Romanesque Church Hunt Looking for churches and other France adventures.

March 23, 2008

Black Madonnas

Filed under: Ardeche - Churches,Ardeche - Other Points of Interest — Karen @ 8:58 pm

One of our group reports that a colleague will be spending time in France this summer looking for ‘Black Madonnas’.

Black Madonna of LimouxMy curiosity was piqued, since we had seen several of these Black Madonnas on our travels. I wondered the most basic of questions: What are the Black Madonnas? Why are they black? And are there any in Ardeche near where we will be staying? The one at left is from Limoux and southwest France.

My initial research seems to indicate that the Black Madonna phenomenon as mostly European from the 11th to 15th century with more that 500 examples still viewable (and 180 of those in France.)

But here’s the intriguing part–no one is absolutely sure why they are black. Some say it is just a reaction of varnish on wooden sculpture or perhaps centuries of candle soot. Or that some were sculpted of naturally occuring dark stone. There are many, many theories out there. Others maintain that many of the statues were black from the beginning. I referred to our “Bible” of Ardeche Romanesque lore, “Eglises Romanes Oubilees du Vivarais” by Claudia Fabre-Martin. This would be “Forgotten Romanesque Churches of the Vivarais”. This book is so comprehensive and so dense that it will take us a lifetime of trips to get through it. But every page has a precious nugget of information.

I checked to see what “Forgotten Churches” had to say about the black madonnas and it seems its a very complicated issue. Another issue brought up here was the possibility that the black virgins were in tune with the earlier pagan goddess representations. Also of importance for Ardeche is its location on the way to the Black Madonna of all time, Notre-Dame de Puy.

There are several “vierges noires” in Ardeche, but the closest that I could find was one listed as being at Cornas, which is somewhat north of where we will be staying. But the Black Madonna seems like a worthy Romanesque destination.

cornas_notre_dame_de_la_mure-2-1.jpgThe black virgin of Cornas, called Notre-Dame de La Mure, is about 60 centimeters high and carries a baby, both of them looking at us. She is thought to be of the 13th century. She has a definite relationship to the Vierge de La Puy. The statue disappeared during the wars of religion and the French Revolution, hidden by the lords. I was not able to find a photo of the lady herself, but the santuary is at left.

The chapel was restored in the 20th century and Monsignor Roncalli (future Pope John 23) came to crown the Virgin & Child in 1946. The restoration was not finished and today another restoration has begun again.

While we are on the hunt for the Black Madonna, perhaps we might be able to stop and sample the wines of Cornas, well known among aficianados and reviewed here by Tim Teichgraber of the San Francisco Chonicle, Feb. 9, 2007

Wines from Cornas, when you can find them, sell for less than those from Cote Rotie or Hermitage but often rival them in quality. That doesn’t mean these bottles come cheap, though. Expect a bottle of Cornas to set you back between $35 and $90. Today’s wines from Cornas are still loaded with minerality and tannin, but they’re more polished and cleaner than they once were.

Cornas vintageI tasted 12 bottles from seven producers and four different vintages and these were my favorites. All were remarkably sound, well-made wines with genuine regional flair. I’d be impressed to see that kind of consistency from any region, and it just goes to show that the rising tide of quality in Cornas has raised all ships.

2003 Domaine Clape Renaissance ($50) The venerable Clape family is keeping pace with the young guns of Cornas. This wine has sweet plum, cherry, raspberry aromas laced with pepper, mint, violets and coffee. It’s richer tasting than the nose suggests, more so with time. Juicy but nimble, with a peppery, minerally finish.

2004 Jean-Luc Columbo La Louvee ($85) A very dynamic wine with aromas of blackberry, black cherry, gunpowder, licorice and mint, and rich but focused fruit flavors that finish with grainy granite tones, a touch of alcoholic heat and gentle, surprisingly tame tannins.

2004 Jean-Luc Columbo Terres Brulees ($78) Lucid deep scarlet in color with lavish plum, cherry, blackberry, vanilla, bacon, pepper, mint, leather and black licorice aromas and flavors. A massive, mouth-coating wine with spicy red fruit, soft oaky tones and sturdy tannins.

