Sunday, 24 June 2018

Abbaye de Saint-Savin

Abbaye de Saint-Savin from the river-side garden
The church bells announced 2 o'clock and there was already a sizeable crowd of folks gathered outside the door to the abbey. Turned out they were nearly all French as well; France really does seem to keep it treasures well hidden from tourist eyes - anywhere else there would be queues of tour buses cluttering up the world for the rest of us. I am definitely not complaining; by the time I got round to visiting the church I had to share it with only one other person - that's the sort of crowds I can cope with. Considering this is one of the more import historical sites in France, there is not much pandering to international tourists: official audio guides, people guides and the majority of explanatory texts are all in French. There are one or two examples of multi-lingual leaflets and panels, but that's about it. Perhaps this just means all the funds have been invested in the site itself - sounds like a good plan! And the whole site is extraordinary!

Part of the refectory - where the monks ate together
I pockled about the gift shop for a bit browsing the books and waiting for milling "crowds" to disperse. After that I had the place mostly to myself, simply walking through an unmarked doorway into the stone stairwell up to the next floor. 

This part of the abbey was built or rebuilt in the 18th century but even so as a random part of the building it was fabulous: solid glowing white stone flooded with light from the large windows facing the river. It was as if this was just an ordinary set of stairs that you expected to be there. The only touristic piece of information was the explanation of why the stone stairs were so heavily worn - not from the monks but from gendarmes and their families who had been billeted in the abbey during the late 19th or early 20th century, their hob-nail boots had taken their toll.

The first floor contained monk's cells. These had been altered somewhat, some joined together with fireplaces added presumably to accommodate the gendarmes. Each had been furnished with grand displays describing some detail in the history of the abbey. In the hall I counted 13 doorways but I could not figure out how this grand building was designed to house only 13 monks; some redevelopment has clearly occurred through the years. In one of the displays is an idealised plan for the construction of an abbey prepared by that great Bangorian, St. Gall. On his plan, and indeed in the original layout of the abbey, there were huge gardens so the monks could be self-sufficient in food and herbal remedies; these needed much more than only 13 monks nevermind the other duties they had to perform. I remain baffled...
Fresco: Combat of Kings

Back on the ground floor is the refectory, just to emphasise how much room was required to feed all these monks. It is a huge space with a marvellous vaulted ceiling. Tucked away at one end is one of the original fresco panels from the church: it had been on the ceiling after the nave and almost above the alter. Seems the underlying barrel vault had started to deteriorate with a major crack appearing. So the painted plaster-work was removed and reassembled here. Rather fortunate, as it is very difficult to see the detail in the church. This panel, referred to as "Combat of Kings", represents Abraham leading the Israelite army against the army of the 3 Kings. Even after almost 1,000 years the quality of the work is quite amazing. And it prepares you for what is to come - the church itself.

Ceiling and nave of the abbey's church
Access to the church is through its main door facing the town square. There are frescoes on the ceiling of the porch, on the barrel vault of the nave and just before the alter. The church itself - like the church built by Eleanor of Aquitaine & Henry in Poitiers - is filled with light. It really is quite extraordinary. You need the brochure from the shop to explain the stories painted above your head; some such as Noah's ark are easy to interpret but since the frescoes are so high and have lost their original brightness and definition, and of course one's own knowledge of the Bible may be lacking - a few hints do not go amiss. The whole story from Genesis and Exodus is told in sequence.

To be honest I found the whole experience rather overwhelming and by the time I reached the church I was struggling to take it all in. Afterwards I took a moment sitting outside in a bit of a daze trying to process the information overload; I didn't succeed. Eventually I clambered back on the bike and drove straight home via Lussac de le Châteaux, Usson and Pressac. I was still a bit stunned and it has taken a day or two to recover and to realise I had missed a lot.

Fortunately I think I will be returning in the not too distant future with a few others to experience it all afresh. Now I will know to pace myself to really get the full experience of the Abbey and everything leading up to it.

Saint-Savin sur Gartempe

View of the abbey from the new bridge
Sunday morning. Today I managed to organise a croissant and coffee through the camp-site shop. Then it was packup time and get the bike loaded again. The underseat straps of the panniers were sagging a bit but to get the seat off meant untangling all the straps holding the panniers on. They were sitting clear of the exhaust OK and were solid enough when everything tied together so instead made a note to self.

