Off the tourist trail in France

It’s a day for trying new things…..thanks to Kerry Dywer who featured a WordPress challenge to embed and use a Google Maps image on the blog.

Those who know my lack of intuition, ability and patience with anything to do with computers – especially Ayak and Perpetua – prepare to sit down before you collapse….as I’ve actually managed to download a map!

To be fair, the instructions were very clear!

It’s nowhere near so elegant and professional as the map Kerry has on her blog post….but for me it’s a triumph and I can try to improve the technique for future posts.

What you have below…though I suggest that you click on the larger map facility as I made a horlicks of downloading a larger version….is a map of the country south of Saumur on the Loire and what I propose is to turn my back on the well trodden chateaux trail and wander upstream on the River Thouet, to look at what can be learned of French history in the hinterland.

The guidebooks are clear on what there is to see in Saumur….the chateau, of course, the town hall, the streets of the old town, the cavalry museum and the wonderful tank museum…..

The well known image of Saumur, from the Tourist Office site

I would add taking a tour on one of the traditional boats….a gabare or the smaller toue…

A meeting of traditional Loire boats, from the tourist office website

While for anyone keen on horses a trip to the stables of the Cadre Noir is a must…even if you’re not there at the right time for the performances.

A wonderful image from Wikipedia

You’ll find the Cadre Noir out in a suburb of Saumur…St. Hilaire St. Florent where on the marshy land of the then delta of the river Thouet where it joins the Loire, people were living before Saumur was founded.

So let’s follow the Thouet back into the quiet countryside of vines, woods and white villages which lie behind Saumur.

Leaving town on the straight road running through Bagneux – and visiting or not its well known dolmen in the grounds of a caff – at the top of the hill take a turning on the left which will turn into the D360 for Munet and…our target, Artannes sur Thouet which has one of the nicest videos of its commune that I have come across…do follow the link, it is a sheer joy.
This quiet little village bears signs of early human passage….

magalithic bridge at artannes

other bridge

pierre fiche

as witnessed by the neolithic standing stone and the two megalithic bridges tucked away in the quiet woods and streams around the village…..while its romanesque church dreams on among its trees.

All photographs from the website of the commune of Artannes sur Thouet
All photographs from the website of the commune of Artannes sur Thouet

You won’t find crowds of tourists at Artanne, just a living village in a beautiful setting.

As you leave it on the D360 you will see a turning to the right which would lead you to another world…to le Coudray Macouard perched on its hill….

le coudray macouard

The village, which grew within the fortifications of the old chateau, is a model of modern tourism….from it’s windvane exhibition

windvane coudray

to the silk exhibition…everything from worm to fabric.

silk works

It is so self consciously charming that you begin to wonder if its inhabitants are real…or whether they are as ephemeral as the actors in the historical sound and light shows given in the season.

Instead of taking the turning to the right, we are going straight over the crossroads…as I’m taking you somewhere else.

To Bron. To see this.

aerial view of the lock at Bron by Jacques Sigot
aerial view of the lock at Bron by Jacques Sigot

This aerial view shows best why this lock is important, marking progress in controlling the level of water needed by boats travelling up and down stream.
The earliest locks were gaps left in solid dams, blocked by a gate which had to be raised to allow boats to pass. As can be imagined, this process let water through in a great rush…the boats shot forward on a waterfall and having to have a line attached for safety, while upstream the millers cursed as the levels lowered dramatically, disabling their mills.

This dam is an oval enclosure, with gates at each end…..limiting the water loss upstream and making the passage safer for the boats and boatmen. A step towards the modern lock which revolutionised fluvial transport.
There are three on the Thouet, dating certainly from the early years of the seventeenth century and possibly earlier…and, according to the local expert, not many elsewhere.

Taking the country road through the fields we will pass the chateau of la Salle, where there is another such lock and the little river port of Ste. Catherine, marking the limit of navigation, crossing the bridge to enter Montreuil Bellay under the walls and towers of its fairytale castle.

wikipedia.fr
wikipedia.fr

This is tourist country….wine tasting in the chateau’s barn, restaurants by the river, a camp site….but we’re not staying in the centre.
We’re going out on the road to Loudon to see the remains of a camp.
Not a Roman camp…but an internment camp.
Not ancient, but modern.

Jacques Sigot, a school teacher and local historian, came upon the remains while fossil hunting and his researches showed them to be part of the biggest internment camp for gypsies in wartime France.

From Jacques sigot's own archives
From Jacques Sigot’s own archives

This camp had originally been designated to keep Spanish Republicans, fleeing the revenge of Franco, under surveillance and then, when the Germans invaded, to house French POWs before shipping them to Germany and also to house British civilians rounded up in France.
Before the invasion, the French government had forbidden gypsies to travel, regarding them as a security risk, and the German authorities in their turn introduced a policy of internment.

Little was left of the camp when Monsieur Sigot came across it…and most of the remaining walls were destroyed – needlessly, he felt – so that the place and its purpose was scarcely remembered….a part of France’s wartime underbelly that was not meant to see the light of day.

Single handedly he has changed that by his tireless research and quest for publicity.

Chapeau Monsieur Sigot

Leaving the fortifications of Montreuil Bellay behind we are going to visit Saint Martin de Sanzay.
Not for the church, not for the chateaux and the old commanderie, but for the old flooded quarry…La Ballastiere.

deux sevres tourism
deux sevres tourism

Here is where you will find real France enjoying itself….the salle de fetes houses dances nearly every week end; the huge marquee can hold weddings, reunions…you name it; car rallies meet there; you can picnic by the waterside; you can fish…..it’s a slice of French life, and not on the tourist track.

Away again on the D158 and the D37, to the wonderfully named Ste. Verge and its church with the rare inscription on its walls

fondation patrimoine
fondation patrimoine

Then turn right on the side road towards Pompois and the Reserve Toarcien, conserving two old quarries where in 1849, the paleontologist Alcide d’Orbigny defined the stratotype of a layer dating back to the Jurassic system, the “Toarcien”. This level materializes a time interval comprised between 183 and 176 million years ago…..and to me is always associated with the ammonite fossils found all over the area.

ammonites etab - ac. poitiers

Then you are in the sprawl of the suburbs of Thouars, a town which is a very hotch potch of history.
From changing hands between English and French in the Hundred Years War, to being taken by the Vendeens in the post revolutionary civil war, to becoming a railway town with a vast locomotive plant – and then losing heart and energy and declining into the stagnation in which it now finds itself it, the town could stand as an example of many in rural France….but it has so much to see, from the fortifications

communaute de communes thouarsais
communaute de communes thouarsais

to its churches

communaute de communes thouarsais
communaute de communes thouarsais

its chateau overlooking the river

communaute de communes thouarsais
communaute de communes thouarsais

not to speak of the railway buffs’ delight, the Eiffel viaduct

communaute de communes thouarsais
communaute de communes thouarsais

that this wander upstream on the river Thouet will end here…to encourage you to investigate Thouars over a glass of its very own aperitif…..Duhomard

barewalls
barewalls

Find out the story behind the name and I’ll stand you one in the Cafe des Arts. This could bankrupt me…