Situated on the bank of the River Loir, the small plus beau village of Lavardin boasts a wealth of historic assets as Alison Hughes finds out.
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 12th-century 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 Henri 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.
LAVARDIN AT A GLANCE
Stop for lunch at… At Les Terasses du Château which has doubled up with pâtisserie, Ô Saveurs Créatives (tel: (Fr) 2 54 67 00 12), selling home-made macarons and other pastries, as well as drinks and light meals. Easy to assemble a picnic to eat on the banks of the river or have a simple lunch on the terrace (€13 for a main dish).
Stay the night at… So Troglo (rooms from €75, breakfast €8, dinner €23, tel: (Fr) 6 12 31 50 43). This quirky troglodytic B&B, with a swimming pool and sauna, is a great place to stay for a few days. The house has a long history and has had many incarnations from a source for local stone, to champonnière (ideal growing place for mushrooms) to B&B. There are four bedrooms, some with their own terraces and sitting areas. The bedrooms are in the rock but claustrophobics need not fear as all have windows to the outside and have a light and airy feel. Isabelle is an excellent cook, so be prepared for some culinary treats. The glace à la tomate et basilique was a delight.
WHAT TO SEE
The 11th-century château (open May to end of September, adults €4; by appointment at other times). Steeped in history, the castle is an inspiring sight. Close up, the details such as the fireplace still visible on the third storey, the arrow slits and coats of arms carved into the stone fire the imagination. In keeping with its troglodytic setting, the castle has a tunnel running from one side to another and cave-like rooms on the ground floor. Église Saint-Genest offers some of the best examples of Romanesque wall paintings in France. There are some unusual representations such as The Tree of Jesse, the pelican feeding its young (symbol of Christ) and the phoenix (symbol of the Resurrection). Along the Loir and Braye valleys there are 20 churches with wall paintings to discover on la Route des Fresques. Les Journées troglos takes place on the last weekend of September (the weekend following les Journées du patrimoine). Private troglodytic dwellings are open to the public.
Invest in a Pass’Découverte en Pays Vendômois. When you buy an entrance ticket to the château, ask for the Pass’ which gives reduced entry to 16 historic sites, 11 leisure activities and a reduction on certain local products – reduced entries include the train touristique and the Jardin du Plessis Sasnières.
Lavardin is a three-hour drive from the port of Ouistreham in Calvados. Alison travelled from Portsmouth to Ouistreham with Brittany Ferries www.brittanyferries.co.uk. Alternatively, catch a flight with Ryanair to Tours, a 45-minute drive from the village. If you prefer to travel by rail, Le Mans is an hour from Paris by TGV (Lavardin is less than an hour’s drive from Le Mans).
TOURIST INFORMATION: Val-de-Loire Tourist Board www.val-de-loire-41.com