The abbey in the town doesn't open till after lunch on Sunday so I planned to spend a couple of hours investigating the other wonders of Saint-savin. Drove into the main square before the abbey and set off walking with boots, helmet and jacket dangling off the bike. It was already getting too warm.

The old bridge between St.Germain & Saint-savin
Headed over the new bridge and got a better picture of the abbey. Looking down at the river flowing by, fish were swimming about, when I don't know how many frogs all started bellowing. I thought at first it was ducks but there were none about; couldn't find the frogs either, probably well hidden in the grassy bank.

Not far downstream is the old town bridge that used to link St.Germain to Saint-savin. It looks pretty good with the mansard roofed houses on the Saint-savin side. Took me a while to walk round there and as I was peering over the bridge, the blue-flash of a Kingfisher whizzed by; hunted everywhere to see if I could find it perched on a tree but no luck. Continued over the bridge and by now getting rather blasé about the quality of the medieval houses and streets - I have no more room in my head for these "ordinary" ancient stone buildings.

11th century church in St. Germain
Eventually walked down the avenue of trees between the abbey and the river to try and get some close-up external pictures of the abbey or the abbot's lodge at the opposite end from the church; it was more interesting to look at though it is in a pretty derlict state. On the river bank is a pink mill-house which has a glazed porch set over the wheel; sadly it too is pretty run-down. A couple of canoeists were attempting, vainly, to paddle up the mill-race in the wrong direction. It was that sort of lazy, warm day with nothing terribly important to be doing.

Continued down a wider avenue between the river and a residential quarter; mostly modern houses but some evidently repurposed and refurbished older stock. Just before the town road petered out to become a country road, on the other side of the river was the St.Germain church. Reportedly 11th century and although it did not look especially worthy, it definitely looked pretty with a lawn running down to the river and a couple of youthful weeping willows getting ready to dangle into the water. But it must be close to lunchtime, my stomach said; back to the town square for something to eat and sit in the sun waiting for the Abbey to open.

Saturday, 23 June 2018


The old mill at the campsite in Saint-Savin
It was time to setup camp. Heading out of Antigny, it was a short trip to Saint-savin itself, the main road taking me into the square in-front of the abbey; fortunately the tourist office was just a few steps away and I picked up a map of the town and directions to the campsite. Before heading out, I crossed the new bridge into St. Germain to see what was there hoping to return crossing the old bridge into the old town but the road over the bridge was one-way.

Mill wheel and sluice of the mill

The campsite is on the site of an old water-mill, it is not clear what was milled but by the look of the series of wheels this may have been a mechanical power source feeding some industrial process like making paper perhaps. The bottom floor of the mill is a gite while the first floor is a common room for the campers. Later on while munching tea the TV was tuned in to the German-Sweden match in the World Cup.
Chauvigny built upon a rock

This was after I had pitched tent and went for a run to fetch some grub; I headed over to Chauvigny about 20k to the west across an exceptionally flat landscape of cereal and grass fields. Chauvigny had been built upon a rock with narrow streets winding up and down through a maze of medieval houses and shops. It had been remodelled for tourists though and despite its neatness and obvious historical value seemed oddly inauthentic. Perhaps it was the excessive use of maroon paint on everything made it seem homogenized. Still it was pretty.
A popular caravan style - these are new!

In the morning an enormous camper-home - the size of a tour bus - rumbled its way out of the site closely followed by a VW Polo or a similar car with a rigid tow bar folded up on its bonnet evidently towed behind the huge camper. This must have been a nightmare to drive round some of the tiny "main" roads around here. It was then I noticed a cluster of tiny, retro caravans buzzing about getting ready to depart. Small and low with a pop-up roof, these reminded me of early caravans in the fifties but these ones were brand, spanking new filled with wrinklies remembering their youth no doubt.

My youth had been spent under canvas, so nothing much has changed then.


Several times since Jouhet there were fingers-posts pointing to Château de Bois Morand as if it was somewhere one was expected to visit. The fourth one pointed off the road into a wood and seemed to be the destination of import. A quick u-turn and down the road I went.

