We heard today that M Chabannes died on Monday at the age of 92. We knew him and Madame slightly, they were of a previous generation – les anciens as they are affectionately known here – but our lives overlapped perhaps more than he ever realised.
When we first arrived the village had three cafés, (at one time apparently there were twelve!) one of which was much more than a simple watering hole. Chez Chabannes as it was unofficially known, also operated as a restaurant, hotel, taxi and ambulance service and a petrol station and the large garaging space at the side of the building on the main street housed several full sized coaches, painted in the livery of Les Cars du Vivarais.
The coaching business was begun in 1890, by the splendidly named Antoine-Frédéric Heraud, who is described as a voiturier, offering transport services of the horse and cart variety.
In 1929 M Heraud acquired his first petrol-driven Berliet autocar. The war years were challenging and fraught with danger and heroism but he was able to restart his business at the Liberation and in 1947 Marc Chabannes entered his employ as a driver. In 1962 Marc and his wife Jeanine took over the business which they ran very successfully, expanding their routes and fleet and buying out smaller local companies which had run into difficulties.
In 1987, the year we bought les Sarziers, M Chabannes retired. The business continued, managed by his sons who, needing more space to run an expanding operation, had moved their headquarters to nearby St Félicien, where they live. It so chanced that when we were allocated our brand new telephone number it was, unbenownst to us, the one recently relinquished by the bus company. For the first few months we would excitedly rush to the phone – who could be calling us? – to hear a plaintive country voice at the other end asking when the next bus was to Bozas or whether the Tuesday market service was still running in spite of the snow. We were considerably puzzled and, as newcomers, at a loss to answer. It was when we were stuck behind a bus on one of our interminably winding roads and read our number clearly painted on the back that we grasped what was going on. We made sure to get hold of a comprehensive timetable, and for quite some time we operated as a reliable information service for les Cars du Vivarais!
The family business continued to thrive and prosper and is now into its fourth generation. In 1990 they branched into the travel business, opening an agency under the name Voyages Chabannes, in St Félicien and in 2004 two more agencies opened, one in Tournon and the other in Valence. The company has a fleet of 40 vehicles, ranging from luxury international touring coaches to minibuses, the majority of which are manufactured by Iveco 25 miles away in Annonay. They now operate regular bus lines, school bus and factory staff services and airport transfers together with long distance group coaching holidays. It’s come a long way from M Heraud’s horse and cart!
We often use their regular lines to connect with train services in the Rhone Valley, but the service we most enjoyed was the market bus on Tuesdays, which we only discovered about eight years ago. To get into town we could take the regular 9 am bus which stops at the end of our lane. For the return, M Chabannes himself would pick up passengers at twelve sharp outside the bank (a fact that you needed to know in advance otherwise you could wait for days at the official bus stop, which he had decreed was impractical, in view of the market throngs).
Of course most of the handful of passengers were regulars and M Chabannes would install them in their appropriate seats in the minibus before packing away the little step he had thoughtfully provided and settling into the driving seat. He had by now been retired for some 25 years, but he loved providing this useful weekly link between Empurany, Arlebosc and the market in Lamastre. So much so that, when one autumn we discovered it had disappeared from the official timetable published by the Conseil Regional, and stopped him in the village to ask if it had really been discontinued he replied emphatically “Bien sûr que non!” The authorities can publish what they please, he said, but I will still be running my usual service!
The ambiance in the market bus could be lively. He had been at school with many of the elderly ladies and chatted away animatedly with them, although he would brook no nonsense. Once in Empurany he was accosted by the driver of an enormous lorry who asked directions to an impossibly distant farm. M Chabannes gave directions, enthusiastically supported by the ladies behind him who exclaimed “oui, oui, OUI” at every juncture until it became too much for him. Turning round to us all he exclaimed “mais arrêtez de dire oui tout le temps!” He was a good friend of M Banchet who sold us our house and, when he stopped to drop us on our corner he would climb out, firmly shutting the doors on the ladies, to ask about his friend and generally have a little chat before consenting to carry them further on their way.
There were many funny moments on that bus, such as on the day when M Chabannes had miscalculated the number of likely passengers and turned up with a car, which proved too small to accommodate us all. Pas de problème, he popped over to the school to borrow one of the mini buses and returned in an instant. Voilà! However there was no step, which left one lady (whom our friend christened Mrs-Angry-and-a-Half) muttering, with an air of offended grandeur “If I had known I would have made other arrangements!”
Les Cars du Vivarais are special to us and whenever we spot one we feel a glow of familiarity and friendship. I remember once travelling on a motorway in Spain with my group of American tourists, when my bus overtook one of M Chabannes’s fleet carrying a party of pensioners from Arlebosc to the Algarve. Everybody probably thought I’d gone slightly weird as I enthusiastically waved at them all through the windscreen!
On another occasion Markus was escorting a group in Budapest when he noticed a Car du Vivarais parked in the bus park. The driver was not there, but Markus left a little note under the windscreen wiper saying hello to everybody and sending best wishes for their return to the Ardèche. Some weeks later M Banchet told us that there had been great excitement upon the discovery of the note and a considerable amount of detection work necessary to determine who had written it. I think M Chabannes was touched.
I suppose this is what it means to feel part of a community and links to a place even if you are technically an incomer. So as we bid adieu to M Marc Chabannes we wish his family business every success for the future: a heartening example of continuity, local enterprise and connections.
Many of the photos are from the site of Les Cars du Vivarais