A trip to Aubterre-sur-Dronne, Charente, France

A trip to Aubterre-sur-Dronne, Charente, France

During our stay in the northern end of the Dordogne, south-west France, D had to work one day. I decided to leave the idyll that was our holiday home and take the children to Aubterre-sur-Dronne, just a hop and a skip northwards over the border into the Charente.

Aubterre dates back to the 11th century and is strikingly pretty town. It’s listed as one of France’s 155 ‘Plus Beaux Villages’ (most beautiful villages). The town is set on a hilltop overlooking the Dronne River, with a chateau and an underground church, carved into the limestone cliff way back in the 7th Century. The heart of the town is a small square lined with restaurants, where you can sit under trees with the scent of sizzling crèpes drifting in the air around you.

The town’s name comes from Alba Terra, or ‘white earth’, because of the white chalk face that overlooks the town. When we visited, in mid-August, the whole place had the pale, parched feel you find in places further south in Europe. But the glossy green of the plants, and the vibrant flowers set against the white limestone houses were a reminder that yes, this region does get a lot of rain outside of  summer.

Auberre sur Dronne

To reach the centre of Aubterre, you have to work your way up roads that become increasingly more narrow and twisty as you ascend. I made the mistake of trying to drive our Subaru up to find somewhere to park, and had to make a reverse exit when I realised there was no way we could squeeze our way through streets better suited to handcarts, or at the largest a Citroen 2CV. But at the foot of the town, next to the river that forms its eastern border, there’s plenty of parking space, either by the canoeing centre, or the river beach.

River beach

Aubterre sur Dronne

Aubterre sur Dronne

Aubterre sur Dronne

The beach was a man-made strip of a couple of hundred metres long, with grainy sand and a playpark next to it. Even in mid-summer it wasn’t too crowded. The deeper parts of the river were sectioned off, with plenty of daredevils leaping off an islet into the water. Considering France was in the middle of a heatwave – with temperatures hitting 40 degrees –  the water was cold.

I hadn’t packed swimwear for the children, so we decided to come back with D the next day, to explore Aubterre further, and to brave a proper dip.

Aubtterre sur Dronne

Much of Aubterre’s streets are car-free, and it’s easy to lose an hour or two, wandering under the trellises and admiring the view. Unsurprisingly, the town attracts and inspires artists; we managed to visit four studios, where original photographs, paintings, and pottery were on sale. D and I would have liked to go into more, but we decided to call it a day after both our children were worked up into a frenzy of china-smashing excitement by the grimacing gargoyle faces crafted into the pots in one studio.

Aubterre sur Dronne

Subterranean church

Aubterre’s underground church was a short walk from the main square, down a street lined with floral bunting. Considering the tools that would have been available to the Bendictine monks who carved it out in the 7th century – and then in the 12th, when it was enlarged – the church is a staggering achievement. You step inside, from the balmy heat into a cold, still cavern that’s 20 metres wide and 15 metres high. It’s the tallest monolithic church in France.

Aubterre sur Dronne

Steps have been carved into the side of the church, so you can walk up (be careful – they’re slippery) and walk along a passageway at the top, which opens out to give dizzy-making views down to the vault.

Somehow, I only managed to take pictures across the top of the church, not down. Too scared to look, I suspect…..

Aubterre sur Dronne

Aubterre sur Dronne

Off to the side of the church, you can peer into a separate chamber which has a floor pitted with rock formations. You can walk down some even more slippery steps into the algae-coated crypt, where nobody seemed to linger for very long.

Aubterre sur Dronne

Aubterre sur Dronne

Aubterre sur Dronne

the crypt

Aubterre-sur-Dronne is popular with English visitors. When we were there, in the height of summer, at least half the people we ran into were British tourists, and there seemed to be a few English voices among the restaurant owners and staff. If you like to seek the ‘authentic’ France, don’t let that put you off. Aubterre was a fascinating place to visit, full of history and charm.

You can find out more about places to eat and stay on Aubterre’s official tourist website.

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37 Comments

  1. February 9, 2017 / 10:38 am

    The underground church is fascinating. Thanks for sharing #FarawayFiles

    • Nell
      Author
      February 15, 2017 / 2:59 pm

      It really was!

  2. February 9, 2017 / 12:25 pm

    What a beautiful discovery and such an interesting church! #FarawayFiles

  3. February 9, 2017 / 1:08 pm

    Looks beautiful Nell. I never need a reason to go to France but those idyllic summer days in Aubterre make me want to jump on a plane right now. I had to laugh at your experience with the car. That has happened to me a couple of times and you never know how you’re going to get out of the situation.. but somehow you do! Thanks for sharing on #FarawayFiles

    • Nell
      Author
      February 15, 2017 / 2:59 pm

      Yes, somehow we managed the tight squeeze!