2000 Noel Verset ($50) An elegant, subtle Cornas from a veteran grower with pronounced black pepper, violet, cherry and plum aromas, edgy cherry and plum fruit flavors and hints of licorice and grilled meat on the stony, firm finish.

2003 Paul Jaboulet Aine Les Grandes Terrasses ($42) Full-bodied and mouth-filling with sweet raspberry, coffee and blackberry flavors giving way to taut mineral notes and sturdy tannins, toast and chocolate flavors. A solid value.

2002 Robert Michel La Geynale ($50) An enjoyable but more sinewy wine from a cooler vintage with pretty violet, black pepper and anise aromas, and stony cherry and plum flavors, finishing with meaty notes and tightly wound tannin.

2003 Thierry Allemand ($85) This cuvee from the tricky, hot 2003 vintage is stunning right out of the gate, with intense blackberry, clove, pepper, coriander, licorice, blueberry aromas and concentrated black fruit flavors finishing with more licorice and vanilla oak notes and stony, granite flavors. Truly exceptional.

2004 Vincent Paris Granit 60 Vielles Vignes ($35) Closed at first, then unwinds to reveal pretty rose petal, black pepper, black cherry, cranberry and blackberry aromas, compact dark fruit flavors and tight mineral notes on the finish. Subtly oaked and impeccably balanced, a great value and certain to improve with age

March 8, 2008

Le Figuier • The Fig Tree

The Fig Tree - rental house in ardeche, France
For several years, we have visited with our friend Martine in the tiny village of St. Andeol de Berg which is just a few kilometers from the town of Villeneuve de Berg in Ardeche, France. She has made available her wonderful rental house to us and these stays have been a highlight of our trips. We have loved our evenings sitting at the white wooden table under the fig tree and looking out to the sunset while drinking delicious wine of the Rhone. And Romanesque churches! It will take a lifetime for us to visit them all in Ardeche.Google Map Ardeche

Click on the map icon to see the Ardeche Google church map with “Le Figuier” marked.

Click on the photos or below to visit Martine’s website for more information on booking “Le Figuier.”

 We have grown to love the Ardeche and St Andeol de Berg where the house is located. Martine is a mile away at her own house at the other end of the village and is a caring and knowledgeable hostess, offering the warm hospitality that will be one of your best memories of France. You will need to book early to reserve the house for summer, but spring and autumn should have some availability. I have not had the privilege of staying in this region in the fall, but my guess is that it would be magnificent.

The house is on one of the GR (grande randonee) walking routes and is quite large and would be perfect for a family or group. To find out more about Le Figuier, click on this link or on any of the photos below.

Sunset in St. Andeol

house in Ardeche


House in Ardeche

Zazie, the dog, is not included in the rental–but she may visit to say “Bonjour!”

March 4, 2008

It’s a beautiful morning in St. Andeol de Berg

Filed under: Ardeche - Other Points of Interest — Karen @ 12:35 pm

When I checked my email this morning there was a lovely photo from Martine, our good friend in Ardeche.  St. Andeol is a small village on a ridge near Villeneuve de Berg in the central-eastern part of the region. Enjoy!

St Andeol in the morning

February 22, 2008

Our very first house in France – 1997

NOTE: I have tons of photos from this expedition, but I will have to find them and scan them in — Apologies!

I want to tell the story on how our little group began renting in France 12 years ago. My friend Becky casually asked me if I would be interested in going to either France or California during the summer. Back then I always thought of a European trip as way beyond my means. But all of a sudden I remember seeing a brochure at work for a company that did France budget flights and accommodations, but also had a page on renting a French farmhouse. So I threw this out to Becky–How about renting a farmhouse? It was only a month or so before we would go and this was the time when the internet was just beginning. So I went to this company and the French lady just said ‘Oh you must have a pool!” and fished out a few grainy black and white pictures with descriptions in French from a catalogue from Gites de France (more in the future on Gites de France)   I picked one out and the rest is history! The arrangements were made by this company, although every house since we have booked directly or through an internet agency.