Eglise in Antigny
The road soon became a track heading downhill with a 10 tonne warning sign. A left turn insisted no cars, motos or other wheeled vehicles were welcome; indeed the path seemed to lead into the yard in the centre of a group of private buildings. Nothing else was visible - a tall stone wall blocked what I took to be the château proper and a brick wall guarded farm buildings to the right; everything else was a dense wood. So the only way was forward, down the 10 tonne lane.

I expected the lane to take me down to the river somewhere but as I turned a right-angled corner, the track was littered from side-to-side with shattered glass; I decided to retreat! Attempting a 17-point 180° turn on a considerable slope with stones and ruts was testing; so much so that the bike decided I wasn't competent, threw me off and lay itself down in protest. The soft panniers prevented it going right down but still its dead weight represented something of a problem since as I tried to lift it up, it wanted to roll down the hill. After some heaving I managed to reach in and engage 2nd gear and then finally lifting it almost vertical before getting it properly under control.
Frescoes and under-roof of Antigny church

Once I had cooled down and blood-pressure had returned to normal, I remounted and got outta there. I suspect I had missed a trick; certainly looking at google maps and a few articles, it seems this château has something of a reputation but is not open to the public. Who knows why there is a need for sign-posts to lead you there. Onward to Antigny.

Antigny's church is located on an unexpected chicane - driving a horse & cart wouldn't cause a problem but any other sort of vehicle needs to take care. Also, on the way into the village you pass a local museum; I decided not to check it out but information inside the church indicated it might have some interesting objects including some archaeological treasures.

Medieval lantern in Antigny
From the doorway, the church is clearly early-medieval although not especially remarkable. To the right is a covered area which supposedly is where parishioners would gather before or after church services to gossip about village life. The bell tower and its tiny spire are likely later additions. Inside is very interesting! The frescoes of course are impressive though they are fading and difficult to make out. The roof or ceiling is very unusual though. A few simple supports between the walls reach up to the apex of the ceiling - these supports are unusually light especially given the medieval tendency to over engineer structures. The ceiling itself is shaped almost as a barrel vault except it is made of wood. At first glance they look just like regular voliges but then compare the arched shaped of the interior ceiling and the external, steep roof. It would be very interesting to see how the roof is actually held up! 

A couple of information panels inside the church describe the frescoes and mention the structure across the road on the common; it looks like a war memorial but actually is a medieval lantern.


A "green man" in Jouhet church perhaps?
Jouhet is a pretty, sleepy village on the east bank of La Gartempe. Most of the buildings in the town have some quirky feature about them - a first-floor "veranda", carved balustrade along the garden path, stone-mullioned window frames, hipped roofs, ornate chimney stacks or whatever. It already exuded character without the commune having to lift a finger. The main road heads toward a bridge over the river but before actually crossing the river,  turns sharp right to follow the eastern bank - as if the bridge leads to some unknowable place.
And on the way in to the village, the local shop, bar, tabac, restaurant all conveniently in one building was thronged with locals getting ready for Saturday lunch. Perfect timing - I decided to join them, a popular local eatery is always a good recommendation. A good choice it was too. The bar also acted as "guardian of the key" which gave access to the funerary where the frescoes lived.

Frescoes in Jouhet funerary
After lunch, I dandered toward the town square before the marie, the church, the bridge and the funerary. The church door faced the river with a narrow lane on one-side separating it from a row of houses, the biblioteque and the marie. Inside was quite plain and somehat disappointing as I had been expecting a painted ceiling. The arch before the alter was supported by a pair of half-columns one of which had a "grotesque" face; this i took to be an example of a stylised green man perhaps representing some elemental pagan spirit. Not usually as prominent and plain as this example though.

Outside again, I crossed the road to the funerary. I suspect this part of the village has gone through some restructuring over time; a funerary would usually be placed at the centre of the graveyard to be used for funerals and similar occasions - no sign at all of any gravestones. The exterior of the building was indeed quite austere but as soon as I unlocked the door, flooding the interior with light - the frescoes were extraordinary!

