Neal Wood considers a stop in the Loire: Candes-Saint-Martin

Reading about St Martin of Tours in last month’s ND reminded me of a vacation last year in Candes-SaintMartin on the banks of the Loire. This picturesque village, with its tightly clustered houses built in the local white tuffeau stone, is one of the Plus Beaux Villages de France and commands breath-taking views over the confluence of the rivers Vienne and Loire. Aside from its situation, Candes’ main attraction is the collegiate church of St Martin, dedicated to the soldier-turned-bishop who founded a school, a priory and a chapel dedicated to St Maurice here. St Martin clearly had great affection for this place and it was on a visit here from Tours, apparently to mediate in a local quarrel, that he died in 397. Such was his reputation that his place of death became a centre of pilgrimage. The church, started in 1175, with a magnificent vaulted porch, sits grandly at the upper end of a small sloping cobbled square. On entering, it has the feel of a vast spacious hall – cool in the hottest of summers – yet possessing a special atmosphere. In the north chapel, a floor slab marks the spot where St Martin is alleged to have died – the site of his chapel of St Maurice.

Fontevraud Abbey

One of the advantages of choosing Candes as a base is that there is much of interest to see without travelling too far. Just five kilometres away is Fontevraud Abbey (built 1105–1160), one of the largest and finest monasteries in France and where Eleanor of Aquitaine ended her days: she is buried here alongside her husband Henry II and their son, Richard the Lionheart. After the Revolution, Napoleon turned the monastery into a prison, which eventually closed in 1963 and was subsequently designated a Monument Historique. This important site has, during the last few years, been much improved for visitors: it is a definite must-see. Directly across the river from Candes is the appellation d’origine controlée region of Bourgueil, with its unbroken panorama of vines. The town of Bourgueil itself is generally a quiet place, except on Tuesdays and Saturdays which are market days. You cannot say that you truly know France until you have visited a local market: the one in Bourgueil spreads over several streets and is easy to get lost among the stalls laden with local produce. In the Place de l’Église is a small Maison des Vins operated by a syndicate of more than eighty local domaine owners who sell their wines (red and rosé, made mostly from the Cabernet Franc grape) where they are all available for tasting, helpfully explained and, most importantly, sold at a reasonable price. Most will not be found in the local supermarket.

The châteaux

This is the Loire, so what of the châteaux? Chinon and Usse are both a twenty-minute drive from Candes: Azayle-Rideau, Montreuil-Bellay and Montgeoffroy are less than an hour’s drive; Chenonceaux and Amboise are slightly further. Closest is Montsoreau, the next village to Candes, though they are in different départements, it is not easy to see where one settlement ends and the other starts. Although a shadow of its former self, the château of Montsoreau is a ‘proper’ castle and stands on the quayside just feet from the river Only eleven kilometres along the river is Saumur: a good place to explore, this charming town is dominated by its own turreted château which houses the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. There are four main churches here, all worth visiting, yet the one usually overlooked (despite its huge dome) is Notre-Dame des Ardilliers: during the seventeenth century, when the town was a centre of deep-rooted Protestantism, the pro-Catholic government encouraged pilgrimages to this church. This area of Saumur soon became renowned for the manufacture of rosaries.

Church at Cunault

Having rented a modernized eighteenth-century house in Candes with its own river frontage (dinner on the terrace with such a spectacular view is still much missed), we were but a few minutes’ walk from the church – perfect for reciting the morning and evening offices – yet Sunday Mass is celebrated there only once every six weeks. So where for Mass? We went twenty-four kilometres along the river to Cunault for the 11.15am Mass at the magnificent church of Notre-Dame: a masterpiece of Romanesque architecture. It was well attended – the congregation coming from a wide area, which people seem willing to do if the standard of worship is high.

Where for lunch? Spoilt for choice here, though I would recommend the Helianthe Restaurant in Turquant (a tiny village between Candes and Saumur) set in the troglodyte caves: their ragoût de poisson was superb. Bon appétit! ND