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

France - - Contents -

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

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