Jouhet funerary
These frescoes represented scenes from the bible usually designed for the illiterate majority. These particular paintings had been commissioned in the 15th century by a local count and the same artisan was employed in Antigny and other locations heading towards Saint-savin so their style would be quite similar. 

It was especially pleasant in Jouhet - I took a shine to the place - enjoying the heat of the afternoon and the tranquillity of the village. But I had to be moving, so I dropped the key back with the "guardian" and set off again. Crossing the bridge, I turned right to follow the left bank of the river north to Antigny. The roads here were proper twisty country roads; sadly they were short-lived before joining up with the main drag between Lussac-les-Château and Saint-savin - well it did have a white-line down the middle of the road!

Friday, 22 June 2018


Back at Lathus, took the road for Saulgé following the left bank of the river. The church in Saulgé is the first (or last) in the series for frescoes; I was tempted to stop but time was getting on and I reckoned it would be better to setup camp and spend the evening exploring Montmorillon which had 3 fresco sites and other interesting stuff. Saulgé got deferred then till another day. Next stop was the campsite at Montmorillon.

Exposed roof timbers
Montmorillon is a pretty, large town, about twice the size of Ruffec, with a medieval centre and modern commerce on the outskirts of the town. By the time I had pitched camp, sourced grub for dinner and devoured same, everything in the old town had closed. I don't think folks had quite gotten in to the way of tourists just yet, no-one was at all keen to cater for them.

Exposed wall timbers
The modern centre is on the east bank of the river tucked away among narrow, ancient cobbled streets. There is a good mixture of modern and old buildings in the main square. As I arrived, the local judo or karate club had commandeered the steps of the tourist office and were presenting prizes, cups and awards to their junior members (all primary-school aged kids) all sitting around judo mats surrounded by parents and grand-parents while the officials boomed their praise over a loud PA system. I spotted a curry-shop on one corner but it was shut for some reason. It was on the corner of a street that led to the old bridge.

Eglise Notre Dame above the old city
La Gartempe flows through town and the traditional approach was over the old bridge from the east (where the campsite is) right into the old centre. The style of houses is unlike the Charente - no pantiles, instead simple plain red flat tiles with the roofes relatively steep and a bit of a flare at the bottom. Either side of the bridge, the buildings have their timber frames and the gable-end carpentery exposed. Despite their evident age, the buildings and the streets are all in good repair - not at all dishevelled as in Confolens.

On the other side of the bridge a cascade of buildings descend from the spire of the Eglise Notre-Dame to the level of the river bank. This side of the river also has narrow cobbled lanes meandering up and down through the heart of the old town. Montmorillon promotes itself as the Cité de l'Écrit and scattered among the maze of streets and lanes are lots of small bijou shops dedicated to the art of l'écrit - sometimes rather loosely. They were all closed already - the shutters came down at 5pm it seems.

It turns out - I discovered the next day - this self-styled "Cité de l'Écrit" is a modern invention - since the 90's in fact. Worse the idea had been invented in Wales at Hay-on-Wye! Despite this, Montmorillon does have a sound history associated with the book trade with the surrounding area using the river in the production of paper. The town became especially renowned for its production of large wall maps, the sort they used to have in every school. Other claims to fame are museums on macaroons and office equipment (typewriters). All this I missed; it will have to wait till I return.
Eglise Saint Laurent, part of the Maison Dieu

The next day, rather than trying to visit the various fresco sites, I preferred to head toward Saint-Savin itself taking in the villages of Jouhet and Antigny on the way. Before I left, I did locate the local brewery - a small affair hidden away in an industrial estate - and the Eglise Saint Laurant. This church formed part of the Maison Dieu a large religious complex that served variously as an hospitalier for pilgrims and, much later, a Jesuit seminary. The Maison Dieu, along with the Eglise Notre Dame, house the 15th century frescoes.

Access was not open though I did not try too hard, keen to get on the road again. I was hoping one of the villages would have a decent restaurant for a proper lunch.

Voile near Lathus

The stumble back to the bridge from the Gates of Hell was trying, what a relief it was to get back on the road with a decent cooling breeze. In fact this was glorious biking weather: wonderful clear blue skies and most of the time a refreshing cool breeze. Indeed, the sun was hot but it never got a chance to warm up the air. Perfect!

