Valnerina Wandering

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Evan was arriving in Rome Monday morning. The plan was for him to take the train from Fumicino up to Orte, where we’d pick him up. There were several places I wanted to get to in southern Umbria, so this worked well.

Another beautiful sunny day. We drove down past Trevi, the headed on to the sp 209, a road which climbs up, over, and occasionally tunnels through the mountainous landscape. We stopped to wander some tiny hilltowns, church hunting with the aid of Bill Thayer’s website. We never did find San Felice di Narco, and the churches in tiny Vallo di Nera were locked up tight., with Santa Maria looking quite the worse for wear (or earthquakes). Wandering around the five medieval streets of Vallo, we found two little kittens playing in a flowerpot. Larry would not let me take them home, happily they looked well fed and healthy. Scheggio was a particularly pretty town, with a river underneath the hilltop town.

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One of the churches high in my list was San Pietro in Valle. It was founded in the 8th century, and the present Abbey was built in the early 12th century, with some of the earliest frescoes in Umbria. To get there, we took an extremely steep, winding road up and up and up, praying that we’d not meet a car coming down the other way. The road ends at the Abbey, where the church and cloister have been preserved and are open, the other Abbey buildings are a small hotel. You’ve got to love peace and quiet to stay there!

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Now this is what I’d been looking for. What a wonderful old church. On the left side are Old Testament scenes; with New Testament on the right. All along the walls are Roman sarcophagi and other bits and pieces; there are 15th century frescoes in the apse, a Medieval Lombard altar, all kinds of fascinating things. And amazingly, the custodian has a pamphlet with a map and details on everything inside the church.

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The simple cloister has been preserved, along with a Roman carved pedestal where the monks had ground off the naughty dancers. There’s an early Christian inscription above a doorway.

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Afterward we briefly stopped in the pretty hilltown of Arrone, but it being Monday, were having trouble finding an open restaurant. I was about to settle for a bar panini when we found a place on the road, featuring fish. After a week of meat and pasta, fish sounded great. Simple place, simple food. We shared an antipasto of prawns in salsa verde, and then a pasta with spicy tomato sauce, and I had trout with truffles. We struck up conversation with a family at the next table, who had just been to the Marmore Falls. We had just enough time for a visit before needing to heat to Orte, so we set off.

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Cascata delle Marmore were initially devised by those clever Romans, who cut channels to divert water away from flood plains. There are three levels, and now the water is used by industry and for hydraulic power. The flow is turned on and off periodically, so visitors should probably check to see when it will be at its strongest flow. When we arrived shortly before 3, we heard a loud siren–the sound of the falls being turned on. At first the falls were pretty but not overwhelming, but within a few minutes it had grown to a thunderous flow, with spray and mist enveloping us on the walkway. You can take paths all the way up to the top, which I would love to do someday with a stronger knee.

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Drove to Orte, scooped up the jetlagged Evan, stopped at Lufra for more bufala and a few pastries, and went home. Dinner was cheese and salumi, and defrosted lentil soup. And I seem to have developed a gross cold, ugh.

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Into the Mountains

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Wednesday morning we stayed at home, being lazy while the sun decided if it was going to make an appearance. We headed out late morning, with no plans other than to head toward some mountains. We took the 356 north of Cividale, winding through Faedis before the road turned steeper and curvier. Thickly forested slopes with craggy tops, small towns, the occasional ruined castello on hillsides, almost no traffic.

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We stopped at the larger riverside market town of Tarcento for lunch, choosing Al Muelin Vieri pretty much at random because of the number of cars parked outside. This seems to be where the local business people go to lunch, groups of them eating and playing cards in between courses. We ate very well from the verbal menu, each having a local stuffed pasta dish. We finally got to try cjazonses, the Friulian potato-dough ravioli stuffed with greens, pine nuts and raisins; sauced with butter and cinnamon, topped with smoked ricotta. Sounds odd, but they were fabulous.

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We continued climbing the twisting road up to Musi, way up into the Parco Naturale Regionale delle Prealpi Giulie. Supposedly this is the wettest part of Italy, and as we were driving through clouds at this point, I could see why.

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Lots of hiking in this area of dramatic scenery of cliffs and river gorges, we saw signposted trails all around.We headed east, but stopped when we realized we’d gotten to the Slovenian border, as we hadn’t thought to have our passports with us. Back down and home. Salad for dinner, and reading on the lumpy sofa while listening to the dripping.

