La Charité sur Loire is Unesco listed as being of world cultural importance because of its Priory.
From my base in Dijon it was simple to catch a train to La Charité. The station is on the edge of town and it is downhill all the way towards the river. It is a small town, with a population of around 5,400 people, with a long history. I went on a guided tour of the town and learned of its history - necessary to understand what the huge structures that dominate the town mean.
The present church and priory date back to 1059, when a document records that permission was given to found a monastery here, on top of the ruins of earlier churches. There had been a monastery here around 700, which was destroyed by the Vandals in the 8th century.
During the construction of the Priory, which would take generations to complete, tradesmen, labourers, stone workers, carpenters, all manner of people were employed, and this caused jealousy around the area as skilled people were drawn away from their home villages. This was so strong that the structure was attacked and partially destroyed, but was rebuilt again. The town grew around it too, becoming of vital importance on the trade route of the river Loire, and a stopping place on the Caminho, the route to St. James of Compostella in Spain.
By 1084 it had been accepted, and grew rapidly, so much that the town, called Seyr, was renamed "La Charité" recognising the importance of the charitable works of the 200 or so monks there. In 1107 Pope Pascal consecrated the church of Notre Dame, which was for the monks, another church. St. Laurent, was for the parish. The size of the priory, church, cloisters, all the ancillary buildings, was now huge, and was 1/5th of the town. Over 500 properties were the dependencies of the Priory, farms, religious institutions, lakes, forges, vineyards, waterways, mills, quarries, forests, so it was not just self-sufficient, it was highly profitable.
This important and very large centre of Christianity continued to grow and modify the buildings, until 1559. There was a severe fire which destroyed half the church and many other buildings. The Reformation and the religious wars decimated the Priory, leaving an estimated 18 monks only. By the time of the French Revolution of 1789 they were down to13 monks.
The Revolution had a very capitalist side to it. All religious orders were abolished, and all their property taken over by the state, and then sold off. By 1793 the whole Priory and buildings had been divided into plots and sold off. There had been three parishes, Saint Croix and St, Pierre, which was abandoned, St. Jacques which was destroyed, and Notre Dame was retained, reopening in 1804 as property of the Commune and managed by the Parish. The Priory buildings were taken over for houses, shops, workshops, and even Warburtons of Staffordshire set up a pottery here. In 1802 they had 100 workers, 3 typically Staffordshire pot kilns, 4 metres diameter, 5 metres high. However, it was not a financial success and closed in 1812, with the whole pottery burning down in 1874. There was also a shoe maker, bar, cooperage, wine merchant, and a girls school, amongst many others. Houses, flats, lodgings were slotted in as they could be, incorporating many vestiges of the old Priory and church. One rather small house was built tucked away behind the side chapels, and it is still there today, looking very incongruous.
Some bits were sold off, including stone carvings sold to Americans! There were many depredations of ancient doors, carvings and stones. However, although often being used as a virtual quarry, the businesses and housing that had taken it over actually saved a lot of it from being demolished.
Many famous people came to see these spectacular ruins. Alexandre Dumas, in 1841 remarked on a 12th century bas-relief that was incorporated into a house, that was falling into total decay. Stendhal in 1838, and Victor Hugo in 1834, all remarked how sad a state of affairs the striking Priory had become.
In 1837, the French government created the Commission Des Monuments Historique, headed up by Mr. Prosper Mérimée. A new "Route Royale" main trunk road was going to be built right through the middle of the historic site – he managed to have the whole site listed of historic interest and protected in 1840, one of the first sites in France to be protected.
In 1844 restoration started, clearing away shacks and sheds and workshops that clustered around the old walls. Then came the Revolution of 1848, so work stopped until 1878. It has continued ever since in stots and bangs as World wars and financial crises intervened. 1975 was an important year as a big archaeological dig discovered so many important finds, relics and foundations of the many churches that had been on this site over the last thousand years.
Work continues today, as well as digging and exploring, work is always needed to protect the old buildings from water ingress, storm damage, and just plain old age as some of the stone work crumbles and decays. This vast collection of ancient buildings draws visitors from far and wide, an awesome sight indeed and well worth visiting.