Le Grand Étang, Lathus-Saint-Rémy
Back on the road, headed for Lathus-Saint-Rémy, mostly just to see what was there en route to Saulgé. Not much to report, though I caught sight of a finger-post pointing south toward Le Grand Étang and a sailing club. Always on the lookout for decent canoeing water - not involving slalom gates and torrents - I decided to investigate.
A few clicks south of Lathus, following the finger-posts led to a barrier at the end of the road: the saling club. But a dirt track continued along the bank of the lake; the water lapping right up to the track gave a wonderful view of the lake - which, going by its name, is a natural feature rather than a man-made reservoir. There were no boats out today but I continued on, looking for a slipway perhaps.

I didn't find one, instead the track led onto one of those typical country roads that is not big enough to have a white-line down the middle but isn't small enough to be a single tracker either. I was about to do a u-turn when I spotted what looked like a tiled, conical roof through the trees. Was there a chateau nearby?

So I followed the road. Through the hedge I glimpsed the blue water of another lake and then as I turned a couple of sharp bends, I arrived before the entrance to a very impressive chateau. It is not marked on many maps but seems to be Le Château de Ris-Chauveron. Unfortunately, it was difficult to get a good vantage of the chateau.
West wall and gate house

As the road continued uphill, it passed between two enormous stone farm buildings that had seen better days. The one on the left looked more like a stable while the other had the huge traditional door arch of a barn and just as I parked up, a modern tractor arrived, disappearing round the back of the barn.

In the centre of the chateau ensemble was a huge tower house with battlements on the top. Possibly this is the original fortification built in the 14th century with a ring-wall protecting the keep. The location of the chateau is right on the border between Vienne and Haute-Vienne and in medieval times was in the County of Marche - a sort of lawless no-mans-land between all the competing counts and war-lords in the surrounding area. The castle evidently fell into disrepair and left the family's possession after the Revolution changing hands several times during the 19th century. It was restored in 1842 and later was rebuilt in 1882.

South wall glimpsed through trees
The 19th century rebuild perhaps explains the eclectic styles evident on the western wall facing the road. The main gate house features a square tower to one side and a crenellated round tower to the right which looks more decorative than defensive. Then stretching out to the left are a series of windows with stone mullions ending in a square tower with an almost Rhenish slate roof. The square gate house has two tall ornate chimneys; a small conical roof can just about be seen above the central tower, perhaps it is also a decorative chimney.

The most spectacular structures appear to be on the south-side, overlooking the lake. Unfortunately I could only get glimpses through the trees - two fabulous narrow round towers with pretty conical roofs and several other constructions set before the old tower. Something of a 19th century confection I suspect with wonderful architectural gems hidden in plain view. It must be a marvellous place to explore!

Sadly, not for me today. I turned back, returning to Lathus.

The Gates of Hell

This was to be my first outing on my bike - fully loaded. I wanted to get some idea of what I really needed to carry and how I might find space for it all, fully expecting to need to travel lighter. I only expected to be away for couple of nights, confident I would have left several essentials behind.

It had taken quite some time to actually get everything together - some of the inner-bags arrived early on the day of departure. So many other things had been scheduled during the week and worst of all I accidentally confirmed 3 appointments for the Thursday. As it was, I had to cancel my regular french class on the Friday otherwise I wouldn't have left at all. Even then I spent all of Friday morning packing and repacking bags, strapping bags on the bike - multiple times - until I was eventually ready to go. By then, it was well past lunchtime.

The torrent (on a good day)
Although the trip was ostensibly about the medieval frescoes decorating 8 religious buildings between Saulgé and Saint-Savin along La Gartempe, while researching the route I spotted a label on Google maps saying "Les portes d'Enfer" or "The Gates of Hell" - I couldn't very well pass that one by. So the trip started at the very gates of hell and would end with the heavenly host hoisting me on-high (perhaps).

