Our first night of this holiday saw us making our way from Le Havre, where we landed early in the morning, to a place we had never heard of before, La Charité sur Loire. Well, what an enormous hole in our education.
This pretty town sits on and around a small island in the middle of a less fashionable section of the famous river Loire, with an impressive 11th century Priory. The bridge over the Loire at this point was the reason for the Priory installing itself here, and is now one of the oldest bridges on this great French river. (Stunning sunset picture below taken by Julia.)
Since then, to skip a few centuries, in the mid 1990s a series of circumstances turned the town into a “ville du livre” (= “book town” – there are others in France) and its charming medieval streets are now packed with bookshop after bookshop. These bookshops have conceded to the medieval ambience by largely establishing themselves in prettily dilapidated old buildings around the imposing (but also slightly dilapidated) Priory so that they look as if they have been there since the time of Charlemagne, rather than the mid 1990s.
The whole effect is wonderful – I’m biased, of course, being a bookaholic, but I think La Charité sur Loire has entered into the spirit of medievalism in a way that does not happen (and would not actually be appropriate) in the most famous English ‘book town’, Hay on Wye.
The Priory itself is most impressive, being one of the most important ‘daughters’ of the great Cluny dynasty of monasteries which spread through France.
You climb steps to what was the main entrance, now without its great wooden doors, then cross a small courtyard to enter the church itself.
The whole site is undergoing a huge programme of restoration, and although much has been done you still look at the great patches of damp everywhere and wonder if it can all be done in time.
Behind the church, which has been changed and reworked over the centuries, you can see the original 11th century foundations of a section that has since collapsed completely.
We stopped after our visit for a restorative beer at one of the little cafés just outside the Priory, and discovered a truly delicious local brew called “Rur’ale” (ha ha cheeky little play on words there) which looked like any old European lager but tasted more like a light ale.
In an ideal world we might have sought some out to take back with us. However, Hercules the Hatchback Skoda, while being wonderful in every way, might not take kindly to the weight once we have got seriously into this year’s wine-buying. Pity. (I wasn’t allowed to buy any books either.)
The town has many buildings that used to house businesses, including hotels, but now there seems to be only one hotel, the “Bon Laboureur”, which is where we stayed. Their restaurant is now closed, except for breakfast, and their rooms while quite large and perfectly clean and comfortable are also decorated in full 1980s Changing Rooms style, complete with ‘feature walls’ covered in brown flowery wallpaper.
We did find a very nice restaurant that evening – the Auberge de Seyr. The cooking was simple but delicious; we all opted for the €14 menu, which gave us 3 courses. The fish soup was excellent and the steak was properly cooked (alleluia) and very tender. Best of all, we discovered two really good wines.
We came across the Appellation of Coteaux du Giennois about 18 months ago, but had not had this one; well, this was a revelation and I can also reveal that a certain number of bottles found their way into Hercules the next day after we visited the producer before heading south….