­ing down the rock formations in the park area, before climb­ing steps up to the road head­ing north-east out of the vil­lage. Walk­ing back across the Pont Pi­card, I spot the re­mains of a wa­ter mill on the far side, no­tably a hor­i­zon­tal wheel that, pow­ered by the force of the Bourne’s wa­ters, would ac­ti­vate the stone above.

Ac­cord­ing to my guide, Stéphanie Car­l­izza, a tun­nel was dug be­neath the town’s houses in 1851 to chan­nel the wa­ter down to a large mill close to Place de la Halle which pro­duced wal­nut flour, oils, fruit juice and, later, silk. Locks and sluice gates were in­stalled to help con­trol the dan­ger of flood­ing from the river – in sub­se­quent years, these also helped to pro­vide the town with elec­tric­ity.

“Pont-en-roy­ans was one of the first places in France to have elec­tric­ity, in 1898,” says Stéphanie. “The river con­tin­ued to pro­duce elec­tric­ity un­til 1985. The Com­pag­nie Générale d’élec­tric­ité had a plant on the site of the for­mer wa­ter mill for many years, mov­ing re­cently to a smaller fac­tory in the town. To­day, the com­pany em­ploys around 40 lo­cals, pro­duc­ing lux­ury elec­tri­cal switches.”

Cross­ing the Pont Pi­card back to the main part of the town, we climb gen­tly up Rue du Tem­ple, stop­ping at the tem­ple-less Tem­ple Square, si­t­u­ated di­rectly op­po­site the Église Saint-pierre on the road be­low. A grow­ing num­ber of Protes­tants came to

the town dur­ing the 16th cen­tury, cul­mi­nat­ing in the con­struc­tion of the tem­ple around 1560. Given its lo­ca­tion, so close to and overlooking the Catholic church, Stéphanie spec­u­lates that there was an el­e­ment of chal­lenge in the cho­sen site.

With a large Protes­tant pop­u­la­tion, the vil­lage suf­fered sig­nif­i­cant losses dur­ing the Re­li­gious Wars. “The bat­tles here were par­tic­u­larly bloody,” says Stéphanie. “His­tor­i­cal ac­counts say that the river ran red with blood for weeks.” The tem­ple sur­vived the tu­mult, only to be de­stroyed in 1681 when another king, Louis XIV, once again sought to erad­i­cate the Protes­tant reli­gion in France.

Head­ing up Rue de l’hor­loge, we come to the Porte de France (or at least the one re­main­ing huge stone pil­lar) – for many cen­turies, the main en­try into the for­ti­fied town for trav­ellers on the road from Lyon to Die. Dur­ing an out­break of the plague in the 16th cen­tury, the gate­way was closed to keep out those in­fected with the dis­ease.

A foot­path leads to the re­mains of a me­dieval cas­tle built by the Bérenger clan (lords of the town) and the higher area known as Le Bourg and Les Trois Châteaux. Don’t ex­pect to find three cas­tles – the term refers to the nearby cas­tles at Saint-nazaireen-roy­ans, Rochechi­nard and Flandaine, all of which were once vis­i­ble from this van­tage point. All are now ru­ins, but it is worth trekking up the hill­side for the su­perb views over the Roy­ans Val­ley.

Fi­nally, we head back down to­wards the river to Place de Breuil, home to a thriv­ing mar­ket and trade fairs dur­ing the 19th cen­tury. The site re­mains a hub of the town, with the mairie and the pop­u­lar Musée de l’eau si­t­u­ated in the round.

CLOCK­WISE FROM LEFT: Maisons sus­pendues and the Église Saint-pierre; A river­side walk; The Musée de l’eau be­side the River Bourne; Flow­ers line a pic­turesque pas­sage­way

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