I COULD have chosen almost any stretch of French countryside for our two-day tour of medieval churches — France is home to no less than 45,000 parish churches, of which 15,621 are classified as “monument historiques”, according to official church figures. Most of these are the product of a medieval frenzy of construction that seized France from about 1050, until the Hundred Year’s War devastated the country in the 14th century.
My wife, Clara, and I decided to explore the relatively unknown mid-west region of the Charente. Plenty of traffic passes through on its motorways, but in between them you will not find many other travellers pottering around its lanes.
Bordeaux made a convenient starting point. It also offered a handy contrast; we were leaving behind a city of the hyper-rational Enlightenment, dedicated to the corporeal pleasures of wine, in search of the spiritual mysteries of the Middle Ages.
An easy hop north-east took us to our first stop, Pons, where we discovered why this part of France is particularly rich in country churches. The old road heading south out of town is sheltered by a beautiful Romanesque porch that once provided shade for pilgrims on their way between Paris and Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. Four distinct pilgrimage routes funnelled huge numbers of penitents towards the passes of the western Pyrenees, and churches sprang up everywhere to cater for them.
At Pons, an aristocratic benefactor, Geoffrey III, Lord of Pons in the 1160s, built a priory hospital for the poor, and “to salve his soul, and those of his parents” at the same time. It stood outside the town walls so that it could be open for late arrivals when the gates were closed. The sick ward is now a museum, and behind it is a peaceful medieval garden planted with medicinal herbs.
I KNEW where I wanted to get to next, but it was not easy to find. A GPS would have made it a doddle (as Clara kept pointing out); but, for me, gadgets take the fun out of getting lost down winding lanes and having to get into conversation with the locals.
Eventually, we reached the tiny village of Fenioux (population 152; but, as is the way in France, it has its own mayor) in the last glorious blaze of afternoon sunlight. First, we looked at the church that has a richly historiated portal, the outermost archivolt depicting the signs of the zodiac and activities associated with the corresponding months of the year.
But the church was just a taster. What we had really come to see was an odd little tower standing in a field near by: the most delightful of the 40 or so lanternes des morts (“lanterns of the dead”) left standing in France. All of them were built in the 12th century, and all stand in the territories of the Duchy of Aquitaine, which formed an expatriate part of England for 200 years.
No one is quite sure what these towers were for. Most of them stood in cemeteries, and it is possible that a fire was lit at the top to guide departing souls towards heaven. Fenioux’s lantern is made of 11 columns clustered together, presumably representing the disciples without Judas.
HEADING further inland — without stopping in Cognac, for reasons already explained — brought us to Angoulême. The city’s unofficial title of “comic-book capital of France” makes it sound like a place where you could misspend your youth. In a nondescript suburb stands a real oddity: one of only a handful of churches in Europe built to a circular plan rather than being rectangular or cruciform.
To be exact, this one is octagonal, and has eight satisfyingly symmetrical apses. It certainly does not point east, as I was always told churches were supposed to, although round churches are thought to have been built in imitation of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. It is dedicated to the Archangel Michael, who is shown on the tympanum defeating the dragon in a carving made by a passing pilgrim sculptor.
IT WAS time to get back to Bordeaux; but there was one more stop to make. St-Émilion beckoned — not for its immaculate vineyards, but for being the home of a church that stretches both upwards and downwards at the same time.
Beneath the flamboyant Gothic belfry that is the town’s main landmark (196 steps to the top) is a vast monolithic building hewn out of the rock: this is the largest underground church in Europe.
The 45-minute guided visit has to be booked in advance with the tourist office, but it is great value, as it takes in the adjacent catacombs, the painted Chapelle de la Trinité, and the cramped hermitage of the eponymous eighth-century Breton hermit St Émilion, who is ultimately responsible for town and vineyards being here at all.
By this stage, we had grown used to ignoring signs that led off the main roads in all directions towards “Église XIIe siècle”. There are too many Romanesque churches in this corner of France alone to fit into a lifetime. But, for now, that is four historical French churches down, only 15,617 more to go.
Nick Inman is the author of A Guide to Mystical France: Secrets, mysteries, sacred sites, published this month by Findhorn Press.
Bordeaux-Merignac airport (bordeaux.aeroport.fr) is west of the city. British Airways and EasyJet (flights from about £80 return, off-season) have regular services from London, and there are flights from other UK airports during the summer.
Because of its wine tourism, Bordeaux has some exquisite and expensive hotels. But perhaps more apt for this tour is the former monastery of the Abbaye Royale, in St-Jean-d’Angely, near Fenioux, which has rooms at about €45 (abbaye-royale-angely.com).
For information, opening times, and reservations, visit:
saintongedoree-tourisme.com (for Fenioux)
Angouleme-tourisme.co.uk and stmichel-entraygues.fr
To reserve a place on the tour of the église monolithe de Saint-Émilion, phone 05 57 55 28 28.