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.
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.
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.
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’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.
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…..
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 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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