L’Auberge de Peyrebeille
High in the hills above Langogne, where the wind howls and snowdrifts tower over the heads of grown men, the Auberge de Peyrebeille was more mountain refuge than roadside inn. On a stormy night, the traveller on the high road from Le Puy to Aubenas must have breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of it. Unsaddling gratefully he hurried inside, banging the snow off his feet and little suspecting, as the innkeeper closed the door and bolted it shut, the terminal nature of hospitality in store.
Over a period of a quarter of a century (1805 – 1831) Pierre Martin, his wife Marie Breysse and their servant Jean Rochette (nicknamed Fetiche), are said to have robbed and murdered some 50 guests; knocking them over the head, or (in the more lurid versions of the story) pouring poison down their throats while they slept; emptying their pockets, and burning their bodies in the oven.
Local suspicion grew, and the three were arrested when the body of a man who may have been a recent guest at the inn was found beside the Allier in October 1831. They were convicted on the evidence of a drunkard they had booted out because he could not pay for his bed – not worth murdering – and on October 2nd 1833 they were guillotined on the forecourt of their inn in front of a bloodthirsty crowd of 30,000 spectators, the spot now marked by a stone smeared with a bloody cross. Court papers went missing, and the legend grew far beyond any basis in fact. It has inspired novelists, film makers and investigative crime writers, many of whom think the Martins were innocent.
I had no idea of this story when I drove past some years ago. There was something about the place that made us pull over and take a look. It wasn’t in the green Michelin and was therefore not on my list of places to visit. But my companion, who had a limited appetite for tympanums and historiated capitals, perked up at the prospect of a visit with some narrative interest, and wanted to go in. A beady-eyed toothless hunchback answered the door. Show you round? Oh, yes, I’ll show you round. I’ll show you round, all right.
And in the blood-curdling tones of a pantomime villain he declaimed the terrible story of the dark deeds of Pierre and Marie Martin, always walking behind us, pushing us forward from one room to the next. Down the stone stairs we gingerly stepped, towards the oven. “And it was right here, M’sieu’ – ’dame, that Pierre Martin took his mallet out from under his coat, and ….. ”.
The bludgeon did not come down on our heads, but Peyrebeille made quite an impact. It was a breakthrough moment, to realise that the green Michelin’s scale of star ratings is not the be all and end all of sightseeing interest. There is now a motel in this lonely spot. Sweet dreams.