Anyways, this was my first target, approached by a circuitous route via Lessac, Availles-Limouzine, Adriers and on toward Lathus-Saint-Rémy. Only a couple of route checks were necessary and as I approached La Gartempe, sure enough there were signs for the "Gates" or le "Roc". The maps suggested there was a path from the road to the "roches" which I hoped I could tackle on the bike but it turned out the path was a genuine footpath. For a mini-detour, I checked out the Centre de Plein Air (CPA), Lathus just upstream - a complex of buildings encircled by school buses and many, many cars. Evidently a popular outdoor pursuits centre; kayaking slalom gates were strung out across the river just for starters. Everyone must have been indoors having lunch, not a soul was about, so I just back-tracked to the bridge, parked up, removing the tank-bag with its "convenient" shoulder-strap and set out to take the path to "hell".
Looking down from one of the Gates

On one side of the bridge there were a few pebbled parking spots - empty when I arrived - with a few information boards describing the local flora and fauna. At the entrance to the path, one sign enthusiastically announced the imposing rocks down stream that turned the river into a "torrent" now named the "Gates of Hell". Sounded exciting!

It didn't take long to realise even proper dirt-bikes could not have tackled the path: up and down granite steps, clamber over exposed roots, and worse later on. It also didn't take long to discover that my tank-bag was seriously over-weight: apart from the tank magnets it had a heavy bike lock, all my electronic gear and sundry other bike bits. At least the full water bottles would be useful. The heat of the afternoon was starting to tell.

It seemed to take forever before the river began to look less than serene; a few large boulders caused some turbulence but soon the breeze rustling the leaves got drowned out by tumbling water. The sound of the torrents announced themselves before coming into view round a bend in the river and for a length of 100m or so, the brown water tumbled and cascaded every which way until my progress was halted by a series of towering granite monoliths. The path had run its course to be replaced by an almost sheer rock wall; not difficult, though stepping up the huge boulders with a too-heavy satchel in extreme heat and a jacket on was too much. I didn't even have the good sense to replace heavy, hot bike-boots with a regular pair of shoes. The bag and jacket got ditched at the bottom of the rock wall and wielding my trusty camera I clambered over and up the rocks until I reached the top of one side of the "Gates", the other across the river, with a massive rock between them. As you can see in the photo, the river has calmed down by this stage and pretty soon reverted to its serene flow disappearing into the distance.

On top of the rocks were several pitons holding short chains, used perhaps for abseiling or maybe climbing a couple of chimneys dropping down to the river (I had seen images of rock climbing back at the CPA). The torrents did not look that scarey but then I suppose, this was almost summer time - with winter or spring rains feeding the river, I could imagine raging white-water making this part of the river pretty demanding. Back at the start, by the bridge, there were many wires crossing the river which I later discovered held canoe gates and one of the signs indicated this was an international competition venue - check out this video!

Having descended again to beside the noisy water, there were several bright blue dragonflies or libellule doing their thing, dancing in the air and chasing each other in between rest-stops on the sun-warmed granite or tall grasses dipping into the still water at the rivers edge. By now the tourist hordes were arriving - after their feasting presumably; I hadn't expected that - it didn't take many people to make the place feel crowded.

Mind, I don't think I will be coming back with a canoe in tow, at least not destined for this part of the river; too challenging for me even on a calm day like today.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Cold Snap

Today was a bit of an unexpected cold snap - temperatures dropped to -3°C overnight and then it snowed! Just as November finished too - it has been a cold month.

According to our meteo-map, we are in a bit of a depression here with temperatures lower than other places nearby; for example, Limoges reported a lowest temperature of +4°C and we are probably at a slightly lower altitude. Even Bourgeneuf was warmer. Weird.

Anyway, a snow covered North Charente is pretty as a picture, snow-encrusted hedgerows with some trees in the background still orange with their autumn plumage. The starkness made it real easy to spot the raptors, some of them huddled up against the cold. I really need to figure out how to search and capture these fabulous birds.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Lunches: May 2017

Judy & Drew in Auberge St. Jean
Nearby, there are plenty of great restaurants. Some in fabulous locations, others offering extraordinary grub or beer or wine. Still, we each have our favourites and this choice is rarely rational. And the best thing is, its a no-brainer when we have to go somewhere for lunch - provided there is no discussion!