The house was in Domessargues in Garde, right next to Provence and about 20 miles north of Nimes. I was dragging four other people along with me and we did not know what to expect. The rent was $500 a week – seven nights Saturday to Saturday and we wondered if the pool would be icky or tiny.  With our group of five that made each person’s share $100 for a whole week.

Driving from Nimes, the countryside became very verdant with grape arbors glowing with a purplish hue framed by green.  I was very nervous because  I had recruited all these people and what if the place is a dump!  I think I tried to absolve myself of all responsibility as we drove.  Domessargues was a tiny town atop a hill  surrounded by vineyards. We found the owner and his wife who escorted us to a barn on the other side of the village. From the instant we entered the place we were thunderstruck. It was huge and immaculate. There were four bedrooms and a salon for gathering that led out to a patio. But most astonishing of all, the pool was 10 meters (30 feet) and a sparkling, pristine oasis surrounded by carefully tended flower bed and recliners and umbrella-ed tables. There was a second unit in the barn that was not taken during our stay, so we had this marvelous place all to ourselves.

The town was not big enough for commerce, but each morning a little white truck drove through the village honking and you could buy your absolutely fresh French bread and croissants from a friendly delivery man.   There was an equestrian center across the road and in the evening we could heard gypsy-type music waft over to our place while we were having a barbeque with the gnarled dried roots of grape trees as our briquets.

We roamed all over Provence and marveled at the food, the friendliness of the people.

All my photos from this first expedition are not digital and at some point I will scan them in.  I tried to find the unit at Gites de France, but I couldn’t find it.  I would still recommend it and I know several years ago, it was still just 500 euros.

Our magical day at Garde Adhémar

Church Report

Last year I wrote a “Church Preview” on this beautiful church in Drome Provencale, but all the research in the world could not prepare one for the beauty of this church, perched overlooking the Rhone and on every side, exquisitely manicured gardens on terraces on many levels.

We arrived at the church and there were people starting to assemble, we discovered shortly later that there was to be a funeral at the church. We have stumbled into baptisms, weddings and now a funeral during our Romanesque travels — all these events serve to highlight the relationship of these edifices to their villages. How many generations have had their most significant events in these thousand-year-old sentinels?

Here is a photo of the interior of the church right before the service.

Garde Adhemar

And then when you step out of the church…
Garde Adhemar entrance

Vistas in every direction and carefully labeled plantings.

Garde Adhemar botanical garden

We spent quite a while discovering all the nooks and crannies at this beautiful garden. We were happy to give our compliments to one of the gardeners who was working there.

Garde Adhemar botanical garden

And in one direction is a view of the Tricastin nuclear plant. To American eyes, these power plants are startling but the idea of nuclear power is business as usual and of no special negative import in France. In this stretch of the Rhone between Avignon and Lyon are three major nuclear power plants. As one drives between Avignon and Lyon, you can tic them off one by one.  Even more surprising than Tricastin is the plant at Cruas, about 35 miles north.  It is situated directly on the banks of the Rhone and one of the major traffic arteries passes so close that you could almost toss a pebble and hit it.

Nuclear plant in the Rhone Valley - Tricastin



February 12, 2008

More Aleyrac photos

Filed under: Church Reports,Drome - Churches — Karen @ 1:18 pm

Church Report

The experience of of seeing a Romanesque ruin is very unique. The air of mystery surrounding the church is almost palpable. Contrary to what you might think, ruins are not that common. My guess would be once a church collapsed centuries ago, the stones might have been used for other construction.

Here are some more photos taken on-site. This beautiful haunting ruin was one of our first stops in 2007.

Aleyrac - Interior


Aleyrac - Exterior










February 8, 2008

Where to go for your own church hunt

Filed under: Renting Your French Country House — Karen @ 5:56 pm

Church windows at Ardeche cathedralThe answer is you can go almost anywhere in France.  The number of churches there is staggering.  We have generally traveled in June when there is more than a hint of the warm weather and bounty of the countryside, so we have often chosen locations in the south.

In Provence, we love the Vaucluse which is the most northwest of all the areas in Provence.  Prices get more and more reasonable the farther you are from the Cote d’Azur which can get overpopulated and traffic-crazy in the prime months of July and August.