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Port Cities

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Tuesday we woke to cloudy skies, and a faint rainbow after the sun broke through the moisture.

We drove south to Aquiliea, to see the Roman ruins and museum, and especially the Basilica. You drive through a flat landscape of vines and fields, suddenly seeing roman ruins along the road and through the dusty town. The tourist office is well supplied with information, and runs a two hour walking tour at 10:30.

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If you’ve been to Rome, Pompeii or Ostia the ruins may not wow you, and most of the choice bits are in museums. But it is still interesting to walk the different areas of the excavated city ruins, and to see areas still being excavated and studied.  The museum across the road from the Basilica has lovely sculptures on the ground floor. Unfortunately the first floor is currently under renovation and was closed.

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But oh that Basilica…just wonderful. The entire floor covered in fantastic mosaics from the 4th century. You walk on a clear lucite walkway that travels the perimeter. At the front you can buy a pamphlet describing the many different elements and stories told in the mosaics. Plan on time to enjoy this. I could have spent hours slowly walking around, trying to take it all in.  No photos allowed in the main part of Basilica, but they don’t seem to mind you taking them in the other areas. Here is a photo from the web.

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There is also a gaily painted little crypt with a collection of gem encrusted reliquaries, and to the left of the main entrance a lower area being excavated. In these areas they don’t seem to mind photographs.

Here is the crypt, and one of the festively decorated displays of saint’s bones.

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Here the the partially excavated side chapel.

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There is a paved bike path to walk along (look for it behind the tourist office) so you don’t have to walk along the busy road between the sites. Very few visitors when we were there, mostly school groups and a few bus tours. I’d imagine it’s busier in summer.

From there we drove the short distance to Grado, parking just outside the pedestrian area. The centro is lovely, with twisty streets, piazzas and many cafes and seafood restaurants. There is also a beach, crowded in chairs in typical Italian beach style, and a long concrete walkway along the shore where people were sunning themselves on benches.

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We came mainly to see the two 6th century churches, both with lovely mosaic floors. Beautifully detailed, with geometric shapes and animal figures, along with inscriptions. These floors are still heavily in use, with church pews on top. Look for the Lapidarium behind the Baptistry, there are many wonderfully carved early medieval stone pieces inside.

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We had an excellent seafood lunch at Trattoria de Tony. Fried moeche, tiny softshell crabs, sweet grilled prawns, and scroppino (lemon gelato, prosecco and vodka)Supposedly somewhere is a Museum of Underwater Archaeology, but in spite of Google and asking three people, we never found where it was moved to.

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Back home, a simple dinner, and wine on the porch.

Among the Vines in Friuli

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We drove from Venice to our agriturismo just south of Cividale del Friuli on Thursday morning. We’re staying in a winery that rents rooms and apartments, Perusini outside of Cormons. http://www.perusini.com/en/. We are in an old house high on a hill, that has been divided into two apartments. We had originally booked one of the halves, and upon arrival discovered that it only had an exterior staircase, with bedrooms on the top floor and the only bathroom on the ground floor. Uh, with my knee, dragging myself down and up on an outside stairway in the middle of the night, no. Very fortunately, the apartment in the other half of the house had an interior stair, was available, and in fact had the much better view from the porch. It is definitely funky as country houses can be, but we have a fabulous view, a comfortable bed, and the toilet flushes.

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We hit the local Despar for some groceries. Corno di Rozzano is a newer town, not much on charm but with good shops and services for the community. We easily cooked pasta with sausage and greens for dinner (after rinsing out the cooking pots and plates, yuck) , and ate on our porch with a nice bottle of Friulian wine. What more does one need?

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Friday morning we went to the Cormons weekly market. Not huge, and the usual trucks selling made-in-China shoes, clothing, and housewares. But there were several fruit and veg sellers, cheese trucks, and butchers. We bought a kilo of the sweetest peas I’ve ever had, some zucchini, tomatoes, and fruit.

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We drove around a bit, admiring the vine-covered hills, mountains in the distance, and glimpses of castles hidden behind trees.

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Then drove the short distance in a valley to Cividale del Friuli, a lively and very interesting town with plenty to see and do. We found parking in a lot near the “Devil’s Bridge” in the south of town. The centro has attractive main streets, and plenty of evocative cobblestone alleys to explore. It was a stronghold of the Lombards, and retains much of its history.

