The next morning (Thursday) we left Tours, driving southwest. We stopped at the castle of Chinon, another of the great castles of the Loire valley, also mostly a medieval castle, although from the very end of the Middle Ages.
It is situated high above the town, and there are great views from its towers and walls, to vineyards on the one side and over the town and river on the other.
It was also a royal residence in the 14th century, during the Hundred Years War. In fact, it was while he was at this castle that the future French king Charles VII met Joan of Arc for the first time. According to legend, she was able to pick him out of a crowd, even though he had one of his attendants wear a crown and sit on his throne.
This is the oldest part of the castle, a tower dating to the 12th century.
From there we drove to Fontevraud. It is a famous medieval monastery, built in the 12th century. It at first housed both monks and nuns -- one of the few monasteries of its day to have co-ed monasticism! -- but later became a convent solely for nuns. It was patronized by Henry II of England, and he and his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, are buried in the monastery chapel, as well as their son, Richard I the Lion Hearted, and Isabela of Angouleme, who was queen to his brother John. Many of the monastery buildings have been altered over the years -- it served as a prison from 1804 to 1963! -- but some of its medieval past survives.
This is the medieval church.
The building on the left is the monastery's kitchen.
Here are the sculpted tombs of Henry and Eleanor.
And here is the tomb of their son, Richard the Lion Heart.
From a brochure: the grounds of the monastery
From there we made a slight detour to the town of Bagneux, not much of a tourist destination, but where there is a monument called a dolmen of standing stones put in place tens of thousands of years ago. It was quite an impressive sight, and the structure is 66 feet long by 23 feet wide, and the roof is 10 feet high. It contains 16 stones weighing in total over 5000 tons.
We had arranged to spend this night in a small town east of Poitiers, called Angles-sur-l'Anglin. And small it was! Only three or four streets winding their way up and down the steep riverbank. But it was also incredibly picturesque. The town had been built around a medieval castle, now in ruins. A mill had been built there, too, but was now converted into a house, so only the remnants of the millpond remained. A delightful and restful spot!
Here are our photos, beginning with our hotel:
The next day we drove west toward the coast. Our first stop was the tiny town of St.-Savin, where there are preserved some amazing 12th century frescoes in a Romanesque church.
Most medieval churches probably had paintings like these, but in other ones,
they've been painted over or have faded away in the intervening centuries.
Our next stop was the town of Chauvigny, where there are more ruins of medieval castles -- four in total, set one next to the other on top of the hill. We bought some bread, cheese, pate, and wine, and had a picnic lunch in sight of the ruins.
In the afternoon we drove to the city of Poitiers. At the center of the old town is an old church in the Romanesque style. We walked around a bit, but had to travel farther that day.
Although a big city, Poitiers still has managed to preserve its older buildings from the Middle Ages:
Also in the city is a church dating back to the end of the Roman Empire. Poitiers, after all, was founded by the Romans and was one of the many cities that we visited in the southwest of France with a Roman heritage.
After a stop for a refreshing beverage at an outdoor bar, we were off, still driving west. At the tiny town of Bougon, there were more prehistoric structures. This time, they were a series of burial mounds, some of which date back to almost 5000 B.C.
That night we stayed at La Rochelle along the coast. La Rochelle was a big commercial port during the Middle Ages. In the 16th century, though, the population was mostly converted to Protestantism, and sought for a century and a half to obtain rights of religious freedom. But in the 1680s, King Louis XIV decided to eradicate Protestantism from France, and his minister of state, Cardinal Richelieu, beseiged the town when it refused to surrender. The town was taken, the Protestants were expelled from France (many of whom went to Holland, and from there to South Africa), and the port fell into decline. These days it is very touristy, but still a nice coastal city, and our hotel was right on the old port, overlooking the two old towers. When we walked around the town the next day, we happened upon a large farmers' market, where all kinds of fish and produce were for sale.
A postcard view of La Rochelle:
The next day, we drove an hour or so down the coast to the town of Rochefort. Rochefort was built during the reign of Louis XIV, a bit upstream on the Charente River, as a naval port. It was thought that it would be more easily defensible than a town right on the coast. Most of the old buildings in town were built to support the French navy, as bakeries, storehouses, etc. Our favorite was the building where ropes for the masts were made. The building had to be built long enough for the ropes to be stretched out to dry. It is a long building, 1227 feet long!
There is also a Begonia Conservatory in Rochefort. Begonias were first brought to France at the time of Louis XIV, and named after his minister Francois Begon, who was in charge of Rochefort. The conservatory has the second largest number of begonia varieties in the world, including rare yellow begonias. We took the tour of the Conservatory, along with a few old ladies.
From there we drove inland again, to the city of Saintes. Saintes was also originally a Roman town, and had lots of Roman ruins, including an amphitheater and a triumphal arch (the arch could be seen from our hotel room window).
A pool at the Roman baths
Note the medieval cathedral's tower through the arch!
The next day, we left Saintes for the nearby town of Cognac. Cognac is, of course, where Cognac is made, and we took a tour of the Couvoisier factory.
Later in the day, we drove east to the city of Angouleme. It had an interesting medieval town, perched on a high hill, with most of its ramparts still in place, and overlooking the modern city that has spread out into the valleys around the hill. Here is the cathedral of Angouleme:
Here is another map, showing the continuation of our trip:
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