Sunday, 20 July 2014

Azay-le-Rideau - not the chateau

Azay-le-Rideau was once known as Azay-le-Brulé on account of an 'insult trading session' in 1418 between the Burgundian garrison who held the village and the Dauphin, [the future Charles VII] who was on his way from Chinon to Tours. In reprisal for the insults hurled at him he ordered the garrison executed and burnt Azay. The name le-Brulé was current until the 16th century.

On previous visits to Azay-le-Rideau we've visited the beautiful Renaissance chateau which we've written about here and here, and wandered its streets; but for some odd reason we never had a look at the church -- something we usually do. Last month we finally rectified the situation.
Part of the earliest façade: possibly as early as 5th or 6th century
The church is special because it has the most lovely façade. Once the church formed part of a monastic settlement that fell under the jurisdiction of the Abbey de Cormery, and it is marked on the Abbey's 11th century maps. However, only the church now remains and functions as the parish church. The rest has long gone but would have stretched out into the grounds of the chateau which lies just beyond the wall in the foreground of the 1st photo.
Detail: top row of figures, Christ in the center
However, well before the 11th century there was an even earlier church on this site. St-Symphorien retains part of a, possibly Merovingian, or Carolingian façade. What remains is what one can see on the right-side; the original single-aisled church. The, probably 6th century, [no one is quite sure just how old it is] façade is dominated by pyramidal or bell-like shapes and rows of figures which the 11th century masons simply incorporated into new larger church they were building. Looking at the way the design has been chopped off it may well be that the 6th century version wasn't gabled, unlike the 11th century expansion. Later in the 13th century a window was punched through the lower row of figures. In the top row one can make out Christ in the center --he's got a nimbus with a cross-- holding a book. To his left are three haloed saints. The figures to his right do not have halos. As with the upper row of figures the lower row has a mix of haloed and non-haloed figures. There are four haloed saints on the left [as you face the building] and three non-haloed figures on the right. Which saints they represent is uncertain, nor have the non-haloed figures been identified. At a guess the latter are prominent ecclesiastics.

Detail: two dogs facing each other
Two other carvings at either end of a corbelled ledge are of hunting dogs. On the left are two dogs facing each other and to the right are another two actively hunting. In this carving on the right [as you look at the front of the church] the leading dog has caught what looks to be a hare and the other dog is chasing it. If you enlarge the photo by clicking on it you should be able to see the teeth the mason carved in the jaws of the first dog. The corbels are carved with what look to be animal heads.

Hunting dog with [probably] a hare being chased by another dog.
Much later, in the very late 15th/early 16th century the church was again enlarged and a second nave was added. This left-hand side façade has a more steeply gabled roof line and the window above the door is in the flamboyant gothic style typical of the very late middle ages.

Thursday, 10 July 2014


Bréhémont is a little place on the left bank of the Loire. Nowadays it is a sleepy place, although in the summer season it is busy with cyclists who bike along the Loire and Cher rivers.
The large port at Bréhémont
First mentioned in the 9th century, it re-appears in a charter by Olivier de Langeais dated 1214. Later it belonged to the monks of Saint-Martin de Tours who passed it on to the Seigneurs of L'Île-Bouchard and in 1692 it became part of the newly created Marquisate of Ussé.
Traditional boats tied up at the port
However, by the 19th century Bréhémont was a very busy little place indeed, as it had become the centre for hemp cultivation in Touraine. This explains the rather expansive quayside, or 'port' as the French call it on the river Loire which is still there today.
A brightly coloured 'girouet' at the top this boat's mast
Hemp was used to fashion ropes, [and later used in the paper-making industry] and there was a huge demand for it. According to an informative post we found on a website maintained by locals, hemp was being cultivated in Bréhémont from about the 13th century onwards. Certainly from the late 18th century hemp from the village was well known and sought after. So much so, that apparently there was a bit of a scandal when, in 1840, hemp from the Sarthe region was found to have false certificates of provenance indicating that it was "d'origine de Bréhémont". In 1850 about 4,500Ha was under hemp cultivation in Touraine and virtually all of the land in the village was given over to the crop. During this heyday the village had a population of 1,850 whereas now there are only about 800 living in the commune. The demand for hemp waned and by 1929 only about 200Ha was given over to hemp growing; most of it in, and around, the communes of Bréhémont and Rigny-Ussé. By 1980 cultivation had ceased, as up till then a small amount had still been grown for the paper industry.

The village of Bréhémont's UNESCO girouet has a hemp plant and an anchor as its symbol.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014


We've driven through Avon-les-Roches often enough on the way to somewhere else and each time remarked that "we really should have a look at the church the next time we pass through". Well, we finally managed to do just that a couple of weeks ago.
Notre-Dame, Avon-les-Roches
The church sits right on the road and we've only had a glance in passing. but noted that the porch was definitely worth a closer look. The bulk of the church - choir, nave and apse - was rebuilt in the 13th century with the later addition of the spire [C16th]. The whole was restored early in the 19th century.
12th century porch
The porch was built around 1120 and formed part of the original church and has a splendidly carved doorway and windows, in the Romanesque style. Capitals supporting the arches display life-like faces and beasts - both real and imaginary. The south door retains beautifully detailed geometric & zig-zag carving framing its round arch. Just above the south door you can see the lower part of a window which has been truncated by the current roof.
South door
Inside the porch is an intriguing bit of graffiti preserved behind a perspex panel. We spent quite some time trying to decipher what it said and were able to make out some of the text: L'an, Lorrene, duc de Bourgoigne and de la typhan..?. but that was as far as we got.
Late 15th century graffiti
According to Tourainissime© it reads:

