TAKE A STROLL LAVARDIN
Situated on the bank of the River Loir, the small village of Lavardin boasts a wealth of historic assets. Alison Hughes finds out why it earns its place in the association of Plus Beaux Villages
Amble around the pretty streets of this riverside castle village in Loir.
At the entrance to Lavardin by its Gothic bridge is the customary sign welcoming visitors to this Plus Beau Village. ‘ Lavardin, son château, son pont gothique, son église St-genest, ses sites troglodytiques’ – and underneath ‘ capitale de la chouine’.
“What is chouine?” I asked my guide, Pierre. “In truth, no one really knows,” he replied, much to my amusement. But with a bit of research I discovered chouine is a card game dating back to medieval times which is experiencing something of a revival. Since 1973 Lavardin has hosted Le Championnat du Monde de Chouine and people come from far and wide to participate.
But chouine apart, there are other reasons to visit this plus beau village. Stop near the sign and walk down the riverbank to get one of the best views of the village. Standing proudly on the highest point are the ruins of an 11th-century château; a château-fort complete with keep, moat and drawbridge, built for defence rather than leisure. Charles VII and his mistress, ‘la Dame de Beauté’ Agnès Sorel, came here when it was in its entirety, but it suffered during the Wars of Religion, leaving this romantic silhouette as a reminder of former glory.
Look across the river to the lavoir, which has an unusual moveable platform which can be adjusted to the water level of the river, and then to the 12thcentury bridge which still has five of the original eight arches, protected from the fast-flowing Loir by its avant-becs (cutwaters).
From here, you can spot the steep roof of the Maison Florent Tissard, a 16th-century house with Renaissance embellishments befitting Tissard’s position as valet de fourrière (person responsible for firewood stocks) to François I – an important role in the days of no central heating. The house stands out in a village which is mainly medieval in origin and mostly built of humbler materials.
Cross the bridge and walk into the main square towards the former priory of Saint Genest – now the town hall and museum. Turn left into Rue de la Barrière and you will see the facade of the Maison Florent Tissard with its turret and other Renaissance touches. Immediately opposite is a rather intriguing looking house, dubbed ‘ la maison gothique’, which at first glance seems to be a chapel conversion. But, rather like chouine, nobody knows for sure its origins. The vaulted stained-glass windows seem to be of religious significance and it is possible that it was where the canons of Vendôme stayed.
Just beyond la maison gothique is a small path called La Rotte aux Biques, local dialectic for ‘small path for goats’, and it is worth emulating a mountain goat for the views over the rooftops of Lavardin down to the River Loir and across to the château.
It is fascinating to see the variety of troglodytic
houses along the way – the majority are very nicely presented with pretty gardens. Troglodytic dwellings are one of the features of the Loir Valley, due to the porous nature of its tuffeau stone.
The path emerges near the castle – its ‘triple lock’ defences (enclosures on different levels) stood it in good stead until Henry IV wreaked vengeance on the Vendômois for refusing to accept him as their king. Even as a ruin it impresses.
The village church looks unassuming from the outside but the inside is full of surprises – the columns and archways are covered in medieval wall paintings in characteristic ochre tones. Various saints, including Saint Denis without his head, are depicted on the columns and Christ in Majesty is represented above the altar. Unlike our medieval predecessors, who couldn’t read but who understood the symbolism behind the pictures, a written explanation of the scenes helps us to decipher the meaning and the message of these frescoes.
With fewer than 200 inhabitants, Lavardin is one of the smaller villages in the Plus Beaux Villages association (villages can have up to 2,000 inhabitants), but it has earned its place with its impressive castle, ancient church and variety of architecture. Small but perfectly formed – an inspiration to the poet and artist in all of us.
RIGHT: The bridge over the River Loir leading into Lavardin
ABOVE: An elevated view of the main street with the castle;
CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: The imposing entrance to the castle; A typical local troglodyte house; Maison Florent Tissard; Examples of local words appearing on street signs