Monday, 12 June 2017

Talmont-sur-Gironde and the Gallo-Roman site of Le Fa.

Talmont-sur-Gironde is a small commune in the department of Charente-Maritime in southwestern France, on the eastern side of the mouth of the wide Gironde estuary.

The enclosed and fortified village, situated on a peninsula, was founded around a church in 1284, according to orders issued by  Edward I of England, who  controlled that part of France at that time. The church (of which more later), then about 200 years old, was the only building  standing in that isolated spot. The village became a focus for pilgrims journeying from the north of France to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. It survived the long wars of the Middle Ages, but in 1652, it was destroyed by the Spanish and had to be rebuilt!

An aerial shot of Talmont as it is today, photo copied from a post card, as I don't have a drone!! The ancient church and its cemetery can be see on the cliff edge, to the right.

A photo of the lovely B and B where we stayed, taken from the other side of a watery inlet.

One of the narrow traffic-free streets of the village, which is on the list of the most beautiful in France. It's a real tourist destination in summer and many of the little houses have been converted into shops and cafes.

I was fascinated by this magical water tap!

The Mairie (Mayor's office), a focus in every French village.

An interesting doorway, formed with old dressed stones no doubt "liberated" from older, grander, residences which haven't survived!

An old religious artefact recovered from a grander building and thoughtfully incorporated into a restored wall  of one of the village houses.

The church dedicated to Sainte Radegonde, a 6th century religious figure, was built in 1094.

Simple stonework inside the church.

An ancient arch or doorway. Moving on, we arrive at Le Fa..........

What some scholars think might be the town of Novioregum, or Le Fa as the French now call it in the absence of complete proof as to its identity, is in the present day commune of Barzan, very close to Talmont. The extensive archaelogical excavations started in 1975 have revealed a small town, considered to be one of the most important Gallo-Roman trading ports on the Atlantic coast. The Roman stone walling at the base in this photo formed the foundations of an ancient Roman temple called the Sanctuary.

The ruins of a windmill built on the old Roman base. The whole town seems to have been razed to the ground some time in the 4th or 5th centuries A.D., the remains being buried in sand dunes and lost to memory.

Excavations revealing walls forming the rooms of the thermal baths. More excavations are in progress with the hope of uncovering relics which might identify the mystery town.

A reconstructed hypocaust - Roman underfloor heating! Hot air from a nearby fireplace, stoked with wood by slaves, was channelled through the underfloor cavity, warming the stone floor slabs on its way.

An oven used in the manufacture of ceramics, partly restored.

Reproduction of an original mosaic found in the the Roman villa at Séviac, further south in  France.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Exploring Pons

Pons is a small picturesque town of about 4,000 people, set in Charente-Maritime (department 17) in south-western France.  The town originally developed because of its position on one of the important pilgrimage routes which followed Roman roads to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. Pons is on one of 4 such roads which start from Paris; however today it doesn't seem to be faring so well, with unemployment recently given at over 16%. It sits on the many-channeled and meandering Seugne river, which is used for boating and other outdoor activities.
Pilgrims negotiating a roundabout! The town makes a lot of its pilgrimage history and there are various tourist trails to explore.

One of two important churches in Pons, the first is dedicated to St Vivien and was built in the 12th century to the romanesque style, but rebuilt 300 years later using some of the original stonework. You can see that plenty of money was spent on  the impressive carved frontage, while the other sides were simpler and cheaper. It's situated just to the left of the roundabout in the first picture!

Inside we see this arty mosaic of uncertain age, depicting a pilgrim of the time making his way to some far-off religious destination, no doubt.

A front view of the old chateau, which has now been put to new use as the mairie. An original chateau was destroyed in  1179 by Richard the Lionheart as a consequence of a rebellion by some of his subjects, but was rebuilt in 1187. It survived until 1621, when Louis XIII's army destroyed it while laying siege to the town. "Several years later", it says, Cesar d'Albret, a french marshal and lord of Pons, had it all rebuilt. Lots of work for builders in those days, then!

Part of the ramparts around the chateau. You can observe the steep drop behind the chateau/mairie, allowing people who sought shelter in the chateau on the high ground to have a good view of any bad guys approaching! Next to the chateau is the donjon (castle keep) to be seen a bit later.

Times must have changed for the better in the 17th century, so presumably there were fewer bands of brigands roaming the land and little need for defences, so the aforesaid Cesar d'Albret might have said to his builders "while you're rebuilding the chateau, can you pop on a "grand escalier" (great staircase), because I need to get  men and materials as fast as possible up to the top to lay out some orchards and landscaping!!" This photo shows only part of the huge piece of work, which links the chateau level with that of the lower town far below and must also have been designed to impress his guests!

