To the Sea

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We were a bit undecided on what to do with our last day in the Charente. The weather had turned iffy again, and so since my weather app showed that the coastal areas would likely avoid rain longer, we headed west. The landscape is lovely, our neighborhood of rolling hills of vines giving way to flatter coastal plains, and finally marshland as we got closer to the Estuary.

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Before we reached the coast, we made two church stops from my Google map. The first was in the village of Chadenac to see the Romaesque Eglise Saint Martin, where the keyholder living next door ran out to open it for us. Back in the day, this church was one of the pilgrimage stops on the way to Compostela. There are some wonderful carvings, particularly on the exterior. More of the twin motif, devils, and a little scene on the corner of the Three Kings.

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A few miles down the road in Marignac, we found Eglise Saint-Sulpice. This was a church I was really looking forward to seeing, and we were thrilled to find it open on this Friday morning. The rather grim exterior gives no hint of what is inside. It has some of the best preserved early wall paintings in the Charente in the Romanesque crossing and apse (the nave was rebuilt in the Gothic style after destruction during various wars in the 14th and 15th centuries)

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Vines, animals, flowers, geometric shapes on the capitals, a carved and painted cornice band that really highlights the animal carvings. The whole thing is marvelous, and really gives a sense of what these churches looked like before time, war,  and changing tastes.

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We finally dragged ourselves away, and continued to the coast, stopping briefly in Mortagne-sur-Gironde for a bathroom break and to pick up brochures from the tourist office. The road winds along the coast to Talmont, giving peeks at the Estuary.

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Talmont-sur-Gironde is a jewel of a setting, although heavily tricked our for the tour bus groups. I doubt there’s anything like a real village anymore. On this cold windy day, there were few visitors, primarily French and a few Brits. Given the huge parking lots in front of the pedestrian-only village, it’d likely be a nightmare in season.But most of the shops were selling artisan items, there are beautiful views out of the estuary and the fishing weirs, and an imposing church perched on the rocks.A wedding was about to begin, and the poor bride was trying to maintain her hairdo and gown in the midst of high winds while getting photographed.

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We walked around, and then got a table at what seemed to be a popular restaurant, Auberge Le Promontoire, although sadly because of the wind had to sit inside. We didn’t have high expectations, but our lunch was delicious. We shared mussels, then I had a gorgeous grilled dourade in a buttery sauce while Larry had steak, then an ille flottant for dessert for me and a cognac crepe for Larry. I was fascinated by two gentlemen across from us who went through piles and piles of langoustines, and then demolished a huge platter of fish, and were on their second bottle of wine when we left.

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We drove up to Meschers-sur-Gironde where there are cliff dwellings, but this looked to be a rather tacky commercial establishment so we went to look at boats in the harbor instead, and the view back toward Talmont.

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A small sign for “Gallo-Romain Site Fa” just before Talmont grabbed our attention, so off we went up a gravel road through the fields. There we found a partially-excavated  site with a small museum.

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Although it was known there was “something” buried in the fields, it wasn’t until aerial photographs showed shapes from different colors of the crops that signified minerals from stones under the soil that anyone realized how extensive the ancient city was. So far they’ve uncovered a huge bath system, a Temple, the main street with buildings on either side, and a theater. They do educational programs here, there’s a cool space where schoolchildren can pretend to excavate, and a lovely Roman-style garden where I was entranced by the flowering artichokes.

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We drove back home (going by the direct route, it was less than an hour) for the sad task of packing. I used leftovers to make a last meal of pasta with lemon and herbs, our last artichoke, salad, and cheese for dessert. And the last glass of cognac sipped next door to where it was made.

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Angouleme and Around–Old and Older

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Angouleme is a small city just to the east of us, known mostly as being the center of a comic book  festival and museum, a classic car race in September, and  the beautiful  Romanesque Cathedral of Saint Pierre.

Our first stop was the large glassed in Les Halles market, which had many fish vendors, butchers, and produce and cheese stands. We bought some already-cooked large shrimp, two different chevres, and some gloriously-good smelling white peaches. We were prepared with our ice packs, for once.