 "L'an MYL IIIC* LXXVI devant Nan dedans Lorrene fut tué le duc de Bourgoigne la vigille de la typhaine"                                                                                   
* should be read as MYL IIII in our opinion

Which translates as: 'In the year 1476, on the eve of Epiphany, before Nancy in the Lorraine, the Duke of Burgundy was killed.'
Detail on the capitals
Charles le Téméraire [Charles the Bold] died at the battle of Nancy on the 5th January 1477 according to our modern day calendar. At the time it would have been the 27th December 1476 in the Julian calendar; but, irrespective of the date, it would still have been the eve of Epiphany. [Tourainissime seems to have his dates muddled up and states that the vigil of Typhaine would be the modern day 1st of November, Toussaint]
Looking out from the porch

Sadly, the church was locked so we were unable to see inside. We will have to go back as we'd like to see the 12th century holy water stoop and the 12th century font. The stoop is unusual enough to be classed separately as a 'monument historique'.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Le girouet

The Valley of the Loire has held UNESCO World Heritage status since November 2000. Stretching from Sully-sur-Loire upstream of Orléans to Chalonnes-sur-Loire just downstream from Angers, it covers 280km of the river.
Le girouet de Savonnières
Each commune which is within the world heritage site sports a sign to designate its status. They look like stylised flags, which isn't too far off the mark. In fact, they're called 'un girouet' [not to be confused with 'une girouette' -- French for weather vane]. The reason the girouet was chosen as the symbol/logo for the Val de Loire is because it is so closely associated with the golden age of travel & trade on the river.
River boats tied up at Savonnières 
Historically the girouet served to identify the boats sailing the river. Each was unique and carved by the boatman from a plank of wood. A great deal of pride and one upmanship was involved and some were, by all accounts, very elaborate and beautiful indeed. To finish off their girouet boatmen added bright coloured pennants, the colours of which were as specific to a particular boatman or flotilla as the carvings on the girouet. As the girouets were so personal they were sometimes referred to as a "beggar's escutcheon", or "beggar's coat of arms". As well as being an identifier, the girouet served a very practical function - it indicated the wind direction; vital for the boatmen when they sailed back upstream.
A load of barrels:  the boats were the workhorses of the river
Each Val de Loire girouet has 3 images: the UNESCO logo, the World Heritage site logo and between them an image specifically linked to the commune. The blue section of the sign represents the pennant. The one we photographed is from the village of Savonnières.
Detail of the girouet

If you are interested you'll find more information on girouets as well as some lovely photos of reproduction girouets  on this French blog post.

Monday, 9 June 2014

La grêle!

Yesterday was a glorious day warm, sunny and towards the late afternoon quite 'heavy'. France Météo had been warning of possible thunderstorms, so early evening we checked the weather online.

An orange level warning was [and still is] in force in our area [red is the highest] for possible severe thunderstorms accompanied by violent gusts of wind and monsoon-like downpours and/or hail. Before turning in we dutifully switched off all electrical stuff and our internet connection and moved all the outdoor furniture into the lee of the house.

Just before 5am lightning flickered frantically across the sky, the rumbling began and the promised 'rafales' [wind gusts] arrived. In the eerie false dawn light it looked pretty scary. Meanwhile, we were fretting about our two cats who were outside, pre-dawn is their favourite hunting time. Instead of a monsoon downpour, we got hail. Hailstones the like of which neither of us have ever seen, except in news reports.

A 'small' collection of hailstones
Enormous 'grêlons' [hailstones] boinged off the roof, clattered against our upstairs windows and bounced on the grass outside. The noise of them hitting structures was disconcerting, an angry sound as if someone was trying to force a way in.

A seriously large one! Almost 6cm in diameter
Needless to say, Tinka- no sense in wee brain, arrived in our bedroom towards the end of the hail episode slightly damp, but thankfully none the worse for wear. A direct hit could have caused serious damage to a small cat. She seemed totally unfazed by either the lightning or the thunder. Shadow appeared later, dry, having had more sense to shelter somewhere until it was all over.

Two holes, neatly punched through
Earlier we went to have a look to see what damage we had sustained. The roof tiles seem fine; we can't see any cracked or displaced ones. The car too has no damage to the paintwork that we can see and our windows, including the velux, are sound. We heaved a sigh of relief. Amazingly the pot plants out front, including the tomatoes haven't been shredded. However, just now we went to wipe down the outdoor furniture and found that the hail has punched some holes straight through. A couple of chairs and a table have sustained damage.

We consider ourselves very lucky indeed. Certainly compared to the devastation suffered by the Vourvray wine growers last year when they had a similar hailstorm. Fingers crossed we don't get anymore as the orange level warning is in force until early tomorrow morning and the thunderstorms, with and without hail, are predicted to re-appear this afternoon.