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Report 2029: France 2012 Part 1 - The Loire Valley

By Eleanor from UK, Fall 2012

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Page 14 of 33: To the Northwest - Villages, Baskets, Troglodyte Dwellings and a Château

photo by MAW


We spent a day exploring the area to the northwest of Loches. The main destinations were Azay-le-Rideau for the château and Troglodytiques des Groupilliers. We also took the chance to stop at some of the smaller settlements on the way.

Our first stop was Saint-Épain. The town grew up round the site of a Gallo-Roman crossing point on the River Manse. It had been an important fortified town and a splendid medieval gateway survives next to the church. The center of the town is now a shadow of its former glory. It is however making an effort to encourage interest in its past by a series of old pictures displayed around the town.

The church was originally built in the 12thC but has been enlarged over the years and extensively restored. Entry is through the south porch which has a large, splendidly carved double doorway with gargoyles above and dragons supporting the window arch to the right.

The inside is fairly plain with nave, north aisle and just two bays in the south aisle. There is a vaulted stone roof supported by massive pillars which have statues of saints on them. There is a large painting of Christ on the south wall. At the back is a wooden confessional with statues of angels on either side. At the back of the north aisle is a small wooden altar with a picture of the Virgin and Child, angels and candlesticks. There are ‘Merci’ plates on the walls.

The north altar is elaborately carved with panels on the base and carved retable with integral host box and a statue of the Virgin and Child above.

The high altar and retable are white limestone with carved figures separated by different coloured marble pillars. The host box has a gilt front with a spire shaped cupola supported on more coloured marble pillars and a cross. There are huge circular gilt candlesticks on the altar and old wooden choir stalls in the chancel.

The next stop was Crissay-sur_Manse, which is one of the most beautiful villages in France. There is a large tourist car park outside the village with an information board in French and English. A footpath leads to a picnic site with basic toilet and the church which is at the bottom of the village. A path leads down to the river and the restored lavoir. At the other end of the village are the ruins of the 15thC château. This looks as if it is being restored and is behind locked gates and looks very private.

Most of the houses in the village date from the 15th or 16thC and there is little newer development. At the center is a small green with a pump.

The church is one of those buildings best admired from the outside and is a bit disappointing inside. It is a large building with different roof lines and a tall offset square tower with a tall slender stone spire. Entry is through a small wooden door set in a larger door at the west end. At the back is a stone font surrounded by wrought iron railings. There is a large plain nave with vaulted ceiling and north aisle and south transept which has an old bier in it. The floor is made up of black and white stone slabs in a checkerboard pattern. On the south wall is the remains of a painted coat of arms.

There are carved stone statues of bishops on the chancel arches. An old wrought iron altar rail separates the chancel from the rest of the church. The high altar has a stained glass window of St Mauritius above with two figures dressed in Roman military uniform. There are statues of the Virgin and Mary Magdalene on either side of the window. There is a painted statue of Jesus and also Joseph with the young Jesus on either side of the altar and a banner of St Maurice dated 1879. The north aisle has a wooden altar with an elaborately carved retable with a carving of the Virgin and Child.

Opposite the church is a house selling honey (sunflower very yellow and sweet; rape white with subtle taste; forest darker in colour and rich like heather for €3.80 a 500g jar) and also loaf cakes.

We drove through Villaines-les_Rochers, where there are a lot of troglodyte houses. This was, and still is, a center of basket weaving. This had been a very important cottage industry but had virtually disappeared by the 1950s with the introduction of plastics. Only 200 basket weavers are left in France and 70 work here. Most are home workers and their houses have a basket hanging above the door.

A few work in the Society Co-operative Agricole Vannerie de Villaines, a large new building on the edge of the settlement. One person was weaving and it reminded us of our basket making days at school. There is a short video explaining how the willows are cut in winter and seeped in water until May when they have softened. They are then stripped ready for use. There were a lot of baskets for sale but they are quite expensive. A typical shopping basket takes about 2.5 hours to make and sells for €85.

Next was Azay le Rideau, a pretty village with an old mill by the bridge and 12thC church (page 15). The château (page 16) is built on an island in the River Indre. It can be glimpsed through the large iron gateway but the best views are from the gardens to the east with the reflection of the château in the water.

It is a pleasant drive along the Indre Valley. Troglodytiques des Groupilliers is a short drive off D84 with troglodyte houses which are still inhabited carved into the sides of the valley. Old barns are now used as garages.

Troglodytiques des Groupilliers (page 17) is a fascinating site on the side of the valley with houses built into the cliff face. Three separate farms of a troglodyte village from the middle ages have been excavated and restored as a working farm, illustrating life 100 years ago.

We drove along the north bank of the Indre to La Sablonniere and crossed river to Saché. There are large osier fields along the river which supply the basket makers of Villaines-les-Roches.

Saché is a delightful village of old stone houses. The 12thC auberge by the church has a stone base with half timber above with a brick infill. This is now a very expensive restaurant. (Dinner €85) The château at the edge of the village is rather a plain building covered with creeper surrounded by large gardens. There are the remains of a tower from the old fortifications along side of road.

The Château is open to the public and houses the museum of Honoré de Balzac who wrote many of his novels during visits here.

The 12thC church was restored in 18thC. The open bell tower is later than the stone base below. Entry is at the west end through a plain large porch with a wooden beam roof. There are pointed arches between the nave and the north aisle. The vaulted ceiling is supported by small round wall pillars with carved capitals. The floor down the center of the nave is made of brightly coloured tiles.

In the chancel is a carved wood mass altar. The bulbous based high altar has a carved gilt retable with integral host box and a small crucifix standing on it. The tall pointed stained glass window above has a picture of the resurrection of Christ at the top with the crucifixion in the center and and the last supper at the bottom.

There are stone altars in the north and south transepts which have a statue of the Virgin (north) and Christ flanked by angels (south). At the back of the north aisle is a small stone altar with a statue of Virgin. The confessional next to it has carved angels on the top corners. There is another stone altar on the north wall with Joseph and the young Jesus. There is a crucifix on the south wall and a large modern abstract painting.

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