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It’s a short walk through the pedestrian zone to the Cathedral. It’s been added to frequently over the past 900 years, but the impressive facade is medieval carving in a particularly high form. The designer was a bishop who was also a noted artist. The facade is chock full of figures, with the Ascension and the Last Judgement spreading upwards.

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My favorite portion is a little frieze illustrating the Song of Roland. Poor Roland, after heroically fighting the Moors in the center,  is dying his dramatic death on the right.

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The interior of the church is much less interesting, and it’s fun to walk around the exterior to see the additions in different styles.

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By now the rain had started in earnest, so we walked around just a bit. The city is built on a hillside, with the old ramparts lined by a walkway. There are some beautiful old buildings in town.

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Angouleme has invited comic book artists to create murals around the city, the tourist office has a walking trail to follow to find them. Pretty cool.

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We peeked at menus at the many restaurants around Les Halles, but nothing really appealed. I checked good old Michelin, and found recommendation for a place in the lower town, one of the “good food at good value” listings we generally have good luck with. It was a bit of drama driving there with the GPS, Angouleme is full of twisty, heavily-trafficked streets. L’Art des Mets was along a drab street, but inside is a contemporary, attractive little place with husband in the kitchen and wife serving. The 3-course lunch menu had two choices for each course, all for 16 euros. And it was all delicious–a cool tomato soup with a little side salad, my salmon wrapped in pastry (Larry chose the pork, which sadly they had run out of–they apologetically offered him the salmon or sea bass, and brought over 2 glasses of champagne), and cherry clafouti with apricot sorbet for me, something decadent and chocolate for Larry.

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The rain looked to be ending, so I consulted my Google map to see what might be interesting for the afternoon. When we were visiting the La Forge gardens on Saturday, I had somehow missed someone had told me that there was a site of prehistoric rock carvings in the town, so we headed back to Mouthers-sur-Boeme. We found a small sign pointing down a small street to La Chaire a Calvin. The street ended at an abandoned factory and millpond, with a house at the end. Past the house, we followed a dirt path through the woods to a fenced-off large rock outcropping. The rocks form a large shelter, you can certainly imagine people dwelling underneath.

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At this site were found many animal bones, a crude sculpture of a jaguar head, some bone and stone tools, and one human molar. Etched into the rock wall, you can just make out three animal shapes– 2 early forms of cattle, and a wild horse.

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As we were heading toward home, we stopped in to see yet another signposted 11th century church, Eglise Saint Pierre , this time in blink and you’ll miss it Eraville.  As I was looking at the facade, a gentlemen in the vineyard next door cake running over, asked if I wanted to see the church, and ran to his house for the key. Although he had no English, he was happy to tell us about the ongoing restoration of his town’s church. The floor had been dug out to get to the original floor level and they repaved using the found stones, and they’re gradually uncovering some of the original wall paint.

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He was thrilled to have people come see what they’ve been doing, and then told us about the earliest church in the area, an 8th century unconsecrated chapel just outside Châteauneuf-sur-Charente)

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Down a street outside the town, next to a chateau, is this tiny, tumble-down Romanesque Eglise Saint Sirin. The roof obviously caved in at some point, since the wooden rafters are quite new. Bare, dark and austere, it is nonetheless moving in its simplicity. You could probably put 30 people in here, likely the former population of the village.

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Since we were in Châteauneuf-sur-Charente, we stopped in to see the beautifully elegant (you guessed it) 12th century Romanesque Eglise Saint Pierre. Carvings of a similar standard to those in Angouleme, and sympathetically restored during the 19th century. Unlike in Angouleme, the interior capital carvings have been preserved.

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More tortured souls outside.

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And how cool is this–there’s a snail shell, the long-time symbol of the Charente. (and after seeing the hundreds of snails that have to be picked off our landlady’s garden every morning, its no wonder the local people took to eating them in self defense.)

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Best easy dinner ever–cooked shrimp, lemon mayo, cool white wine.

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And we turned on the tv for the first time in three weeks.