We have often gone to southwest France where there are magnificent churches to be discovered, not to mention the cathedrals and cloisters of Moissac and St. Sernin in Toulouse.  In the southwest we have liked every place we have visited and that includes areas just outside of Carccassone, the Minervois and farther north in the beautful Dordogne region.

Our latest destinations have been in Drome Provencale (actually just a stone’s throw from the Vaucluse) and the Ardeche, the rugged area just west of the Rhone and directly accross from the Drome.

We have also seen some stunning places enroute, most notably the cathedral at Conques and also a very satisfying trip through Burgundy.  At some point I plan on documenting these trips, but so many churches and too little time!

A map is in progress as well as a list of some of the world heritage Romanesque sites (even though we adore the tiny country churches just as much!)

February 7, 2008

Thanks to Arthur!

Filed under: Drome - Churches — Karen @ 1:00 pm

Last year we visited Drome Provencale and Ardeche, but I did not post much after our return because I somehow ruined the memory card with all my photos. What a disaster! I could see the photos in the camera but my card reader would not recognize the “device”. My colleague at work, Arthur, volunteered to give it a try and he was able to rescue almost all of the “Churches of 2007”. Many of them were ones that I had wrote previews about before our trip.

I salute Arthur and amongst the many topics will now be some looks back at 2007. To clarify the “before” research and the “after” reports, I’m going to start labeling the posts as “Church Preview” and “Church Report 2007.” The previews will be all the information I am able to gather from here and there on the Internet about a specific church and town. The photos will often be uncredited ones that I found in obscure locations (note: I’m more than willing to credit any photo whose creator comes forth!). The “Church Reports” will be thoughts on actual visits to the churches and the photos will be mine.

An now, a photo from a church visit in 2007, thanks to Arthur!

The Prieure d’Aleyrac in Drome Provencale

Prieure d’Aleyrac



I will post some more thoughts on this magnificent ruin in my next post.


February 3, 2008

Mystery churches revealed!

Filed under: Ardeche - Churches — Karen @ 5:18 am

Church ReportAfter a bit of research, I was able to pinpoint this lovely Romanesque ensemble that we saw two years ago that I mentioned in yesterday’s post. The group is located in the village of Saint-Thomé. There is a wonderful website by the village of Saint-Thome at

The two churches, located in this charming village, are the Church of Saint Thomas and the Chapelle of Saint-Sebastien. Here is a photo that I mentioned in my last post, the fence of the churchyard with the old grave markers making up part of the stonework.

Church yard of Saint-Thome



Click here to see a map showing the location.

Here is a rough translation from the Saint-Thome site on the origins of the churches.

“Situated at the confluence of three rivers, Saint-Thome is a good example of a perched village of central Ardeche. At the summit of a large rock, the houses are grouped around the Church of Saint Thomas and the Chapelle of Saint-Sebastien.

The Romanesque church of Saint Thomas dates from the 10th century and has given the village its name. The Chapelle Saint Sebastien, located just across from the church, is without doubt much older, dating from the 7th or 8th century. There is an inscription from the epoque Gallo-Romain on a rock under the entry. Dating from 487, it is an epitaph of the bishop of Viviers, who lived during the reign of Alain II, a Visigoth king. ”

February 2, 2008

Mystery double church of Ardeche

Filed under: Ardeche - Churches — Tags: , , — Karen @ 3:54 pm

This beautiful church below is accompanied by a small chapel less than 50 yards away. I took this photo 2 years ago and it’s a mystery only because I have not remembered the name of this dynamic duo of Romanesque landmarks.

Double church

What I do remember–the day was sunny, but cool. The type of day when the sun goes under the clouds a chill seems to descend, but as the cloud passes, the warmth returns. This remarkable assemblage had a churchyard with a shimmering layer of soft wheat-like grass. No longer used as a cemetery, there were ancient gravestones build into the retaining wall that faced out toward a marvelous valley view. The whole effect was magical.

More tomorrow–I’m sure with a little research I can identify this lovely church and its companion. And I have a few more photos as well that I will post.

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