Experiencing the Charente
Today, Wednesday, June 17th, we arrived at our next destination, Le Manoir La Betoulle. Our gîte was Le Petit Bois (The Little Woods). This area of France is agricultural. There are beautiful forested areas punctuated by farm fields of a variety of vegetables and grape vines. Situated only a few minutes walk from the little village of St. Claud, the gîte is owned and operated by Penny and John Hitchings. On our arrival we were greeted warmly by our hosts and very pleased to find a beautiful cluster of buildings that were surrounded by mature trees of all types and lush green grass that needed no watering because it was watered naturally by the occasional rains that meander through this area. As we were being shown our gîte, our host provided us with a welcome gift of a bottle of excellent regional red wine and a small jar of delicious homemade apricot jam. Our little gîte was an impressive two story natural stone structure with two foot thick walls and an interior reminiscent of King Louis the IV. On the ground floor and immediately to our left, was a salon where there were heavy red velvet curtains draped on each side of a small window that looked at a small stone building and the larger gîte across the way, a small glass table to eat on, and a comfortable two person couch, small LCD TV, and DVD player. Down the hall was a tiny one person kitchen that proved to be just enough space to prepare our meals and across it was a very nicely appointed blue-tiled bathroom with plush towels that were greatly appreciated.
Upstairs was the spacious bedroom with built in wall closets whose doors had full length mirrors as well as a wash basin and a very large and comfortable bed. Throughout the unit, there were many lavish details of molding along the ceiling edges, chandelier lunettes, and decorative wallpaper. In the red-carpeted stairway, there was wainscoting and molding and many other decorative details that added to the impressive atmosphere. To top it off, we had our own Romeo and Juliet balcony that overlooked large maple, pine, and aspen trees and the lush green lawn. The balcony was accessed via two large wood framed glass “French doors” accented by heavy, deep red velvet curtains.
Once we settled in, we made plans to explore the area the next day. Penny is an enthusiastic and informative host. She told Cheryl about major sights, restaurants, events, and areas to visit. Because we wanted to become familiar with this area, we planned a trip that would take us through four larger villages that were laid out in a rough triangle — Confolens, Saint Junien, Rochechuoard and Chabanais.
Unlike the U.S., France is made of a few large cites and thousands of small towns and villages that seem to be spread out rather evenly throughout the country. Of the four villages and towns we visited, the first village was a site to behold. Bisected by the Vienne river, it was a postcard picture of medieval beauty. The incredibly blue sky punctuated by cottony white clouds, the smooth flowing deep green river that reflected the heavens and the medieval stone buildings with thick green grass and wonderful mature trees lining the river was a feast for the eyes! On days like this, perfection is all that matters and perfection it was.
Now, back to reality. Anyplace, anywhere can have something that, at the right time of the year and from the right angle, can be amazing. Confolens is a pretty little village and like most French villages, it has its share of charming squares, narrow streets, cafes, and restaurants. But its single most striking feature is the view from the wider, larger modern bridge to the much older, narrower pedestrian bridge. Beautiful yes! But does it have what we will need to live here or nearby?
One of the things that we must consider about living in the southwestern part of France is to be near essential services that we can get to easily. So, as we continue our journey, we will try to keep track of those cites, towns, or villages that can provide those essential services. As for the other villages we visited that day, let’s just say….we visited them.
After picking up some groceries in Chabanais on the way back, we headed back to our little “chateau” in the woods. One of the things that I have long been anticipating, is a quiet long night’s sleep. While we like our home back in California, we live in a city, a very large city. And as with any larger city, come all the sounds and noises that you either get used to (or not). I have always been a very light sleeper and would wake at the sound of a feather slamming to the floor…..but here, out in the country, the quiet surrounds you. I slept like I haven’t slept for a very long time.