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How The 1% Lived

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We wanted to stay closer to home after yesterday’s long drive, so decided to go to the Chateau La Rochefoucald on Thursday, a beautifully sunny day. We put together a picnic, and drove over to the town La Rochefoucauld. The attractive and lively town has a main street with more shops than most of the small towns in the area, and we bought a baguette and a slice of pate. The Chateau sits on a hill at the edge of town, and when we arrived, there was a sign on the door saying “at the library, back in 15 minutes.”

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We waited on the immense lawn beyond the moat with just a few other people, and finally our hostess opened the door and let us in. She had a leaflet in French and English to give out, and visitors can wander the public rooms of the chateau. Part of the chateau is still lived in by the family, and they rent out two rooms as a B&B, pretty cool.

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The original keep (part of which is still standing, though under repair) was built in the 11th century, with the towers and front portion built in 1350, then extended again a century later. The flanking wings were added in 1520, and more rebuilding has been done over the centuries. It’s a striking place, and it is great fun to wander the public rooms, furnished much as they were in the 19th century, and well stocked with family portraits, and more modern photos and memorabilia.

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Love the ceiling details, and this fantastic renaissance style central staircase, said to have been built according to the drawings of Leonardo Da Vinci given to Anne de La Rochefoucauld by the king of France

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The downstairs kitchens have the most enormous hearth I’ve ever seen.

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And here is my favorite room, a little boudoir with painted portraits of chateaux and properties owned by the family, painted in the 17th century.Imagine the concentration of wealth amidst the poverty of the overwhelming majority. Let them eat cake, indeed.

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At 1 pm, our hostess met us in the top floor library, where we saw a portion of the library, with books dating from the 18th century. We were also taken to the Map Room, with artfully displayed old maps.  And even more cool, the archives room, containing documents relating to family holdings and business going back centuries. Here our guide is showing a ledger from 1572.

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We sat below the chateau in a little park to have a picnic lunch, sipped wine and briefly napped in the sun until I was woken by someone’s exuberantly friendly dog.

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We aimlessly drove around a bit following historical market signs, and chanced into the village of Coulgens, with its 11th century Eglise Saint-Jean-Baptiste. The sign outside mentioned murals inside the church, so we went over to the Mairie, got the enormous key, and went inside. Portions of the 14th century wall paintings have been uncovered, some highlighting the story of Saint Barbara. Just lovely.

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For dinner that night, we reserved a table on the patio at L’Esille, the place where we had such a wonderful lunch a few days previously.We both ordered the least expensive menu.  I started with oysters, then went on to stuffed squid, and finished with a light dessert of sauteed apples and sweet cream. Larry had fish wrapped in vegetables for his entree, then a really delicious pork stew flavored with ginger, and a chocolate mousse-sort of thing for dessert. Everything was good, but I thought our earlier lunch there far better.

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La Rochelle

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Several travel friends had recommended La Rochelle as an interesting visit, and so we headed there on a sunny Wednesday. La Rochelle is an attractive, bustling small city on the Atlantic, an important seaport since at least the 10th century. During the 12th century and later during the Hundred Years War, it was under British control.

We fought some morning traffic diving in, and after a wrong turn found the Verdun parking garage, very close to the Les Halles market and the pedestrian zone. The market was in full swing, with many seafood vendors, butchers, greengrocers, and specialty traiteurs. It’d be a fabulous place to shop for a rental kitchen, and we regretted not bringing our ice packs and a cooler.

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From the market, we walked to the harbor, and fell more in love with the city. White buildings, dramatic towers, blue water, lots of people going about their business. We saw the first tour groups we’ve seen in the Charente. We picked up a map from the tourist office, and followed the marked walking tour around the historical center. Would enjoy a few days here. We started talking about a possible future coastal trip of a few days here, a few days in Bordeaux, and then down to San Sebastian.

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Arcaded 15th century buildings, and streets paved with the stones used as ships ballast. Selfie taken at the harbor, with the 14th century St. Nicolas tower in the background.

