Sunday with Family; Monday in Town

Early Sunday morning we took the train from nearby Euston Station up to Liverpool. When Larry’s father and his four siblings escaped Germany on the Kindertransport, they all lived in England for a time. Four eventually made their way to the US, the fifth stayed in England (eventually also living in Israel and the US). Aunt Kaye’s story can be read here, on a website that tells of the Jews of Bad Neustadt. Kaye’s Story

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We had a lovely lunch at Larry’s cousin’s home, punctuated with the charm of the youngest Klein descendant and the good-natured jests of various football fans. Real football, not this ponsy American game.

Oh, and cousin Tamar made fantastic scones. Yes, she shared the recipe!

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Monday we fulfilled one of Larry’s requests, a London Walks that focused on the Brunel Tunnel under the Thames. The tunnel was completed in 1843, and at the time was considered “The Eighth Wonder of the World.” Our guide led us along the river on the south bank, telling interesting stories about the shipping history of the Thames,its former neighborhoods, the poverty in the area, and the Blitz.  The powerful East India Company  had its stronghold in Rotherhithe, now a quiet, upscale community of restored warehouses and new flats.

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At the end of the tour we went down into the viewing platform that led to the tunnel, where there’s not much to see and the “Museum” is a room with a video playing (now the tube goes through the tunnel). Still, engineer Larry was pleased, and I thought the guiding quite interesting.

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We dithered a bit about lunch before again attempting to get into Guildhall, eventually landing at an OK Vietnamese cafe in the City. And yes, Guildhall was open. It’s a gorgeous 15th century building surrounded by modern construction, you’d need to be looking for it to find the entrance through the bureaucratic hallways. It was constructed as a civic building, many trials and public meetings have been held in the Great Hall over the centuries, it is still used for events.. Several memorial statues were added in the 18th and 19th centuries,and it’s an interesting room to wander in.

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Across the plaza is the Guildhall Art Gallery, which at this time had an exhibit of Victorian art, all rosy cheeked maidens and allegories. But downstairs is something fun, the remains of the Roman amphitheater, the largest in Brittania, with the wooden gutters still underneath. Rather cheese overly dramatic lighting and human forms to give context, but still cool.

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Made our way back home, had some Indian takeaway for dinner.

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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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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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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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Gardens and Knights

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We’d been seeing signs around advertising that this weekend many local gardens would be open for visitors. One which seemed to generate some local excitement was a privately-held chateau with an extensive water garden, Logis de Forge. It’s just south of Angeloume, in the pretty riverfront town of Mouthiers-sur-Boeme. We called up, and were told to come at 10. We were met by the owner, and a few others, all rabid French gardeners. The tour was in French, although Monsieur would briefly highlight some things for us. The chateau had a mill as part of the property, and a large millpond fed by the river and a deep spring. Over time, tributaries formed, and were encouraged to create a watery natural garden. Cypresses from Louisiana were planted to hold the soil along the banks.

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It’s enormous, we walked for close to an hour, following the waterways. There’s a formal portion near the Chateau, but most of the garden is deliberately natural looking, punctuated every now and then with plantings and sculptures. There was some fascinating conversation toward the end from one of the visitors, a “sorcier”, person who can “feel” the presence of water, in high demand for well digging. Larry the engineer politely voiced his more scientific view when pressed, and as it turned out, three of the visitors were engineers!

From there, we meandered into the town of Villebois-Lavalette. The Saturday market was just closing down under the 16th century market roof, but we were in time to snag a plate of oysters. They were enormous, and a bit too aggressively  briny for my taste.

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We got an outdoor table in the restaurant opposite, and shared boudin noir (I tried it, a and liked it!) decent veal and mashed potatoes, especially since it was the plat of the day for 8 euros. Although someone in the kitchen needs to learn to not stick rosemary twigs into every dish. There was an extended French family next to us, with baby Gaston happily chowing down on boudin noir when he wasn’t throwing toy dinosaurs at me.

Love the old market roof, and the cool 17th century sundial.

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And of course, there’s a chateau looming above town opposite the church.

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We picked up a map from the restaurant, and on the back was a photo of a 13th century wall mural fragment in the Priory of Ronsenac. We went to the town, found the old church (sadly destroyed and renovated out of most of its medieval features, with the closed-up Priory next door. We called the tourist office, someone else called us back, and an appointment was made for the following afternoon. In the meantime, we found the pretty little church of Charmont, with interesting carvings along the back nave, and traces of the original pain inside. Many of these Romanesque churches originally had brightly painted interiors!

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We had previously made an appointment to get inside the Chapelle des Templiers in Blanzac-Porcheresse. It took asking two people in town to find the place, finally involving  a long drive up a single car track through a high meadow. We were met there by a young teacher from the town, who let us in and helped interpret the paintings. The murals and church were done in 1160 by the Knights Templar, who were eventually proclaimed a heretical sect and banned by the church, their properties confiscated. The murals were severely damaged over the years and were heavily restored a few years ago. The long wall shows a battle scene of French knights battling the Saracens, a walled city that might be Antioch, and Frenchwomen peering out from the battlements of their city.

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The West wall shows a queen symbolizing France, with a Knight vanquishing Infidels. To the left is  Saint George and the Dragon. On the East, there’s a fun one of the weighing of souls, with the devil tumbling down; and on the right side, a newer one showing a bishop.

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Home, first stopping along the way to photograph a huge fiend of poppies. To my dismay I found I’d been standing on stinging nettles, so itched all night.

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Made an Italian dinner for a change of pace, pasta with zucchini and a tomato/mozzerella salad. The local market has fresh Italian imports, nice.

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