In my April post, I wrote: “I don’t often blog about matters unrelated to writing and historical fiction, but occasionally I just feel the need to write about something different, and that “different” is always to do with the natural world…”
Well, that’s not strictly true… My last two blog posts haven’t been about writing or historical fiction – and neither is this one! I will get back to the historical stuff, but I’ve been wanting to write this one for the best part of a year, so I’m going to do it now…
If you’ve been following me on social media recently, you’ll have gathered that, right now, we should be in southern France, enjoying our, now regular, five week sojourn. Actually we’ve quite enjoyed being at home, watching our garden grow and bloom in a way we’ve not observed for several years. BUT we really do miss France. We’ve been going there for more than thirty years and this will be the first year we’ve missed going…
There’s something else not true about that statement of mine above—the “different” isn’t always to do with the natural world, or at least it’s not going to be today. (Though I suppose it is peripherally so, as you will see…)
One of the many quirky things we love about France are the roundabouts – rond-points. If you’ve driven in France, you’ll know what I mean. The French seem to have a penchant for designing beautiful, elaborate, intriguing or amusing roundabouts, especially in or close to towns or villages, though even some out in the country are delightful. Often a roundabout’s design is not simply elegant or amusing but has a theme related to its location or the region’s industry or speciality. And so it is with the set of roundabouts I’m going to tell you about today.
These roundabouts are in Drôme, the département in southeast France we visit every year, and they are along a magnificent road that runs for about forty kilometres from the small town of Crest, which boasts a splendid donjon, and the larger town of Die, gateway to the southern Vercors mountains. The road runs alongside the river Drôme and through a vine-growing area famous for the production of Clairette de Die, a delicious sparkling wine particular to the region. And it is the “vinification” of Clairette that is the theme of these roundabouts, a sort of journey along the process of growing the wine.
But let me tell you first about the artist who created these roundabouts. He used to be a goat farmer…
Pierre-Louis Chipon lives in the Ardèche. I think he’d always enjoyed creating sculptures, crafting them from old ironworks and salvaged objects, like horseshoes, ploughshares, and other farm implements. In 1986, to advertise the sale of his chèvre cheese, Chipon made an ironwork goat and installed it on a rock high above his farm, on the road between Aubenas and Privas, at the top of the Col de l’Escrinet, overlooking the valley. The goat became quite famous to motorists in the region and was eventually bought by an admirer. It was replaced with a new sculpture of a goat with a child…
And animals and people are what seem to make up the majority of Chipon’s subjects, as you will see.
From about 2000, Chipon apparently decided to become an artist full-time. Whether he actually gave up his real life goats, I’m not sure.
Anyway, the roundabouts on the Crest to Die road have some wonderful examples of his work.
Roundabout 1 at Crest
The “journey” starts at Crest, at the roundabout called “La Porte de la Clairette”. The theme of this roundabout is the establishment of the vines. So here we see a man digging the land with his horse-drawn plough, men clearing the ground of rocks, men and women driving in the posts to support the vines and then a row of newly growing vines. It’s a design full of energy and action.
Roundabout 2 at Piégros-La Clastre
The second roundabout is at the commune of Piégros-La Clastre, and the design is called “La taille”, which translates as “size”. So I suppose it is showing the size and layout of a vineyard, so we see again people setting up and tending the vines, but it also shows something of what goes on around the vineyard, in the shape of a couple of canoeists in their canoe on the nearby river Drôme. For camping by, and canoeing on, the river are very important summer activities in this valley.
“Can we go and watch the canoeists, Grandpapa? Can we?”
Roundabout 3 at Saillans
The third roundabout is at the village of Saillans, and the theme is the harvesting of the grapes, “Les vendanges”. So here we see grape pickers, a woman carrying a basket of grapes to the barrels. I’m not quite sure why we have the horse and plough again at harvest time, but this is a magnificent rendition of a fine, strong horse in ironwork and very well worth a photograph!
Roundabout 4 at Chamarges
The last roundabout at Chamarges, at the western entrance of Die, is my favourite and shows “La reboule”, the celebration held at the end of the grape harvests. Here you have men, women and children, enjoying a feast, playing a game, and are those two young people perhaps finding love?
This time the horse is not ploughing but is, I suppose, bringing the wine for the feast…
I like this last roundabout particularly because of the detail of the dining table, rendered so delightfully and all in iron! But there are several elements of all of these sculptures that I find especially appealing… The almost delicate tiers of the women’s skirts—All the different styles of hat—The curly hair!—The movement and postures of the human characters—The wonderful musculature of the horses…
It must have required the most extraordinary effort on the part of M. Chipon, and a remarkable imagination to convert all those old parts of agricultural machinery into such wonderful works of art!
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