"The Charente in France... where's that?" we asked ourselves when the invitation for a long exchange in that region arrived. Brittany, Provence, the Loire, even Burgundy, all the romantic tourist names, had an established position in our picture of France. But "Le Charente"...nothing!
Google answered the basic questions. Very rural, West coast area, no specific great attractions but with the second sunniest climate after Provence. Juignac, the nearest village to Le Petit Maine, was almost a non-entity, the ancient village well perhaps being its most significant feature. But La Charente" was to be our home in France for almost a year.
The great advantage of a prolonged stay in the one area is the chance to explore it in depth. Over eleven months we did just that and we found wonderful little treasures in our backyard: treasures that don't figure on tourist itineraries, that don't have large coach parks, and that sometimes are even in disrepair.
Murals in the Church of Saint Arthemy, Blanzac
Blanzac-Porcheresse, or locally just Blanzac, is an extremely nondescript small town about 20 minutes drive from home, population just over 800. It's clearly a poor commune. A casual traveller simply would see no reason to even think about stopping over in Blanzac. I go there to play tennis quite often (yes, I did eventually make contact with a very friendly expat tennis group). The local club apparently has withered but the two courts are maintained by someone and always open.
When passing through Blanzac (going somewhere else) one doesn't actually drive into the town square; the "main" road from Montmoreau takes one around a corner past a decrepit Tabac, over the creek and through the potholes and up past a small shop and out of town. However, in passing through, as we often did, we had noticed that a rather large church sits in the town square. Its' L' Eglise Saint Arthemy, " a twelfth century church with Gothic and Romanesque influences". Saint Arthemy, apparently, was a bishop of the Arveni Celtic tribe who achieved martyrdom in the 4th century.
Now one can't be visiting grand sites and spending lots of money every day, can one? So to relieve the boredom of another cool but sunny day at home, we decide that today is the day to visit that church in Blanzac and find a quaint cafe for a coffee.
We push open the door to Saint Arthemy's church and carefully close it in accordance with the flapping notice: "Please close the door so the bloody pigeons can't get in"...or words to that effect. It's musty and dim but we are amazed to see three huge murals on the right wall of the nave. One is more an unfinished drawing. The two finished but very faded works here are framed by formed arches. In the right hand transept chapel are two lovely murals framed by painted copulas together with many earlier very faded works. The left transept has matching murals, also under painted copulas. However, the general deterioration of the church is very visible. The works are stunning but clearly in need of much restoration and preservation.
Your author understands that it is the responsibility of the commune to maintain any historic churches in its area if the church is not heritage listed. If the commune is small then usually it simply does not have the funds for preservation. So dampness and neglect slowly destroy this priceless legacy.
One can see that Blanzac has tried but is failing. Sadly, green algae and mould from rising damp are ever where evident.
In a sombre mood we leave St Arthemy's church...alas the Place de St Arthemy is as sleepy as the church. No cafe, no bar open so no cheery "bonjour monsieur, deux vin rouge SVP" in Blanzac for us today.
The Templars' Legacy in the Charente
The Templars, as in the rest of France, had a strong presence in the Charente; Wikipedia lists 13 "commanderies" in the Department. Commanderies would be built around a permanent water source and probably comprise as a minimum the monk/ knights' living quarters, prilgrims' house, stables and of course, the chapel. All that remains on most sites is a small chapel, perhaps indicating only a modest number of knights in residence. Twelve of the 13 sites are actually still in use for regular worship, the 13th is in ruins.
If one takes the winding lane past the tennis courts in Blanzac and continues out of town for several kilometres one comes to the wonderfully named Chapelle des Templiers de Cressac-Saint-Genis, perched on a low hillside. The original commanderie was built over the years 1150-1160; now all that remains is the chapel. There is still a working well in the church yard. Adjacent to the chapel is a "modern" farmhouse and garden. On our visit, bushes bearing beautiful succulent ripe red tomatoes were staked out quite close to the garden fence. Possibly the ghosts of knights past helped me to resisted the open temptation offered by these gorgeous fruits!
The glory of this relatively unknown chapel is its astonishing frescoes still adorning large parts of the interior walls. During the Revolution the chapel frescoes were partly destroyed and subsequently the chapel was seized and sold by the new anti-clerical government and used for centuries as a barn. It is amazing that that any frescoes survived at all!
Let me show you some of those that did survive.
The frescoes were created in the same style as the famous Bayeux Tapestry. The fresco narrative apparently tells the story of the victory in 1163 of Templars and the rest of the French army over the Saracens, led by Nour Ed Din, at the Krak des Chevaliers in the Holy Land. Now the French army happened to have been led by one Geoffroy Martel, brother of the Count of Angoulême. Which does make one wonder if the choice of subject was, just perhaps, influenced by the fact that Angoulême and its count were a mere 22 kilometers north-east of the commanderie!
Pilgrims at this Chapel in a show of penitence and zeal were encouraged to rub their hands down a particular stone in the wall. The wear marks of the fingers are clearly visible but the blood has long since been washed away. Perhaps it was a case of "no rub, no grub"!
The chapel was declared an historic monument in May 1914 and is now owned and regularly used by the Protestant Reformed Church of Barbezieux.
At Gurat, a little known "Monolithic Church"
One of our simple pleasures is driving along any byway or laneway in the countryside that takes our sudden fancy. Driving to Villebois-Lavalette one day we took a side road that led though the village of Gurat. On entering Gurat we spied a small sign pointing to "L'église Monolithic", 100 meters.
"Monolithic church" actually refers to an underground church that has been carved into a cliff face. A justly famous example is the magnificent Church of St Jean at Aubeterre-sur-Dronne but we had never heard of one at this seemingly insignificant village called Gurat.
Down a side road we find a 3-space car park opposite which is a track wandering away beside a tiny creek we later learn is called Font Longe, which runs into the nearby River Lizonne, a tributary of the Dronne. The track and the brook lie at the base of a low rocky cliff atop which sits the village.
Walking down the track 200 meters we see a large hole above us in the cliff and a little sign saying: "L'eglaise". The top of this hole is only a meter or so below the very obvious foundations of a substantial village building. As this has obviously been the situation for hundreds of years we reason that the "church" roof is unlikely to fall down on our heads, even though we have not actually graced a proper church for quite some time!
Clambering up the steep path we find ourselves on a wide stone ledge into which have been carved fifteen or so sarcophagi, plus pools and drainage channels. This is the forecourt of the ancient church of St Georges. The interior is only about 6 metres by 12 metres with support pillars forming nave, choir and apse. One side tunnel tapers upwards to a crude wooden gate, chained shut. Behind the gate is a store room and a flight of steps clearly leading up to the cellar of the building above. We explore all the nooks and wonder about the monks and villagers who may have called this their parish church.
Wikipedia tells us that the community was at its height in the 12th and 13th century but why it apparently was never finished and why the community of monks suddenly dispersed is unclear.
A sign back at the car park informs us that the Commune is working to enhance the tourist visitor numbers, hoping to encourage perhaps one tenth of the people who visit Aubeterre to come visit Gurat. Good luck, but I have to say it's a very big ask indeed.