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For lunch, we ordered an assortment of things from the small cafe Le Comptoir Saoufé. Crevettes (shrimp), bulots (sea snails, delicious dipped in mayo), fish soup, and some good oysters. Low tide snacks and crisp white wine, perfect.

We were curious about the two islands offshore which are beach destinations. We decided to go to the more southern one, Ile d’Oleron. There’s a long causeway out over the estuary, and a two lane road which much be maddening in busy summer. The towns are built up with junk shops and touristy thing as you’d imagine seaside resorts will be, though there are some quiet back roads, long stretches of oyster beds, cafes on the water in a few places, and some lovely beaches.

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We spent some lazing time on the beach at La Cotinière, and then drove south, stopping at coves along the way connected by roads shaded by pine trees. On the way off island, we again regretted not bringing a cooler and ice packs to bring back some oysters from the shacks dotting the road.

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Back home, some wine and leftovers for dinner, enjoying the golden light on the barns next door.

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Stories in Stone

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We drove north toward Aulnay, one of the most decorated and well known of the Romanesque churches in the Charente. Along the way, we stopped when we saw the sign for a 12 century church and a chateau. To our surprise there were a lot of cars parked in this lonely spot, and re realized after interrupting some teen boys out for a smoke, the chateau is, like many others int he area, now a school. The church Saint-Georges was locked up tight so we couldn’t see the crypt, but the neighboring old cemetery was wonderfully atmospheric, with its headstones from the 17th and 18th centuries.

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Another sign for a 11th century church had us turning off  in the town of  Matha . And found the gem of Eglise Saint  Pierre. The carvings, particularly along the cornice at the east chancel were striking, with angry devils and grotesques, frequently torturing human forms.There are Saracens (portrayed with bears and turbans) with animal bodies, 11th century political ads. Love the one of someone playing a lute in between two figures being eaten by monsters.

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We also detoured to see another tiny village church where the ground level has risen so much you can almost touch the tops of the capitals. The portal carvings include typical animals representing Apostles, (and as is often done, a few extra thrown in to better fit the space) and lovely doves on the upper tier.

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The landscape is quite flat around here, just fields of various grains and sunflowers not yet in bloom. The effect of a church towering up against this flat landscape really must have seemed like stretching toward Heaven in the 11th and 12th centuries.

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Aulnay is a large town, with some interesting old buildings, most notable Saint Pierre. The tourist office near the church has a good little booklet in English. Saint Pierre was built in the 11th century, part of the abbey of St. Cypried of Potiers, so a wealthy church that could attract the most skilled craftsmen. The carvings are delicate and dizzingly detailed.

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On the west portal, the three arches contain carvings to signify land life on the left, Christian in the center, and celestial on the right.

The middle portal has four bands–the upper one has the calendar represented by the work done on the land, and the zodiac. Underneath is Christ and virgins, under that that a fight between Defects and Virtues, and the bottom one the Lamb and angels.

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The south portal has many fun animal figures.

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The interior soars, with tall capitals sporting fantastic scenes. More devils and sinners, acrobats, and some bible stories–Caine and Abel; Adam and Eve, Samson and Delilah; and for some reason, Hannibal’s elephants.

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After soaking it all in, we drove the short distance to Sant-Jean-d’Angley, an attractive, very lively town. We had a lunch reservation at Le Scorlion, which was a good thing as it was mobbed with local business people. They know a good thing, because the daily menu was delicious. I had asparagus soup topped with chevre, then fish, and finally a gorgeous “carpaccio” of paper-thin pineapple with sorbet. Larry had marinated sardines, then beef and finished with a chocolate and coffee dessert. Great meal, and a deal for 22 euros for all three courses.

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The town is interesting, with a pretty pedestrian area and some old half-timbered buildings, , a cool partially ruined gothic church, and a few small museums. Things were pretty much closed when we were there, but it’s be worth a visit one morning or late afternoon.

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Home for a rest, and some veggies for dinner from the farm stand.

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Stones

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On Monday we headed back to Saintes. I’d read that there was a large monthly market on the first Monday each month, so thought we’d check it out. Maybe it’d be great, maybe it’s be blocks of shoe vendors. Turned out, shoe and clothing vendors, with a small shot of cheap housewares. Ah well.