From the high doorway that sits in isolation as the rest of that side of the original Priory church burned down, a busy street leads straight down to the Loire and the famous bridge. The Loire is the longest river in France, and La Charité is about half way between the source and the sea. There is a large inhabited island, so bridging the river here made sense. The ramparts around the town protected the Priory and the town, some walls are still standing, showing how important it was. The wall along the river was not only defensive, it was protection from floods. The current bridge (there have been many) is also a classified historic structure. If you cross to the island, Ile de Faubourg, and on again to the far shore to the village of La Chapelle – Montlinard, you are in another region. There you will find the canal. The river is treacherous here, constantly shifting from side to side, sand banks constantly moving place and creating islands for a wee while. This made life very difficult for the river cargo boats until the parallel canal was built. The history of the bridges reflects that of the Priory, several attempts over the centuries, some more successful than others, with destruction by ice in 1789, frequent damage from floods, and attacks in wars. The crossing is strategic, it was vital for the monks to access their lands on the other side, and a vital trade route, as well as a link in the long distance Caminho pilgrim walk to Compostella, which it still is today, and pilgrims are still welcomed and put up for the night at La Charité. The river also provided reeds for basket work, fish, and powered several mills.
Like small towns everywhere, La Charité was suffering from population drift to larger cites for work and education, and needed something other than its marvellous historic ruins to bring activity and tourists to the town. In 1995 they started a book and old documents fair. This grew and grew. In 2000 La Charité was named "Ville de Livre" – town of books. Artisans, such as illustrators, calligraphers and book traders moved here, and the book events proliferated. Since 2005 there has been the Festival of Words. Books are everywhere, in all shops, hotels, restaurants, and words are painted onto every wall that you see. They are all quotations, and must include the word "mot" (word). The fame of the events here, throughout the year, including book markets every third Sunday from October to March which brings people during the quiet season, attract famous authors and so it continues to grow.
Walking around La Charité is a delight. There are not any straight streets, they mostly seem to bend around bits of the old churches and Priory, and all slope down to the river. There are no closed down shops, and a gentle buzz about the town. People all were friendly, and I didn’t feel that I was in a tourist place, just a typical French small town. In the square, dominated by a substantial town hall, there is the war memorial across one side. I found this moving and frightening. There is a central statue. Behind it is a long wall, covered in glass, with names on it. For the First World War, on the left, there are 167 names of the young men who were killed. It is hard to imagine the effect this slaughter had on the town. There must have been 167 women who would be widows or spinsters for the rest of their lives. A whole generation of young men would not be available to work the land, shops, and businesses. It must have been devastating. The right hand side is even more chilling. In the Second World War, 17 men died in the fighting. 5 died when prisoners. 9 were shot. 5 died when fighting with the Free French Infantry, 8 were deported by the Nazis for slave workers and died, 2 were lost at sea and 12 civilians were shot by the Nazis. 4 men were killed in the war in Indo China (Vietnam principally) and 1 in the North African wars of independence.
On a lighter note, walking up from the river (where there is a crumbling ruin of a salt store – the oldest building in La Charité) the road turns past the large isolated archway, passing a little row of old buildings. On the top of the pointed gable end is a stone blob – closer study shows this to be a figure of a man with his trousers down exposing his bottom to all the world – no-one seems to know why it is there. Next is a very old butchers shop – which used to be the only one in the town licensed to sell meat during Lent – you had to be pregnant, sick or a child to have a ration of meat at that time. Then the next shop was the clog maker. I walked along the remaining ramparts to see the sun setting gloriously across the river, and the towers and walls of the Priory gradually darkened as I made my way to my hotel. The "Hotel Le 1001 Feuilles" is an ancient post house, not far from the station at the top of the town, which has been very much modernised, and has an excellent restaurant. The cosy rooms are at the back, away from traffic noise, and of course, there are books on the stairs, in the corridors, everywhere. The tourist office there is very enterprising and dynamic, which all helps to keep this charming little town going and thriving.