This is a journey into the future and stepping back in time. We experienced both in the Vienne
Think of the essential characteristics of a classic French village, and Angles-sur-l’Anglin ticks every box. A pretty river beneath a mined hilltop castle, a stone watermill fringed by weeping willows, ancient houses, narrow winding streets and a tiny square, the focal point of village life!
Small wonder that this idyllic community in Poitou-Charentes has been designated one of the elite band of Plus Beaux Villages de France, having been awarded the "3 flower" label for its floral decoration, Tucked deep in the countryside of the Vienne department, east of Poitiers, it is worlds away from the bustling Atlantic coast resorts on the region’s western boundary.
Every bend revealed a new delight, elderly fishermen in their flat-bottomed boats, huge wheel of the watermill. And, just oft the square, a small exhibition and shop showcasing the community’s most famous export — drawn-thread embroidery.
If you know your needlework you’ll be captivated by Les Jours d’Angles, a distinctive craft which involves drawing threads out of silk or linen to reveal daylight — les jours — and create intricate patterned fabrics. A small coaster can take 3 hours to complete, a large tablecloth more than 500!
We followed the way marked high-level green trail with its glorious panoramic views, then the red trail at river level for a duck’s-eye perspective.
This year, Angles-sur-l’Anglin is also expecting a new wave of visitors drawn by the area’s latest tourist attraction, the Roc aux Sorciers, which opened in March.
Dubbed the ‘Lascaux de Ia sculpture’, this 20-metre Magdalenian frieze depicting men, women and prehistoric animals was discovered in 1950, but for conservation reasons has only been seen by a small band of experts. Now a faithful recreation and a new interpretative centre enables you to enjoy and understand this ancient masterpiece, sculpted, engraved and painted around 15,000 years ago.
Angles-sur-l’Anglin is just one enchanting corner of an area often overlooked by visitors coming to the Vienne department to enjoy either the city delights of Poitiers or the multimedia spectacles of Futuroscope (more of which later). But drive east from Poitiers and within an hour you can enjoy not only this gem amongst French villages but also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a thriving spa resort, and a small town listed as an ‘unmissable stopover’ by the Michelin “Plus Beaux Détours de France” guide.
Chauvigny is a great detour in anyone’s book, with not one, not two but five medieval châteaux, three of them belonging to the town and open to visitors. You can see the latest exhibition in Harcourt Castle, watch birds of prey at Bishops’ Castle, and enjoy sweeping views over the rooftops from the battlements of Gouzon’s Keep. And don’t miss the glorious interior of the Collégiale-St-Pierre, its white painted columns adorned with geometric designs in shades of russet and ochre.
North of Chauvigny, we sampled gracious Renaissance living at the Château de Touffou near Bonnes where, in summer, you can stroll along the tournament terrace, enjoy the formal gardens, and visit the bedroom of King François I, rival of Henry VIII.
You get the feeling that previous owners of this apricot-coloured château might have enjoyed the present-day amenities of La Roche-Posay, a small town with a big reputation for its healing waters. Official recognition came in 1573 when Henry IV appointed his own physician as ‘first quartermaster of the thermal springs’ and more than four centuries later, the waters still work their magic on a wide variety of skin conditions.
Most holidaymakers, though, simply enjoy chilling out with beauty treatments in the Mélusine spa. Jacquie relaxed with an allusion massage — a gentle body massage beneath sprays of spa water - followed by a bubbling bath with essential oils. You can carry on the good work back home by treating yourself to some of the skincare products on offer.
On the other hand, if this kind of thing is not really your number, you can play the tables at the casino, take in a race meeting or round of golf, or indulge in quiet reflection in the peace of the shady park, Yes, life in La Roche-Posay, which grew up where the Gartempe river joins the mightier Creuse, is certainly tough for its community of just 1,500 permanent residents!
From here follow the Gartempe River south and enter the Valley of the Frescoes, so called because of its wealth of decorated churches. Most spectacular of all is the 11th-century abbey at St-Savin-sur-Gartempe — a World Heritage Site by virtue of the multi-coloured biblical scenes adorning the ceiling of the nave.
Continue south and you can feed mind and body at Montmorillon, famous for its mouthwatering macaroons and La Cite de l’Ecrit, an old quarter beside the river dedicated to booksellers and book-related crafts.
And, of course, you wouldn’t want to miss Poitiers — both Vienne’s departmental and the region’s capital — where history and heritage and retailing and restaurants come in one very neat
“worlds away from the bustling Atlantic coast resorts on the region’s western boundary”
The remains of the Roman amphitheatre suggest a building that once held 30,000 people, and experts believe that the population here in the first century AD numbered 50,000. It hasn’t really risen that much — 120,000 now live in the city and its suburbs, students accounting for more than a quarter of the total and helping to endow historic Poitiers with a lively cultural life.
A good first stop on arriving here is the tourist office in Place Charles de Gaulle, where information panels tell you about the city’s development. There’s also a free leaflet detailing three fascinating walking trails. And in front of the office stands the intricately-carved façade of the church of Notre Dame-La-Grande, Poitier’s most famous monument. In summer, visitors are treated to a nightly light show, Les Polychromies, which recreates the colours that once adorned each sculpted figure.
Nearby are the Law Courts, in a vast 13th-century hall where we really enjoyed the rich sense of history. Once home to the Counts of Poitou and the Dukes of Aquitaine, this was where medieval miscreants would await their fate in what came to be known as ‘the hall of endless pacing’. Fireplaces covering the end wall might have warmed their bodies whilst they paced, but nothing, one feels, would have helped to warm their worried souls.
Head downhill past the picturesque houses of the Grand’Rue — once one the city’s main thoroughfares — and cross the Clam river to enjoy the panorama from the viewpoint on the opposite slope. Then cross back to take in the Baptistery of Saint Jean, oldest Christian monument in France, and magnificent Gothic cathedral of Saint Pierre, leaving time to chill out at one of the many cafes and restaurants in city centre.
And don’t leave Poitiers without experiencing a day at Futuroscope, this year celebrating its 21st birthday. Easily reached by bus from outside the main railway station, this pioneering family theme park is essentially a cinematic experience like no other. You really have to see it to appreciate it — and many of the things you’ll see are brilliantly calculated to blow your mind, in the most entertaining and enthralling sense of course.
Take, for example, this year’s new attraction — The Future is Wild — which elevates interactive entertainment to whole new level. The technojargon describes it as ‘combining the advanced technology of augmented reality with scientific look at how species could evolve far in the future’.
How this actually pans out is that you climb aboard the expedition vehicle, armed with special binoculars and sensor bracelet, to see and interact with imaginary animals roaming the planet millions of years into the future all presented in startlingly realistic 3D.
Other amazing Futuroscope experiences new for 2008 include getting up close and personal with
Dinosaurs, Lapland Express, and the Castle of Giddiness — Citadelle du Vertige.
Now all this high excitement sounds a long, long way from the idyllic little village of Angles-sur-l’Anglin — but actually it isn’t. And to us that’s the beauty of Vienne: attractions past, present and future all so easily accessible in one very memorable holiday or break.