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From Saint-Savin to Saulgé in the Poitou-Charentes area of France is a string of picturesque villages which help make up the Vallée des fresques or Valley of frescoes. This charming, bucolic area of France has not yet been discovered by the American traveler. Considering that it is only two and half hours by train from Gare de Montparnasse in Paris, it makes for a marvelous excursion during your Paris séjour.
The word fresco is an Italian adjective meaning fresh and is often associated with Italian Renaissance painting. One of the fascinations with fresco painting is the skill needed to produce these murals and paintings. The painting is executed upon freshly applied lime plaster using water as the vehicle for the pigments used. The pigments that are mixed with water absorb into the plaster. There is a specific chemical reaction that occurs during the drying process of a few hours during which time the pigment is fixed, becoming a part of the dried plaster. The applications of color must be applied before the plaster has dried. The process is quite complicated and includes layering with under lying sketches and with the final paintings usually consisting of numerous individual paintings done at consecutive times. The fresco technique is also associated with the late Roman Empire, the Etruscans, early modern Europe and the Middle ages. It has been found in numerous additional ancient societies to include the Ajanta Caves of India, Sri Lanka and Mexico.
A good place to start the fresco search is Saint-Savon with the Abbey of Saint-Savin sur-Gartempe, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The murals found within the Abbey date from the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The initial monastery was founded around the year 800 with the assistance of Emperor Charlemagne and became one of the major abbeys of the region by the ninth century. Unfortunately, in the sixteenth century, the surrounding buildings fell victim to the ravages of the Wars of Religion. Today, we still have a treasure trove of murals that have been carefully preserved and cleaned. On the vast vaulted ceiling of the nave the bible stories from Genesis to Exodus are depicted. Noah’s arc and the Tower of Babel were two of my favorites.
The village of Antigny was next on our quest where you can admire the Eglise Notre-Dame from the eleventh to the fifteenth centuries. The paintings in this church include the descent into hell, the resurrection, Saint Martin, Saint Louis and the Virgin with enfant. There is a large square directly facing the church that has a well preserved Lanterne des morts (Lanterns of the Dead) from the thirteenth century. This is an architectural name for stone towers found primarily in the center and western parts of France. There are small openings at the top which had a light placed at night so as to indicate the position of the cemetery.
In the small village of Jouhet on the side of the Gartempe river is a superb small chapelle dedicated to Sainte Catherine d’Alexandrie that was built in 1476. It is directly across from the church and if you are not looking for it, you may not notice it. This is not kept open to the public but you can get the key at the Mairie (and sometimes at the Café Val de Gartempe). It is worth the effort to track down the key in order to study its beautifully preserved frescos.
In Montmorillon, there is a rich architectural heritage to include la Maison-Dieu, la Chapelle Saint-Laurent, L’octogone and the Eglise Notre-Dame. Montmorillon is usually associated with its delicious macaroons and has a museum dedicated to this french confection. No trip to this region is complete without a visit to Maison Rannou-Metivier, the oldest macaroon bakery in operation since 1920.
Montmorillon, also is known as la Cité de l’Écrit et des Métiers du Livre. The art of book making and book dealers is not lost in this charming medieval village. There is a lovely restaurant in Mortmorillon called Le Lucullus at 4, bd de Strasbourg that makes for a perfect lunch.
The other village in the Valley of the Frescos of particular note is Saulgé, where you can enjoy Eglise Saint-Saulgé. This lovely ancient chapelle has been classified as an historic monument from the twelfth and the sixteenth centuries. The church is being renovated and once again you have the opportunity to practice your french by asking for the key from the Mairie.
I have focused primarily on the frescos in this area, but there are so many beautiful villages, rolling hills, markets and brocantes (flea markets) to enjoy. This section of France is well know for its parks and outdoor activities. Nature lovers can enjoy fishing, hiking and kayaking. In addition, there are activities for children and many facilities have handicap access. There is so much waiting for you to discover. Bon Voyage!
The Abbaye de Saint-Savin is located at Place de la Libération, BP 9 – 86310, Saint-Savin.
photos by Loui Franke
Loui Franke is author of Parisian Postcards: Snapshots of Life in Paris.