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VACATION MEMORY : In Quiet French Valley, a Search for Things Past

<i> Champlin is former Arts Editor of The Times. </i>

This tiny village of perhaps 400 souls in southeastern France is quartered by two thin blacktop roads we would probably call blue highways. It sits at the upper edge of a long, narrow, beautiful valley whose hills are checkerboarded with vineyards, pastures and, where the pitch is too steep for either, woodlands.

I came here on a pilgrimage to my own past, because it was from Marnoz--sometime toward the middle of the 19th Century--that my maternal great-grandfather, Jules Masson, set forth to find a new life in the United States.

I first saw the name “Marnoz” on his tall monument at the family plot in Pleasant Valley Cemetery at Hammondsport, N.Y. He had died a quarter-century before I was born, but the family still spoke of him so often that it was sometimes hard not to believe that he was upstairs in his room and had simply decided not to come down to dinner. The pictures I have of him show a stocky, patriarchal figure in three-piece black suits, and outdoors with a derby hat.

The family tradition was that Jules and his cousin (I believe), Joseph Masson, left Marnoz and sailed to New Orleans and then up the Mississippi and Ohio rivers to Cincinnati, where they both went to work for the Longworth family, whose wines were known abroad.

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Phylloxera wiped out the Longworth vineyards late in the 1850s, and both the Massons moved east to Hammondsport, where a new winery had been started. Hammondsport, too, sits in a long, narrow, beautiful valley whose hills are checkerboarded with vineyards, pastures and woodlands. Jules became works manager and champagne maker for the Pleasant Valley Wine Co. He sired a total of four daughters and four sons, including my grandfather. Joseph became a very successful grape-grower.

I made up my mind in childhood to see Marnoz one day if I possibly could, but it took me more than half a century to get around to it. I’m sorry I waited so long. Whatever it has added to my genealogical information, seeking my roots has been a fine and enriching way to discover the unhurried France that exists well beyond the excitements of Paris or the frenzies of the Cannes Film Festival.

At that I might never have made it to Marnoz but for the ingenious kindness of the U. S. Post Office--an organization not frequently applauded. A few years ago, a letter arrived at the Hammondsport post office addressed “To any members of the Masson family.” There were, alas, none. My cousin Melanie, the last of the local Massons, had died several years before. But the postmaster, who remembered that my mother had been a Masson, forwarded the letter to a cousin in Rochester, who forwarded it to my brother, who forwarded it to me.

And so began a correspondence and a friendship with a distant cousin in Paris, Jacqueline Jacquinot, whose great-grandmother had been a Masson from Marnoz.

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Not long after we exchanged our letters, Jacqueline and her husband, Robert, a retired teacher, visited us in Los Angeles. We stayed with them on a trip to Paris, and we all schemed of a time we could visit Marnoz and cousin Marc, a retired farmer who was 91 and the oldest link to our Marnoz past.

At last the timing was perfect, and we drove down the A6 out of Paris and then southeast on the lesser roads that got us to Marnoz. The village is in a part of France called the Jura, only a few miles from the Swiss border. To the west is the great Burgundy wine country.

Even on a small-scale Michelin map, Marnoz is hard to find, and the nearest place of any consequence (that is, printed in slightly larger type) is Salins-les-Bains, a fortress-guarded town to the northeast famous for its ancient salt mines, its mineral hot springs and a casino. The nearest cities of size are Dijon, about 50 miles northwest, and Besancon, almost due north.

We reached Marnoz, about 245 miles southeast of Paris, in time to gather up Cousin Marc, his wife Charlotte and their daughter and son-in-law for lunch at a small but elegant auberge called Val d’Hery, in the countryside below Marnoz.

Marc, stout, red-faced, black-suited and with a fine deep chuckle, seemed to have stepped out of a Marcel Pagnol movie, a latterday Raimu in “The Baker’s Wife.” Among the family photographs I had inherited, I found I had one of Marc as a young soldier doing his national service in 1930 and sitting astride a motorcycle. There was another of Marc and Charlotte on their wedding day in 1931. Marc was delighted to receive a copy of the motorcycle picture, which he didn’t have.

To work off the paralyzingly fine lunch, my wife and I walked the streets of Marnoz. There is a small and well-kept memorial honoring those who died in two world wars, in Algeria and elsewhere. Opposite the memorial, a house bears a plaque declaring that Louis Pasteur lived there in his youth. (Pasteur’s early experiments that led to pasteurization were with wine.)

There is a two-story stone schoolhouse, with the mayor’s office on the second floor, one all-purpose store and a small winery founded in 1824 that makes an excellent sparkling white wine, a Grand Vin Mousseux, under the M. Courvoisier label (evidently no relation to the brandy people).

Later in the afternoon, we sat in Marc and Charlotte’s kitchen and drank some of Marc’s new but mellow homemade white wine. Supper at the kitchen table centered on a salad, with ingredients fresh from the garden, some of the local mild cheese and sauteed mushrooms that had also been picked earlier in the day by Marc’s grandson, in the field behind the house.

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We’d made no reservations but had no trouble finding rooms that night in a quiet hotel in Arbois, a beautiful small city about five miles southwest of Marnoz. In the morning we drove back to Marnoz and up a narrow road to St. Michael’s Catholic Church on a hillside overlooking the village.

As we walked through the cemetery adjoining the church there was the muted clang of cowbells from the fields nearby. It was a sound I hadn’t heard outside a drum solo for years.