A summer lunch in Nanteuil is usually at my favourite place - Auberge Saint Jean. Across the road from the village eglise, sitting on the terrace or perhaps sheltered from the sun under an over-hang of the medieval timbered wall. The menu du jour has always been good and their regular menu is available if you fancy snails or some other local delicacy.

Verteuil Château
You can take-in the village at leisure or at pace viewing some extra-ordinary ancient stone work; if the 8th century abbey happens to open for viewing, you might write-off the afternoon.

But if there is still time in the sun, nearby Verteuil-sur-Charente has a spectacular photo opportunity and a chance for some pink-champagne with or without a dob of ice-cream


On days when the weather cannot make up its mind, a trip to Civray is always a good bet.

First stop is usually Charroux to visit the Charlemagne Tour. It is supposed to be open for strolling about behind the fence but we have never got our timings quite right: either arriving at lunch-time or, as as happened this year, in the middle of one of those typical French rain storms that deluge for 10 minutes just as you step out of the car.

 Café Gourmand in Civray
Friday is a good time to arrive in Civray when the morning market is on; plenty of great produce on offer and then pop into the restaurant on the corner - if its damp - or enjoy the heat of the day on the pavement when its warmer. This has become Pauline's new favourite because of the Café Gourmand.

And after a lunch its only a step across the street to one of the most unusual romanesque churches in France; the external sculptural work is extra-ordinary but that doesn't prepare you at all for what is inside. Even if you might be teetering on being "churched-out", St. Nicholas will impress.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Saint Pardoux Revisited

Judy Swimming
Water is never far way in the Charente; allegedly over 16,000 lakes or ponds in the department. Of course, there are the rivers too - the Vienne & the Charente. The Vienne is dammed at Jousseau, just above Availe-Limouzine, to make a decent boating location which we have yet to test, and there are the Lacs de Haute Charente down toward  Dordogne. But, so far, Lac de Saint-Pardoux has been our go-to place when the weather is hot and cooling water is required.

This year, in early May temperatures have already crept well into the 30's so on Wednesday we packed the car with picnic grub, camp furniture, swimming gear, a canoe and a new battery-power cool-box; definitely a day for properly chilled white wine! Off we set for Saint-Pardoux.

Paul Cooling-off
It was fairly quick up to Bellac, even after a minor distraction via Confolens & Saint-Germain, but after that, the roads shrink; it takes another 25 kilometers or so tacking north and south through fabulous country-side sometimes blazing yellow from blooming broom. Eventually we reached the quaint village of Saint-Pardoux itself. We drifted on past more popular locations to a small car park close to one of the bridges across the lake. Perhaps not the most scenic places but by the time we dandered through the trees to the lakeside, the real world had retreated far enough to be forgotten about altogether.

Down by the shore, a wonderful breeze blew in from the lake to keep us cool and causing the water to lap, lap, lap on the granite stones. A perfect day for a silent sailing dingy drifting across the lake from side to side, leaning into the wind. Perhaps not too auspicious for the canoe, but out it came regardless. Sadly one of the main flotation chambers had a serious leak and it deflated quickly listing fearfully to one side. Trying to find the leak was a major exercise - trying to dunk a boat in search of escaping bubbles is not too easy. I was able to identify a slow leak in the bottom chamber but nothing in the main one. So the boat came out of the water and the valves released. It was then, unexpectedly, I could hear the air escaping and was able to hunt down a centimetre long rip close to one of the seams joining the side to the floor. Although a puncture repair kit was handy, I reckoned additional tools would be needed for a permanent repair. More canoeing will have to wait.

There was plenty to do despite this. A few of us popped in the water for a swim. Then of course we had to test the temperature of the chilled wine - which was perfect - with the old faithful egg'n'onion samiches. The seats too were perfect for a post-prandial doze in the shade. I had taken quite a hit from the sun apparently while trying to trace the leak - it definitely was not the wine.

The only interruption to our idyll came when a few local youngsters walked part-way over the bridge and then - in some trepidation - jumped in to the water below bobbing up with squeals and laughter. Days like this are hard to beat.

Abbaye de Saint-Savin

Abbaye de Saint-Savin from the river-side garden T he church bells announced 2 o'clock and there was already a sizeable crowd of fol...