A donjon (castle keep) is a fairly standard feature of medieval chateaux (castles) and provides a high security area for the lord, chosen others, food and water in which to shelter during attacks and sieges. This donjon, 33 metres high was built along with the chateau in the 12th century and remains to this day, untouched by the sieges and wars in the intervening years! We were there at lunchtime, so as usual the place was locked up and we couldn't look round it!

Another view of the esplanade (the old chateau inner courtyard), showing the donjon, the mairie behind left, and in front, a monument to Emile Combes, an 19th century local doctor and long-time mayor.

His grand and elaborate monument leads us to believe he was held in high regard by the townspeople and reading his biography, one can see why they felt that way. Mayor of Pons for 43 years, Combes also became a French senator in 1885 and was involved in the political renewal in the country which led to laws separating the Church from the State.

The arched entrance way and entrance doors of the Hôpital des Pèlerins (Pilgrims' Hospital). The ancient cobbled street is lovely, but, yes, you guessed, it was lunch time and the place was shut!

The main entrance archway. If you look carefully at the stonework, ancient graffiti made by the pilgrims of old has been preserved in the restoration works.

A lovely little turret in an unassuming back street caught my eye. You can only wonder who put it there and why?! To see down the street maybe, but it was an expensive way to do it!

The "ruelle des arcades" (walkway of the arches) takes the walker from chateau level to a point much higher up the slope. Quite a puff! The arch is only about the height of a medieval man - 1.65 metres or 5 feet 5 inches.

The chapel of Saint Gilles is now the archaeological museum, but more importantly it is about the last vestige of the original 12th century chateau complex (apart from the donjon). The chapel is built on top of a Roman vaulted passage mentioned in ancient documents.

Very elaborate burial vaults in the old cemetery on top of the hill overlooking the chateau.

Ghost sign - Antar is a former French petroleum company, founded by Pechelbronn SA in  Alsace in 1927, but its origins go back to 1745 when oil wells were drilled in the vicinity. Never knew there was oil in France! Antar has been gobbled up by larger companies, but the name lives on in 'Antargaz' which is a current bottled LPG product. Interesting company history!

The other large church in the centre of Pons is Eglise Saint Martin, and it fills one side of a shady and quiet tree-lined square. A Turkish kebab shop sits rather uneasily on another side!

Beautiful stained glass window in that church. It seems to be illustrating the "miracle of a pine tree".

Also see my daily diary HERE

and My Life Before Charente (updated  25 September 2016) I will get back to this eventually! 

Saturday, 29 April 2017

A visit to nearby Manot and the Viaduc de la Sonnette.

Manot is a small and pretty village with a population of about 600, situated on the west bank of the Vienne river in the Charente department (now part of the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region since a recent government reorganisation!)

Manot's well preserved 12th century Saint-Martial Church  was listed in 1985 as an historic monument. The  church is built of local granite in typical plain Gothic style, which architecture originated in France at about the time this church was built, so it could well be one of the first!!

The lighter coloured inset panel over the doorway is made of limestone and is intricately carved with angels, apostles and evangelists. The panel was unfortunately defaced during the religious wars of the 16th century and bears the scars to this day!

The nave, looking down to the altar set in an apse (the hemi-spherical part at the end)

The interior is plain, but the craftsmanship in the stonework and plastering, with its intricate curves and arches, is readily apparent!

Opposite interior view, looking towards the front door, with a viewing gallery above

Spiral staircase to the viewing gallery. Note what I believe to be a stone font at rear left.

The ubiquitous Joan of Arc statue!

Large old townhouse built in  the style of King Louis XIII of France, who lived from 1601 to 1643. The wealthy owners of this house, the Mothe-Fenelon family, included an archbishop in their number.  The family also owned a local chateau  and a further chateau with land in Perigord (in the adjoining department of Dordogne).

Old water pump and well. It probably still works, although I didn't try it! All the pavements around the church have been restored with cobbles.

Interesting veranda with modern garage craftily inserted below. A good vantage point on top, from which to spy on the neighbours!

Viaduc de la Sonnette near the hamlet of Grand Madieu. It was built between the years 1902 and 1905 to carry a single rail track across the Sonnette river valley; many country railway lines, including this one, have been torn up, but the viaduct structure still exists for walkers and cyclists to use and enjoy. Some of its foundations had to be sunk 10 metres (33 feet) below ground to find a firm base in the soft riverine geology.