We could find only one Masson tombstone in the graveyard, and it was so weather-worn that only “Masson” was easily legible. But the tomb seemed to be of a Mademoiselle A. Masson, born in 1836 and who died at home in an undecipherable year. There is no longer a resident pastor in Marnoz. A visiting priest says Mass once a month. The caretaker, who minds the church records, was out of town, which gives me a good reason for going back to Marnoz again.

Later in the morning we visited the Courvoisier winery. I wanted to talk with the owners, because it seemed plausible that my great-grandfather had learned the winemaking trade, and specifically the secrets of making sparkling wine, at Courvoisier. It seemed even more plausible when Jacqueline discovered that in 1770, a Masson gentleman had married a Courvoisier lady.

Cousin Marc was sure that when my two American great-aunts visited Marnoz between the wars, they stayed with the owners at the house attached to the winery. There did seem to be a family attachment, but the winery’s archives do not, alas, go back before this century, so the question of Jules’ possible apprenticeship there remains unanswered. But we shared a bottle of the Courvoisier Mousseux with the present owner, Madame Arlette Andre, who runs it with her husband Bernard.

By telephone from Paris, Jacqueline had learned that the village records in the office of the mayor could be examined by visitors on Thursday afternoons. Checking the records was a prime objective of the visit to Marnoz, and it turned out to be uncommonly rewarding.

While the mayor and two aides went over town business (on long computer printouts; Marnoz is definitely a la mode), we sat in a corner of the big, sun-filled room and read. A small bookcase held the bound volumes of the village’s handwritten birth and death certificates and marriage licenses, going back well before the French Revolution.

For a time, the dating system changed to the new-titled months ordained by the Revolution itself. Jacqueline had no trouble making the conversions, which would have floored me.

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There are no Massons in Marnoz any more, as there are none in Hammondsport. But in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, they seem to have been as innumerable as Smiths in Chicago. At marriage and death, they were almost always indentified as cultivateurs , or farmers, which presumably could also have meant vineyard workers.

We found my great-grandfather’s birth certificate, a day in September, 1833, and that gave us his parents. Jacqueline, who proved to be a whiz at this sort of detection, then identified Jules’ Masson grandparents. Joseph Masson proved elusive still. Jacqueline found a Joseph born in 1828, which is about the right vintage. But whether he is the right Joseph, and what relation he was to Jules, remain teasing puzzles.

Although it does not receive the tourist attention of the Loire Valley or the Cote d’Azur, the area around Marnoz has its own sites for visiting eyes, and we stopped at some of them on our way back to Paris.

After Marnoz, we stopped at the the ancient and abandoned salt mines at Salins-les-Bains--spookily impressive, despite a guide’s interminable spiel in French and a lack of information in English. At Cluny, where we stayed overnight with Jacqueline and Robert’s married son Michel, a business consultant, there is a famous and very beautiful abbey, its great windows and vaulted ceilings thrilling reminders of what men once wrought in the name of faith.

The next morning, we drove north to Beaune, and walked through the hospice for the sick and elderly, centuries old but still in use. It is supported by the revenues from vineyards--bequeathed to the hospice over the years--which have made the Beaune label synonymous with superb red Burgundies.

The past can be a trap or a tantalyzing mystery, whose discoveries lead to others but never to a complete denouement. But the morning I stood in the churchyard at Marnoz, it seemed to me I could feel what Jules Masson might have felt as well, taking a last look around on the eve of his long journey to an unknown new life in America.

It struck me, too, that he must at last have felt very much at home in Hammondsport, where from the Pleasant Valley winery buildings, he looked across green fields to vineyarded and wooded hills quite like those he had known at Marnoz.

I want to come back to Marnoz again, of course. But quite aside from my still-unanswered family questions, I would like to spend a more leisurely time in that spacious and handsome countryside where the present has been so protective of a memorable past.

GUIDEBOOK

Marnoz, France

Getting there: To reach Marnoz, it is possible to fly first to Dijon or Besancon, but better to drive all the way from Paris--southeast along the splendid A6 (the Autoroute to the Sun). At Beaune, about 140 miles from Paris, swing northeast on the swift A36 for 30 miles to the N5. At Poligny, swing left or north on the N83 to Arbois. Arbois, 245 miles from Paris, is a good launching place for Marnoz, three miles further along the N83 to the D105, which leads to the village. The ancient town of Salins-les-Bains is about five miles from Marnoz on the D105 and N72.

Where to stay and eat: In Arbois, the hotel Le Paris has 18 rooms starting at about $70 and a restaurant, Jean-Paul Jeunet, which rates two toques in Gault-Millau; fixed price menus from $25.

Just south of Salins-les-Bains on the D467 is the Auberge du Val d’Hery, where the Jura cuisine honors local Franche-Comte cheeses and wines of Arbois. Fixed-price menu begins at about $20, but expect to part with more than that. The auberge also has five rooms, from $55.

What else to see:

In Arbois, an impressive statue of Louis Pasteur, born in nearby Dole.

In Salins-les-Bains, the old salt mines, the hot mineral baths and the hilltop fortifications.

In Cluny, a 10th-Century abbey and some fine 16th-Century half-timbered houses.

In Beaune, the still-functioning hospice (the Hotel of God), with a 15th-Century tapestry of “The Last Judgment.” Also, a wine museum (don’t miss sampling the matchless local reds).


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