Third time lucky on the pilgrim path

Roger Bray steps back in time

The Chapelle des Templiers does not lie on a marked route to Santiago de la Compostela, though clear evidence suggests many pilgrims paused there on their long journeys through France. The little Romanesque church sits on a modest hill in the hamlet of Cressac Saint Genis. Without local advice you would be unlikely to make a detour there. Even if you did, you would be lucky to find it open. (Your best chance of accessing the Chapelle des Templiers would be to inquire at the Hotel de Ville in Blanzac.) It is an unforgettable gem.

Chapelle des Templiers

Our local advice came from Jane, the delightful English host at the house we had rented for an autumn break among the Cognac vineyards of southern Charentes. After two failed attempts to see inside we struck lucky. That Saturday happened to be one of two consecutive Journées Européennes du Patrimoine, when the French, among others, were celebrating their enduring heritage, and a local expert on the chapel’s history was delighted to welcome us. 

It was the wall paintings that we wanted to see. They are extraordinary. The Templiers in the church’s name were the Knights Templar, an order set up to protect pilgrims in the Holy Land. The large work on the north wall includes a representation of the Battle of al-Buqaia, which took place in 1163, on the Syrian plain between the mighty castle called the Krak des Chevaliers and the city of Homs. Completed within a few years of the Templars’ victory, it depicts them, mounted and pale faced, pursuing the defeated Saracens. In the 1950s the mural was removed from the wall, stuck to sheets using a technique designed to safeguard the Pompeii frescoes, and taken to Paris for restoration. It went on show in the capital for ten years before returning home. It was, I suppose, the closest you could get to photo journalism in the Middle Ages. You leave it with a vivid sense of another world brought to life.

The rented house, also on a hill top and reached by single track road, was in a former grange, an enclosed group of farm buildings. (A historian in Angoulême believed parts of the complex could be 1000 years old). The timber structure had been thoughtfully modernised, with two bedrooms, a large bathroom and well equipped kitchen/diner. It had a walled garden with a large walnut tree. Upstairs was a large sitting room, with views of a landscape undulating westward.  Save for the ranks of vines, the surrounding countryside bore an arid look after a summer of fierce heat. 

The nearest village with shops was Blanzac, about 4km away, with a one way system that took at least three days to master. It boasted yet another fine church, on a little square with a boulangerie (bakery), patisserie and an excellent restaurant. A three course prix fixe lunch there, eaten al fresco, cost €16. Even at the then wretched exchange rate that was under £15. Dinner – the place was packed – was more expensive but even then, our total bill worked out at only around £68 for two.

I had vowed never to rent from an English owner again after an unfortunate experience involving an unreturned deposit. Jane however, who moved there with her partner some 20 years ago, was quite different. When booking I asked, in an email, whether there was a French TOPO walking guide to the region in the house. “No”, she replied immediately, “but there will be when Amazon delivers it tomorrow”. Impressive, as was the large selection of other books on hand and the excellent fibre internet connection.

Provided your French is up to it, TOPO Guides are invaluable. We used it, for example, to take in a long stretch by the Charentes river. Distance and heat are just about the only factors which make walking here strenuous. Most routes are flat and involve only gentle uphill sections. We parked at a Mairie, where locals came to buy baguettes from one of the vending machines that have sprung up with the widespread closure of those small boulangeries that once served almost every small community in France and whose irresistible smell was such a joy of holidaying there. The guide directed us to the waterside through avenues of maize and followed the river on a tree shaded track.  After a picnic lunch resting on an idyllically positioned bench we veered away from the bank towards the photogenic village of Graves, vines at its feet, another small Romanesque church perched above. But though mid-September had brought cool mornings, afternoon temperatures still soared into the high twenties, so we consulted the guide’s map and shamelessly cut the circuit short.

There were plenty of places we could have driven to: Angoulême, with its ramparts and central market or Cognac (name self explanatory). Another time. We did make it to Jonzac on the river Saugne, dominated by its Chateau, its former Carmelite convent cloister now part of a cultural centre, its medieval Rue de Champagnac, laid out as a zigzag to aid defence. But mostly we were content to explore without much driving. Even the little village of Champagne-Vigny, a walk though fields from the house, had its own Romanesque church. There are everywhere in this corner of the country, built of limestone, like the elegant 12th century St Jacques at Conzac, again in the middle of nowhere. They leave you wondering at the medieval power of the church. Where did all the funds for them come from? And how many pilgrims stopped at them? Judging from a pilaster at Cressac Saint Genis, deeply worn by the hands of penitents fearful of the fiery pit, they numbers must have been staggering.

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Roger Bray

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