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We walked over to the Abbay Aux Dames. This was an enormous, very wealthy convent founded in 1047. The present church was constructed in the 12th century, and the abbey buildings shortly thereafter, and rebuilt after fires during the Renaissance. In the 18th century the abbey buildings housed a prison, the church was eventually returned to its intended use, and today the buildings house a music school, concert facilities, and you can even stay in the former nun’s cells. And wonder of wonders, the English audioguide is fantastic, packed with detail and engaging. We spent a long time outside the church, identifying the stories and motifs in the carvings.

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We then spent time inside to the reconstructed convent, where the reconstructed rooms are airy and light, with some lovely 17th and 18th century carvings.

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. Larry climbed the steep scary steps to the belltower, where there were more magnificent carvings.

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We drove the short distance to Les Lapidiales in Port-d-Envoix. This is a former stone quarry, where each year sculptors from around the world are invited to create on the site, sculpting into the rock face of the quarry or onto freestanding forms to leave on the site. The works are stunning in their variety and how the artists chose to integrate their ideas with the site.

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We had a picnic lunch under the trees–artichoke, cheese, bread, fruit..

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We drove through two pretty nearby river towns, Port-d-Envoux and Taillenbour. River views, a Saracen tower with a barn added on to it, a chateau or two turned into schools and hotels, cows contemplating us.

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Spent the evening under the grape arbor, and made steak au poivre, endive, and potato salad for dinner.

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Sunday in the Country

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Well, it really is ALL country around here! We often find ourselves in back of some sort of mysterious farm machinery going between fields.

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Sunday we drove north of Angouleme to the small riverfront town of Verteil-sur-Charente. You can walk along the river, and we popped in to see an old mill, which fascinated Larry. As I was outside admiting the view of the Chateau, Larry came out and sternly told me I HAD to go to the bathroom. What, am I three years old? He insisted. I went to the bathroom, and to my hilarity found a window inside giving view to yet another turning mill wheel!

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We continued our walk, looking at all the pretty houses (someone is selling a 5-bedroom riverfront house for 250, 000 euros. Who’s in?) Up the the church, there’s a painted sculpture from the 1600’s.

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Winding through back roads through fields, we were looking for the medieval cemetery I had seen mentioned from a leaflet from the tourist office. In the one-crossroads village of Ligne, we finally found it, opening the gate and seeing about 50 long rectangular weathered gravestones. Very few still had easily recognizable markings, just a few crosses, battle axes, and swords. It’s interesting that the gravestones were horizontal (we were later to see many others from the 17th and 18th centuries) instead of vertical. Unfortunately, the tiny small church nearby was closed for renovation.

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Tusson is a town that still had many Renaissance and older buildings, and has put together an interesting open museum of regional craftsmen leading to a medieval garden. We ate an overpriced Sunday lunch in the restaurant  Le Compostelle. Our best course was the enormous slice of foie gras, everything else was less than ordinary (although Larry did like the dessert) We wandered through town, but had to rush to get to the garden we wanted to visit and then on to see the Priory we had wanted to get into yesterday.

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The garden on the grounds of a fancy-looking inn, Logis du Portal in Vars, was beautiful. Set along the banks of the river, there were roses along every wall, a huge vegetable garden, long lawns bordered by flowerbeds.

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On to the Priory in Ronsenac. We got there a few minutes early, and admired capitals on the next door church and the field of bachelor’s buttons while we waited.

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Finally our guide showed up, he was dismayed to find we only had rudimentary French, but soldiered on. To our surprise, he is the owner of the Priory, it has been in his family for many years and he has slowly been restoring it while living inside. He led us through the ruins of the cloister, and up a winding stone stairway to the partially ruined floors above. He’s putting a great deal of money into this place, and judging by the depth of his book collection, is a serious historian.

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In the old chapter house,you can see fragments of two 13th century frescoes, one of the expulsion from Eden, the other of a monk. Can you imagine living under this?

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Fascinating day. Leftovers for dinner.