  4. February 9, 2017 / 4:05 pm

    Yes that subterranean church looks so interesting and maybe a cool place for a respite in heat of mid-summer? Love the river pool and the flower garlands are adorable. Looks charming. Thanks for showing me another little piece of France! #FarawayFiles, Erin

    • Nell
      Author
      February 15, 2017 / 3:00 pm

      You’re right – it was lovely and cool.

    • Nell
      Author
      February 15, 2017 / 3:03 pm

      Yes indeed!

  5. February 9, 2017 / 7:16 pm

    This village looks like the perfect French find, Nell. Picturesque, river swimming, underground churches and crepes: you can’t ask for more than that. Thanks for sharing this on #FarawayFiles

    • Nell
      Author
      February 15, 2017 / 3:04 pm

      Yes it certainly ticked all our boxes x

  6. February 9, 2017 / 11:43 pm

    Oh this place looks absolutely stunning! I love a river beach too, we used to play in one locally as children and it brings back wonderful memories. This looks like just the sort of place we’d love to visit on holiday.
    Nat.x

    • Nell
      Author
      February 15, 2017 / 3:04 pm

      You’d have a great time there Nat x

  7. February 10, 2017 / 1:53 am

    France has a lot of interesting places. I like the buildings, river and subterranean church in this small town. The more I discover about the country the more I like it. The other day I was reading about a barge trip around the Yonne river. That sounded cool too! #FarawayFiles

    • Nell
      Author
      February 15, 2017 / 3:07 pm

      Now that does sound good!

  8. February 10, 2017 / 2:30 am

    Amazing how they carved out that church! It always blows my mind how people way back were able to do so much without the technology we have today!

    • Nell
      Author
      February 15, 2017 / 3:07 pm

      Yes, it was astonishing. Shows what people can do if they have enough determination!

  9. February 12, 2017 / 9:49 pm

    What a great discovery, Nell! The underground church is definitely worth a visit. France never stops surprising us.

    • Nell
      Author
      February 15, 2017 / 3:11 pm

      Thank you!

  10. February 13, 2017 / 8:14 pm

    I love France, been so many times over the years. Must add this to our list as it looks so pretty. The church is really cool as well #MondayEscapes

  11. February 13, 2017 / 10:11 pm

    This looks such a lovely place, and the river beach looks awesome. I love to stumble upon places like this! We really need to do France in the camper – and this looks just like our kind of place. Thanks for sharing #MondayEscapes

  12. February 14, 2017 / 3:38 pm

    Looks beautiful, especially with that gorgeous sunshine. We had a trip to the Dordogne a few years ago but the weather was very changeable that summer which was such a shame.
    I would have been in such a panic having to reverse exit. I remember when we toured Tuscany many moons ago, we soon learned there was always a car park at the bottom of all the hill towns, though we did make a mistake in Pisa and ended up driving though a central market, right past the leaning tower. Oops.
    #mondayescapes

    • Nell
      Author
      February 15, 2017 / 3:58 pm

      Oh dear! Did you get a telling off? I was very embarrassed when I realised I’d have to reverse. Felt like a silly Brit abroad!

      • February 16, 2017 / 9:16 am

        No we just kept going and all the market stall holders just stared at us!

        • Nell
          Author
          February 24, 2017 / 1:32 pm

          Hehehe!

  13. February 15, 2017 / 8:17 am

    Holy moley – that subterranean church is amazing!! AND there’s a river beach nearby – this is immediately being pinned for one of our future summer jaunts through France. Thanks! #MondayEscapes

    • Nell
      Author
      February 24, 2017 / 1:28 pm

      Hope you have a good time if you do make it there!

    • Nell
      Author
      February 24, 2017 / 1:28 pm

      It really was, Karen!

  14. February 16, 2017 / 5:25 pm

    We enjoyed a great family holiday at Manoir de Longeveau, just up the road from Aubeterre a few years back. It combines a golf course with holiday lets and a restaurant in the clubhouse, a very enjoyable and friendly place. Yes, Aubeterre is a lovely place to visit as are several other very pretty villages in this area.

    • Nell
      Author
      February 24, 2017 / 1:32 pm

      Sounds fantastic!

  15. February 21, 2017 / 1:43 pm

    How pretty! And that church is just incredible. I would definitely like to see it for myself. Looks like a lovely trip!

    • Nell
      Author
      February 24, 2017 / 1:40 pm

      It’s a gorgeous place.

    • Nell
      Author
      March 22, 2017 / 9:49 pm

      Yes, we made a very swift exit indeed!

  16. March 9, 2017 / 12:07 pm

    I love exploring France’s “plus beaux villages” we have a couple near where I live. They are always interesting historically/culturally as well as pretty. I laughed about the car incident, we often find ourselves in utterly ridiculous situations in tiny streets not made for modern cars too. Thanks for linking up to #AllAboutFrance

    • Nell
      Author
      March 22, 2017 / 9:01 pm

      Thanks for hosting! x

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