A more distant view of the 209 metre (700 feet) long viaduct 25 metres (83 feet) high, with its 11 arches. It was one of the last to be built in stone, at a time just before reinforced concrete revolutionised engineering works, thus its historical importance was recognised in 2001 when it was protected. A grand sight it is!

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Rouen - with Satnav it's manageable!

Having bypassed Rouen, because of its difficult signposting, so many times over the past 12 years since we first came to live in France, we decided that it was time to stop and have a look around when on our usual Christmas jaunt to the UK.  At minus 6 degrees, it wasn't the best weather for tourism, but we hope that the photos taken will give you some idea of what we managed to see with a one night stop over.
A street map showing the cathedral area of the old town. The big clock and market halls, which I come to later, are a short walk off to the left side of this map!

The covered market halls, next to the Place du Vieux Marche, offer a good range of deli, fruit and fish for sale. Rouen is of course on the Seine river, so there is a direct route to the open sea for fishing boats and other river traffic.

Plenty of shellfish! They seem to pre-cook all  shellfish in France and it is hard to find them in an uncooked state.

The Place du Vieux Marche (Old market place) has some sinister history. In  1431, Sainte-Jeanne-d'Arc (Joan of Arc) was burned at the stake there and today, a tall  steel mast marks  the exact place where the stake is said to have been  sited. 
This small church dedicated to her, as well as the adjacent market halls, were completed in the late 1970s. The church's bold architecture incorporates these stained-glass windows from the old Saint-Vincent church, which stood nearby, but was destroyed by bombing in 1944. The new church was inaugurated  by Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, French President at the time and is now a registered historic monument. 

Children and adults having fun on the temporary outdoor ice rink on another part of the Place du Vieux Marche.

Next to the ice rink, this is the Wonder Wheel, a Christmas entertainment feature for the local inhabitants! All this under 100 metres from our hotel!

Cobbled streets in the old town. Plenty of cafes, bars and restaurants. The Guinness for sale wasn't half bad!

In the rue du Gros Horloge (big clock!) is the Gros Horloge itself. This is the West side of the clock and the East side is similar. The arch dates back to 1527 and the clock to some time in the 16th century, but the clock mechanism is even older, made in 1389! This makes it one of the oldest in Europe, but since 1920 the clock has relied on electric power, even though the 14th century movement was still working well!

and a closer view, showing the coat of arms of Rouen on the stonework arch - the lamb of God held by two angels.  The head of one angel is wrongly placed - this was done deliberately by discontented stonemasons during construction! The dial is 2.5 metres (just over 8 feet) in diameter and a single hand shows the hour only.

The church dedicated to Saint Maclou. The spire is 93 metres (310 feet) high and the building work started some time after 1435, at a time when the Gothic style of church design was making way for the Renaissance.  However, the decoration inside is said to be macabre, harking back to the devastating effects of the Black Death, almost 100 years previously. Most of the church's impressive internal and external statuary has unfortunately been lost over the ages, principally during the wars of religion in the 16th century and the French revolution of the late18th century. 

At the early hour we were there, it was still locked up, so we did not get to see inside and therefore we are unable to bring you any photos!

Very early morning in Place Barthélémy, with Saint Maclou church on the left showing typical half-timbered buildings from the 16th century.  

Not many steps away from the last picture is the  Cathedral of Notre Dame (see map above), was started in 1145 on the foundations of a 4th century basilica, but was only finished in 1506! The spire you can just see through the mist is from the 19th century, and at 151 metres (500 feet) high, is the highest in France. It replaced a much earlier wooden spire which was destroyed in a lightning strike.

Statues (of which there are about 30 in these blank archways) in the ambulatory inside the cathedral are of apostles and other religious figures. 

The heart of King Richard I of England lies in a tomb here. The rest of his body was buried near Saumur in western France, but he was killed by a weighted arrow in 1199 during the siege of a castle not far from us here in Charente. King Richard, called the LIonheart by the French, reigned as king of England for 10 years, but he spent most of his time in France and the Middle East for the Crusades. He spoke no English (only Occitan - a dialect still spoken today) and rarely went to England!

The lofty nave

A better view of the vaulted ceiling and the oriel window at the far end.

Escalier de la Librairie (Library stair). The first flights were built between 1477 and 1479 and further flights were added  in 1788 to gain access to a new  upper floor level which housed the archives.

Detailed carvings surround the main front entrance doors.

Also see my daily diary HERE

and My Life Before Charente (updated  25 September 2016) I will get back to this eventually! 

My Life in the Charente 1 you can find here if you want to read the past.