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There’s a Roman mosaic under the town hall, a Duomo, the lovely Piazza Diacono lined with cafes, a restored 14th century house to explore, and a nice riverside walkway. We tried two regional sweets, gubana and strucchi, pastries filled with nuts, cinnamon and chocolate. Our favorite visit was the the beautiful Tempietto Longobardo, built in the mid 8th century. Tiny and very special, with carvings and partially restored frescoes.

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We had an excellent lunch at Antico Leon d’Oro, just across the Devil’s Bridge on the south side of town. We tried the local traditional frico, a hot mashed potato and cheese dish, hilariously served with polenta. Definitely something to get you through a cold winter. Also excellent was my pasta with asparagus, and Larry’s herb-stuffed ricotta dumplings.

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Cividale has several interesting museums, and since the weather for tomorrow promised rain, we decided to return to them then. To take advantage of today’s sun after lunch we drove north to Gemona in the foothills, (about 40 minutes drive) with mountains rising all around making for a spectacular landscape. The town is built up a hill, and was mostly destroyed during the 1976 earthquake with centered there. The town has been rebuilt and some of the older parts restored. There is a marvelous medieval cathedral with a striking facade. The interior was heavily redone in later centuries, but still there is the charming Romanesque font which incorporates a font from the 2nd century with beautiful carvings. We wanted to go to the small museum, but even though the sign n the door said open, it was firmly shut. Ah, Italy, what can you do. We’ll try again.

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A few miles north we stopped at Venzone, a lovely walled town that was also completely rebuilt from the original stones after the quake. There’s a 14th century civic hall, and a cathedral that is still being restored.

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For dinner we ate at Al Postiglione, the restaurant on the agriturismo. Meat and Meat is what you eat here. We had an excellent crudo, a fresh salad (yay, vegetables) and then the main dish arrived–enough perfectly rare steak for four people, plus vegetables. We also had an engaging encounter with the local curling champions at the next table, celebrating their victory. They seem to push polenta pots on an ice rink, insisting we see their videos on youtube. Much laughter.

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Printed and Spoken

Evan’s flight was scheduled for late afternoon, we we wanted to do something fast and local this morning. Larry and I first walked over to Chapel Market, where there were just a few produce stands, and mostly housewares. We took the few bus stops over to the British Library, first stopping to admire the imposing St. Pancras.

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My favorites are always the gorgeously illustrated old books, including the Golden Hagaddah from 1th century Spain. Really, I hadn’t noticed the “No photographing” sign until I was politely stopped by a guard.

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We went back to the flat to pick up Evan’s bag, and went down to London Bridge to have some lunch before his train to the airport. Want to try the new pasta place which gets such good reviews, but the line was down the street. Instead got a table at the turkish Arabica in Borough Market, and then found out that the train had been cancelled, and he’s need to get an earlier one. The waitress was helpful in steering us to quickly prepared things, and after a tasty and fast lunch, we were out the door.

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After seeing Evan onto the train, Larry and I headed over to Soho, where we had tickets to see Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart in Pinter’s No Man’s Land. They were absolutely brilliant in their roles, giving Pinter’s sometimes head-scratching words shape. I love how a gifted actor can impart humor or despair just with how a line is timed, or with subtle body language. And I adore the jewel-box London theaters, the intimacy so different from Broadway.

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We met up with old friends Jonathan, Philippa and Susan in Leicester Square. Larry and I had a go on the light-up seesaws, there’s video footage here for blackmail purposes. Amy is really 4 years old. We took the bus up to our flat so J&P could drop their bags and chatted a bit, then walked down to Exmouth Market where Berber & Q was just opening. Modern Israeli food, lots of fantastic tastes and textures. We began with an assortment of mezes–slices of smoky eggplant, a delicious beet and orange salad, chiles in yogurt, a rich and chunky humus, a salad of okra and beans much better than it sounds. The short menu emphasizes schwarma, so we shared the fantastic lamb schwarma and chicken, served with herby salads, sauces, and pita. Great food, although the environment got so noisy when full we had difficulty hearing each other, something I hate about so many restaurants these days in my grumpy middle years. I’d certainly go again for the food, but only if I could eat outside or take away.

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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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