France seems small to American eyes. It’s dinky, looks something like a state, all nestled in there among other countries with no room to stretch out (Napoleon notwithstanding). But for all its relatively small size, France boasts an incredibly diverse countryside. There are the flat plains of Picardy and the towering mountains of Savoie; the balmy seacoast of Provence and the stormy channel beaches of Normandy; the pleasant students of Toulouse and the snotty waiters of Paris.
In roughly the middle of the country, the plains turn into hills and the hills begin turning into mountains. This is just about at the same point that the cloudier northern disposition runs into the sunnier southern disposition. The net effect is beautiful and pleasant, with deep gorges cut into the landscape and little villages nestled here and there where one can actually get served with a smile.
I’ve never been too enthusiastic about French mountain villages (with the exception of those in Corsica). They have a tendency to be kind of drab, and French mountain dwellers have an inconvenient habit of roofing their buildings with corrugated metal, for the unconvincing reason that the snow slides off it nicely. How dare they ruin my aesthetic experience for the sake of mundane practicality!
Anyway, there are some very pretty villages all the same, and there are some very small villages, and what must be the prettiest and the smallest is named le Vieux Noyer, population one.
Le Vieux Noyer stands on a jutting peak overlooking the new Noyer (Noyer sur Jabron). The village was built around A.D. 600, and it was abandoned by its inhabitants in the early part of the of 20th century. The inhabitants left either to die in the First World War or to live in the new village at the bottom of the valley.
Why? The reasons are a little murky. It seems to have something to do with water, and with a general softening of the population, according to the village’s sole inhabitant, whom I’ll call “Pierre,” in order to respect his hermitic lifestyle.
“In A.D. 800, this village held off the Saracens. There were 900 souls who lived here. You can still see the vestiges of the old fortifications. Back then, they weren’t put off by hiking up and down the mountain and they didn’t need any big roads. These days, though, people all want to be connected to each other, you know? So they moved down into the valley and founded the new village.”
Well, most people want to be connected with each other … Pierre clearly does not. Although he is originally from Aix en Provence, he used to come to the Jabron Valley with his parents on holiday. When he “retired” from his unnamed and probably not altogether existent career, he decided to live in le Vieux Noyer with his dog, in a little building that he estimates at about 1,000 years old. It was probably a barn of sorts. A very, very small barn, maybe five meters on each side.
The building is a single room with a dirt floor and stone walls. On one side is a fireplace and a small gas cooker hooked up to a tank of propane. On the other side is Pierre’s sleeping bag. Pierre has some shelves, which are populated by various things, including a cheese grater, a backpack, a pair of skis, lots of blankets, and a couple of pots and pans.
Pierre is a wiry man, somewhere between 40 and 60 years of age, with striking blue eyes and a reddish dog. The building he lives in is near a small fountain, which serves as his water supply. For electricity, he improvises.
“I don’t pay for electricity. I did it for years and I’m not giving them any more of my money. I have an old car battery. It serves me fine. I just listen to the radio sometimes anyway. Don’t need lights or anything.”
Not that Pierre is anti-technology. He even participated in a film recently.
“They made a movie next door and they gave me a part to play.” It should here be noted that the next door in question is an abandoned building, part of a medieval farmhouse that is half fallen down. “They wanted a real provincial look. It was supposed to take place during the First World War. I played a deserter from the army!”
Pierre was obviously very proud of his role, and it should be said that it’s easy to imagine him flipping the finger at a draft officer in 1916.
Pierre’s building and the fallen-down farmhouse next door are actually on the outskirts of le Vieux Noyer. Until recently, there was another hermit who lived in the very center of the abandoned town; an Englishman. Pierre thinks he’s dead, since he hasn’t seen him in a year or so and the house is locked up. He’s not sure, though. Apparently, hermits don’t lead an active social life, even when they are the only two inhabitants of a village.
The Englishman’s house is indeed locked up. It also has the jawbone of a wild boar hanging on the door. This was either his way of warning people off, or he thought it was a fetching knocker. The world will never know.
Walking through the streets of le Vieux Noyer is a surrealistic experience. The village is a struggle between stone and leaf, as the local flora tries to take back the land. The main street—which isn’t a street in the sense of anyone ever having driven a car along it, but more a street in the sense of a clear path along the rock—is lined with buildings whose great age coats their stones like ivy, their roofs and windowpanes and floors all gone, but their walls mostly intact. Plants have replaced people in the rooms of these buildings; through doorless doorways you can glimpse trees growing in living rooms and vines winding up interior walls. The trees outside are graced with the silk houses of tent caterpillars, and small blue flowers dot the tall grasses.
In the summertime, the sun almost always shines on le Vieux Noyer, painting the church a bright white. The church is the only building that’s been kept up, since a hiking trail goes by and since it’s a church. More interesting than the church, though, is the graveyard, where long-forgotten people are buried under long-forgotten gravestones, hidden under tangles of grass and flowers. If you look closely, some of the gravestones are still legible. You can see “Marie, died on March 13, 1878, aged 27” behind a leafy vine and wonder who she was, and what killed her so young, and in which of these majestic, abandoned houses she used to live.
And you can indeed see the vestiges of the fortifications, over on the east side of the town. It must have been a formidable stronghold, perched on the top of a rocky peak, overlooking the entire valley. What’s left of the wall consists of some thick masonry and a gate of sorts. I’m glad to say that the place is still garrisoned. A ferret, or some other weasel-like creature, mans the ramparts and will stare at you menacingly with beady little eyes from a hole up in the arch if you approach too closely. I doubt he has any serious weaponry (but then I’m sure a vole would disagree), but he looks like the type who would gladly pour some boiling oil on you if given half a chance. Perhaps when the Englishman was still around, he armed the ferret to keep away intruders, but these days he just tries to scare you away by staring at you. Saracens, be warned.
If you want to visit the town, you’re going to have to get to Noyer sur Jabron, most likely through Sisteron, which is a wonderful place to visit in its own right. You can see le Vieux Noyer from miles away, but the actual road up to it is unmarked and pretty much impossible to describe. Just keep trying to go up. If you’re on foot, then you follow the hiking trail, and if you have a car, then you follow an impossible road that was never meant for motor vehicles but that will allow you to pretend you’re on a cheap carnival ride as you bounce around, winding your way up to the top.
Just don’t try to find Pierre. Having spoken to me for an afternoon, he’s all spoken out and probably won’t be receiving any visitors for a couple of years.