Saturday 8th June
Once upon a time, for over one and a half thousand years, Champtoceaux was one of France’s major cities. Now it is a quiet backwater and it has been for the last 600 years. How the mighty are fallen?
When the Romans invaded in the first Century BC, Castrum Sellense was already one of Gaul’s 25 major cities. It grew because of its position on a high rocky outcrop on the south bank of the Loire – the border between the rival states of France and Brittany, ‘between the Breton hammer and the French anvil’. This enabled it to collect tolls from traffic on the river as well as from people crossing the river. It continued to thrive through the dark ages under the Franks and into the mediaeval period, by now known as Châteauceaux. In 768 King Pépin le Bref (the father of Charlemagne the first Holy Roman Emperor – but of course you knew that) met the Caliph of Baghdad’s ambassador here. By the 10thCentury it was the greatest fortress on the Loire and the walled city and citadel together covered almost 60 hectares (that is 60 international rugby pitches) and were protected by twenty-five towers. This was a fortress that would have dwarfed the great castles that were to be built later across Britain. In 1173 Henry II of England laid siege to the city. However, in 1420 it got caught up in the Hundred Years War between France and England and was completely destroyed.
The story goes that in 1420 Jean V of Montfort, the Duke of Brittany and an ally of the English was lured into an ambush by Marguerite of Clisson, the lady of Châteauceaux (I think we can probably guess how that happened!), kidnapped and imprisoned in the castle’s dungeon. Jean was then freed by his English chums who captured the town. To take his revenge Jean ordered the town and castle to be destroyed and levelled to the ground. He took particular delight in obliterating all the foundations of his jail. He gave the inhabitants three days to leave and forbid anyone to build again within the city boundaries. eventually the village of Champtoceaux was built at the doors of the old city but a heavy silence fell on the desolate ruins above the river that remains to this day.
The castle ruins are still there today brooding in a dense wood of horse chestnut trees. We climbed up the hill from the river and followed a path that led to the site. They still look magnificent and you can make out where the various towers and buildings were.
So now we know why Champtoceaux is underlined in green on Michelin Maps; a pretty ordinary dormitory town for Nantes has a mediaeval masterpiece hidden in the woods.
Oudon, on the other hand isn’t underlined in green, but it does have a campsite (and two campervan aires if you are too mean to pay €14) and it is utterly charming!
It was once a thriving port, built on the confluence of the Le Havre and Loire. It too has a castle, with a tall tower that dominates the village. It was built around the time that Châteauceaux, across the river, was being destroyed. The Oudonnaise have an understated pride in their village, that is reflected in the well-kept community facilities (It has more sports and social facilities than most large English towns), the municipal campsite, the book swap scheme in the local supermarket, the floral displays in every available spot and a collection of over 25, and counting, large sculptures. Every year it hosts a symposium for monumental sculpture and a new one is donated as a result.
Even though it still has 100kms to go until it reaches the sea, the Loire is still tidal here and Oudon has a couple of marinas for pleasure craft. It is a big river and it took us almost ten minutes to walk across it on the bridge. Early in the last century 800 breakwaters were built into the river between Nantes and Angers to increase the flow and depth of the river to keep it navigable. But most of the people who travel along the river, now do it by bike along the cycle trail that runs from Orléans to St Brevin-les-Pins at the coast. It’s a bit like being back on the Camino, but this time with cyclists instead of pilgrims. A group of them were chatting in the marquee on our campsite and conversations all seemed to start with; “Are you going up or down?” One chap was cycling all the way to Orléans and then up to Dieppe to catch the ferry to Newhaven as he lives in Shoreham.
On Sunday morning we had one last stroll around the village on our way to get the bread just to take it all in and found that they even have a Sunday morning market. The central carpark, by the ‘Friends Community Hall’ was full of growers and makers selling their foodstuffs and wines. What a bit of luck we stumbled across Oudon!