On our last full day in our gîte, we decided to go to two small villages that Penny had told us about. One Nanteuil-en-Vallée was participating in the summer “fêtes” (parties/festivals) that occur all over France at this time of the year. Nanteuil-en-Vallée was hosting a rock pop concert outside in the village square and the choir from the nearby town of Ruffec was presenting a variety of classical selections at the local church. The other village Penny suggested we visit was Verteuil-sur-Charante which, like many villages in this area, is a small medieval village dating back centuries. We went there first. As we approached the village from a narrow, winding country road, we were struck by this immense chateau with tall round towers with sharply pointed cone-shaped roofs and large rectangular buildings straddled between the towers. We parked the car close by and walked to the back gate of the chateau and found out that, unfortunately, it was closed and we would not be able to visit it. Undaunted, and because Penny told us that there was a nice restaurant near the river that provided a beautiful view, we walked down the very narrow street behind the chateau. After going around a corner of another street, we came onto a small bridge that crossed the small river La Charente. We noticed people lounging on some pool-style lounge chairs and a small restaurant on the bank of the river. What at first we didn’t notice was the incredible view of the front of the chateau. It was immense! Facing the river with its imposing towers, buildings, and large central semi-circle gorge overlook and defensive wall, Château de Verteuil took your breath away. In front of it was the most bucolic scene one could imagine — a small, slow-moving, dark, deep green river that was split by two small wooded islands, with the narrower faster-flowing part of the river on the right side of the islands and the slower flowing wider part of the river on the left that had a thick low stone dam built from the bank of the river nearest us to the first island causing a lake to form and a beautiful small waterfall that gently spilled across the length of the dam. On the small lake were two snow white geese standing on the dam, preening and caring for each other. In the water was a mother duck with a large brood of ducklings trailing after her, two very nice wooden canoes tied to the river bank, and a small grassy shore where a small remnant of an ancient stone wall from a mill once stood. Across from us on the opposite side of the river and lining the bank, were well kept stone houses with tall trees extending their branches towards the river. We were told that this was a “pretty” place, but we couldn’t have imagined this! So we settled in and savored a locally brewed beer as we took in the soft sound of the waterfall and the impressive views.
After relaxing in this beautiful place, we headed back to the music festival at Nanteuil-en-Vallée. On entering the village we headed to the church which was surrounded by tight clusters of stone buildings of a few stories. In order to navigate to and fro to these somewhat remote villages, it is essential to have a car equipped with a reliable GPS navigation system. Without it one would have to spend the time to make very detailed directions and on arrival to a village or town for that matter, figure out how to find the street address all the while maneuvering the twisting and turning narrow streets. Making a sharp right turn just 50 feet from the church was a parked car that left only inches to crawl slowly past. No one seemed concerned and all the other cars that were going that direction made it past it without issues. Once we found a parking spot, we walked to the church. As we approached we could hear the choir practicing inside. The stone 15th century Roman style church of Saint Jean Baptiste was of medium size with a bell tower that rose several stories and inside there were three main pointed arches along the length of the church. The choir was composed of three rows of a dozen “chanteuses” warming up for the evening concert.
While entering the church, we noticed heavy wooden scaffolding on either side of the first arch that reached all the way up to the ceiling. It was obvious that after all of these centuries, the roof was seriously threatened with collapse! Large cracks had formed in several places and part of the ceiling had sagged. Yikes! No worries, repairs were underway and the structure was cleared for use at the moment. Not the most reassuring feeling however. Since the concert would not begin for at least half an hour, we went out and took an exploratory walk along one of the back streets. We followed it to the end where we came upon the remains of the 12th century benedictine Abbey of Notre-Dame de Nanteuil. This abbey was built on the site of an earlier, 8th century abbey, founded here by Charlemagne. Unfortunately, it was closed for the evening. Walking back to the church we passed several examples of timbered houses and looked at historical plaques with photos and descriptions of some to the village’s original buildings. Once in the church, we took our seats and since we had arrived early, we got to see the greeting customs of various arriving audience members. Overall, there were somewhere around one hundred and fifty people of middle age to the elderly. The program started with introductions in both French and English. This area of France has many British expats who have retired here, come for the summer holiday, or run gîtes that they built from renovated farm structures. First to perform was a well-known elderly gentleman whose musical career started at a very early age. He performed a composition by Chopin on the piano — a very melodic yet invigorating performance. The choir’s performance was excellent. The threatening cracks in the ceiling took nothing away form the great acoustics and the wonderful rich sound of the choir. They performed several compositions by various classical composers. During the performance, people kept arriving and most stood in the back. Among them was a couple with three very small children possibly two, three and a half and five years of age. The parents stood in the back and the children all sat on the stone floor in front of them. For the duration of the concert, no one, not the adults nor the children made a sound. Everyone was concentrating and listening to the concert. It made for a wonderful musical experience that we will add to the treasure chest of our memories.