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