Wednesday, 26 February 2014

La Charente scene: Tell and Show (with a few Irreverent Comments)

Big Julie annexed Gallia Aquitania, including La Charente, for the Roman Empire in several campaigns ranging over the years 55-50 BC, in the process subduing the Auqitanii and other Celtic tribes led by Vercingetorix, he of the large moustaches. The “casus belli” was ostensibly to protect the Roman province of Provincia (guess its current name…no prizes) and the route to Spain from those rapacious Northern tribes. The fact that Aquitania had lots of lovely iron works and lots of lovely gold and lots of lovely arable land probably did have some faint appeal to Big Julie, relatively impoverished as he personally was back home.

La Charente was rich, developed and thoroughly Romanised and Christianised by the time the Visigoths came by, followed by the Franks at the start of the 6th century. The Franks thought all things Roman were pretty good and thoroughly enjoyed themselves, lording it over the countryside and establishing themselves as the new local aristocracy.

This religious and Roman heritage is everywhere evident nowadays. Every village has a church and every church (almost) is in the Romanesque style, and good ruins abound. Aquitaine was of course once Eleanor’s fiefdom and her marriages to Philip of France and Henry 11 of England (sequentially, not bigamously) gave history Richard, Coeur de Lion, and the 100 Years War which, incidentally, provided Jeanne d’Arc with her big opportunity.
Fortified church at Montignac-le-Coq...note the holes
 in the projecting "battlement" from which
to drop nasty things onto undesirable outsiders

Chateaux, castles and villages changed hands regularly during these very turbulent times, times not made any easier with the Black Death doing its best for copulation control. 

Many of the 12th century churches were fortified during these years to provide refuge for the locals from rampaging army foragers (of both sides) and gangs of discharged or, more likely, unpaid soldiers who, literally, had nothing better to do! There are several excellent examples of fortified churches in our local area.

Today, however, the Charente region is not a rich region. Average monthly household income (2011 figures) was Euro2225 which was 28% below the French average of E3081 whereas Ile-de-France (i.e. Paris) was top at E4228.  (Australian average household income 2011 at then exchange rates was about Euro2950.)

“Oh, how very interesting” I hear you, dear reader, crying out, “but what’s the place like TODAY!”

Generally, most of the villages and the smaller towns display an unkempt appearance, almost proudly so! “I’m Gallic and I don’t care what you think”, seems to be the local ethos. Window shutters often are peeling and unpainted, buildings' walls with render patches fallen off, lots of lichen, rampant ivy and such stuff. In the countryside many old farm buildings are reverting to nature. Even within the more prosperous farmsteads, there are most often falling-down outhouses and barns. 

The rear view of a neighbour's prosperous goat farm.
However, put it all together and the overall effect for country and village is extraordinarily charming and engaging. Farmsteads dot the countryside and almost every hill of any consequence sports a small village complete with beautiful church. Copses and tree lines interlink; a network of narrow sealed roads connects villages and farms. (How the local postie finds her way around is a marvel.) Every town has its hill-top fortified chateau, some quite imposing and others more modest, but still dominating the local area. 

There is a very strong English ex-pat presence in the area, I would say almost a sub-culture, quite separate from the French ways. At the Aubeterre-sur-Dronne Christmas market Val and I were surprised that hardly a French word could be heard! Travelling around, one can easily pick when a village is an ex-pat enclave: it’s been gentrified, done up, lost that essential Gallic insouciance…to its detriment this traveller would say. But I’m just passing through!

Our local town, Montmoreau, is distinctly odd. Over several years and visits, your traveller throws in so nonchalantly, we have run the gauntlet of many, many French villages and towns.   French town plans are clearly based on the random throw of wooden blocks and have a street layout to match. Not Montmoreau however, no sir, we have a straight-down-the-middle, get-out-of-the-way main road. Most odd!

Important Note to the unwary fellow traveller: do not under any circumstances let Sally, your GPS cyber voice, guide you through a French town…if, like Ned Kelly, you are so game, make sure you have plenty of essential supplies…say, trois litres per personne de vin rouge et six baguettes et fromage. On one trip, Sally guided us into a town on market day. After much navigational disagreement, we ended up lost, in a very narrow laneway, beside a church, naturally, and in desperation about to turn into a one way lane, against the arrow.
"Non, non, non" a passing Frenchman shouted at us. Being seasoned travellers, we could tell he was French by the baggy blue trousers, the two-day stubble and the gauloise drooping from the bottom lip...or was it a gitane? matter. "Gendarmes, gendarmes" he shouted, gesticulating around the very corner we were about to so blithely traverse. Expertly and very kindly, he guided me in reverse into a very tight side niche, got me out again and pointed in the right direction and cheerily waved us on our way. Two litres later we exited the maze, happily on the correct road to that night's gite. But I digress, yet again.

Ah yes, Montmoreau. Apart from the Super U supermarche and the all-night cigarette machine in the main rue, our town’s main attractions are it’s lovely old church with a remarkable fa├žade and a 12th century bridge. That’s another oddity; one could easily jump over Le Tude, our river; certainly a couple of planks would do the job, but the local aristo back then thoughtfully provided a lovely stone bridge. Well, I suppose tolls were so very useful in meeting one’s social commitments.

Before our arrival in La Charente in late November, we had simply assumed that the whole place would exhibit rather a wintry drabness, a sombre, colourless background to cold winter days. Let your traveller happily report that this is not so. There is much beauty in the harmonious earthen colours of countryside and tucked-in buildings, in the stark trees, the plough-turned clay fields, the soil profusely suffused with limestone pieces, and the occasional winter-green crops.

Every so often, one turns a corner to a stunning view of countryside and castle. We have a favourite drive to Villebois-Lavalette where we top a particular rise and there, directly in front, is a view of the village and its medieval castle, complete with crenellated walls and high keep, silhouetted against the blue sky (actually grey sky, but blue seems more romantic, doesn’t it….straight out of “King Arthur”, THE Major Motion Picture).

The castle at Villebois-Lavalette. Several of the 'clouds'
are actually con-trails
Val in the ancient covered market place Villebois-Lavalette
Right now (that’s late February) the unseasonable drizzle and the winter seems to be abating. Today has been very mild and sunny. The trees in our garden are in bud, daffodils and tulips and primrose are about to show us their spring glory and the hedges are sprouting abundant leaves. Looking out the window I can see a peach tree covered in white blossom. The winter landscape is so beautiful: bring on spring!   

Val and I love driving home from the Chalais market, or from anywhere, via the back lanes. One can get lost…”come on navigator (me to Val) where the hell are we”… but it really does not matter. Keep going.… take the next left…. (or right, who cares after all)…. and soon we come across a road sign pointing to a recognisable location. The sign that seems to be everywhere says “Aubeterre-sur-Dronne, 9km”, but that’s OK. We know our way home from Aubeterre.

Au revoir, cheers and all that stuff
votre tres contant voyageurs

Bryan et Val   (see, we are picking up francaise) 

1 comment:

  1. Oh yes......we had GPS Lulu never say you want to go the "shortest way" OMG we did end up in some interesting cliff side saga's lol!!!! What memories. Loving your Blog!!!!!!

    We had a lovely 1st birthday celebration for MVI, a very welcoming group made us feel at home, I am enjoying it. Weather beautiful at present, fantastic Autumn , next 9 months I love!!!! Hills are green and lush, had rain. Enjoy and stay safe
    Cheers Selwyn & Paula x