A campsite and a payphone: there is life on Mars

Click to follow
The Independent Online

To travel to Mars, you do not need a space rocket or a space suit ­ you need a reliable car and a good map. Ascend almost vertically from the middle of the Rhône valley, skim the beautiful ridge-tops of the northern Ardèche and, after a winding, hair-raising journey of about 90 minutes, you are there.

To trave to Mars, you do not need a space rocket or a space suit ­ you need a reliable car and a good map. Ascend almost vertically from the middle of the Rhône valley, skim the beautiful ridge-tops of the northern Ardèche and, after a winding, hair-raising journey of about 90 minutes, you are there.

Contrary to the popular image, Mars is not red, barren or uninhabited. It is lush, green and sparsely populated. There is a small hotel, bar and restaurant (highly recommended by this terrestrial visitor). It has a post office, a playground, a tennis court, a campsite and a telephone box. In other words, there is life on Mars after all.

With a population of 216, Mars is a small village in one of the least visited corners of one of France's poorest départements. The village and surrounding region are hoping to attract tourists by exploiting an untapped, natural resource: the village name.

Three American astronauts (lent for the day by Nasa) and one French ex-astronaut "landed" here this month from a hot air balloon, launching the village's career as a terrestrial destination. Casts of their feet and hand-prints will shortly be displayed in the Martian town hall, which also doubles as the post office.

The Mayor, Henri Guillot, 53, said: "Officially, we are not known as Martiens [Martians] but Marsois. But I may organise a referendum to ask people whether they want to change their name. I think a referendum would be a good idea. Mars is a democracy, after all."

Gilles Russier, 35, proprietor of L'Art des Choix restaurant, is enthusiastically in favour of the villagers changing their collective name. "Personally, I have always considered myself a Martien. Some kind of extra-terrestrial anyway. It is true that we don't see many little green men here, except when the electricity workers are standing around in their green boiler suits. But, who knows, the real Martians might be out there in the forests somewhere."

Mars sits 3,000 feet up in the south-east corner of the Massif Central. It has a breathtaking view of the jagged, snow-covered (but otherwise convincingly alien) landscape of Mont Mézenc, a 5,000ft-high northern outlier of the Cévennes mountains. Half a century ago, it had 900 inhabitants and 40 farms; now there are barely 200 people and just eight farms.

The deputy mayor, Hébert Roche, 68, is a Martian born and bred and took me on a tour of the commune. "It won't take long," he said.

We visited the village's historical monument, appropriately called the "moonstone" ­ a rock the size of a book, three-quarters buried in the ground and inscribed with a crescent moon. According to local legend, the stone was placed here 2,000 years ago by the Romans, or Gallo-Romans, to mark a victory in a battle over Moorish raiders from the south.

"Actually," Mr Roche admitted, "someone stole the original stone 20 years ago. This is a replica." Water from the village spring was ceremoniously bottled and given to the American astronauts and other visitors to prove that there was sustainable life on Mars.

The Protestant temple is an old sign that this is Huguenot country: the village and surrounding area are more than 50 per cent Protestant, and the area was a bastion that never surrendered to three centuries of religious persecution.

The idea to give Mars a more prominent place in the solar system came from the head of the Ardèche tourist board, Jacques Mangeant. "I was thinking how we could exploit the fact that the Montgolfier brothers [the 18th-century pioneers of the hot-air balloon] came from the Ardèche. I looked at the map and saw the name Mars and I thought, 'Air travel, space exploration, why not?'

"We have many visitors to the southern part of the region but it's always been harder to get people to come up here, despite its great beauty. We hope they will come to visit Mars and then stay for other reasons."

Is there not a danger that tourists will find Mars a little, well, limited? Not at all, said the restaurant and hotel owner, Mr Russier. "We have walking, pony-trekking, canoeing and golf near by. There's a hundred things you can do in Mars." The mayor agreed. He hopes to develop more gîtes and campsites. A professional potter has recently moved to the area.

" Mars ­ c'est un endroit qui bouge (Mars is a happening place)," he insisted.

Comments