"Jepoardy" comes to the deep heart of France
I perked up when one of the clues was revealed on Jeopardy last week. The category was an odd one – “Sliding into your CMs” – and the answer on the game board was “You have the Gaul to tell me that he brought Burgundy under his control in the 700s?! & that he was Pepin the Short's dad?!”
“Ooh, I know this one,” I shouted out. (Karen and I are, shall we say, “somewhat aggressive” when it comes to our Jeopardy competition.) “Who was CHARLES MARTEL?” And that one brief exchange was enough to launch me on a particular memory of my visit to a place in the Lot named for this man, one of the most memorable (and controversial) characters in the long history of the deep heart of France.
The voices of distant angels
As I walked into the medieval center of Martel on a fine autumn day, I could see a small crowd of people standing in the place outside the charterhouse next to a massive tower. All of them seemed to be looking up at a row of open windows on the third floor of the building. Well, this certainly piqued my curiosity – was someone famous inside? Were they waiting for something to happen?
Then I heard it, the first strains of ethereal choral music floating above the narrow streets. As I got closer the sound got richer – the sound of 50 or more voices engaged in gorgeous counterpoint. I stood with the crowd, transfixed by this amazing choir; we heard their director’s voice rising above the music as they started, stopped, and started again in intense rehearsal.
A poster on the charterhouse’s door explained it all: I had come on the day of a concert featuring the Baroque music of Bach and Hammerscmidt, to be performed that same night by the “Pays de Martel en Choeur”, backed by a string orchestra and the church’s great organ.
The autumn sun bore down on us as we got a free sample of this amazing music. Eventually the singing stopped as lunch time approached, so I continued my tour of Martel. The town looks prosperous, because it has been for a thousand years are more. Martel has always been a trading town, sitting on a limestone plateau at the intersection of two ancient trade routes, one going North to South, the other East to West, carrying salt from the Atlantic and wine from Bordeaux, adding in the local walnuts and truffles prized for their oils and their contributions to French cooking.
It’s called “the town of Seven Towers” for its unique medieval skyline, and it’s easy to see how beautifully Martel has preserved its medieval treasures. Many of the houses still bear the insignia of their original owners, and little sculptures adorn several of the buildings.
There’s a market hall with a timbered roof from the 18th century right in the center of town. Every Wednesday and Saturday the central square comes alive with one of the French street markets I love so much for their eclectic mix of fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats alongside cheap T-shirts, leather goods, and home-made jellies.
The most prominent feature of Martel’s skyline, though, is the great Church of Saint-Maur. When I first approached it, I thought this must be one of those “fortress churches” built to protect townspeople during the Hundred Years War. It certainly looks like a defensive structure as much as a church, with a huge, spiky block of a clock tower. And in fact, construction of this Gothic church was begun just before the Hundred Years War (in the early 1300s), and apparently this tower was actually part of the city’s defensive wall (now destroyed).
I liked the little typewritten page I found posted in the church, quoting the reaction of art historian Emile Male when he visited Martel in 1926:
From a distance the church looked like a fortress. I went in and sensed that I was entering another France. […] The Gothic art was reduced here to its most simple form.[…] In this interior there was no great surge of feeling, there was only repose. The architect must have felt, like the ancients, the beauty of vast open spaces, and he sacrificed height for width in the building.
There’s been a church on this spot for more than a thousand years, and although the original structure is long gone the Gothic building does still integrate fragments of the Romanesque church built here in the 1100s C.E. The walls above the altar are brilliantly colored, with flights of angels and rich stained glass.
Why is it called Martel?
Back out in the medieval streets, I began to wonder why the town is named “Martel”. Legend says that it was founded by the great Charles Martel (“Charles the Hammer”) in the 700s, but there’s not much visible here to link the town to the man known as the “savior of Europe”, the “Lord of War”, father of King Pepin the Short (thanks, Jeopardy!) and the grandfather of Charlemagne.
With a nickname like “the Hammer”, you know this must have been a very tough character, and his reputation as the greatest military leader of the Franks certainly seems justified. From 718 to 731 C.E. he engaged his armies in almost constant conflict with the Frankish tribes and ancient kingdoms that preceded modern France. But it was at Tours in 732 that he achieved the win that made him most famous: when Muslim forces took over Aquitaine in southern France (extending their control from Spain and Portugal), Martel engaged and defeated them, stopping their advance. In the words of one historian (who's obviously a fan!), the Battle of Tours was an “astonishing victory of seismic historical importance […] The Muslim advance into northern Europe was halted forever and Christendom was saved.”
Well, that certainly would qualify Charles the Hammer as “the savior of Europe” – but therein also lies a clue as to why he might not be talked about much in the contemporary town of Martel. There’s a strain of far-right feeling in Europe that sees Martel as the prototype for modern Fascism and appropriates his name in their cause. (There was a “Charles Martel Club” in the 1970s and 1980s that espoused anti-Islamic rhetoric and carried out attacks on Algerian-owned businesses and immigrants, and the infamous white nationalist terrorist who killed 51 people in a mosque in Christchurch New Zealand last year reportedly cited Charles Martel as an inspiration for the attack.)
So, in most of the tourist brochures and online guides to the Correze, you’ll only see that the town of Martel “is named for the limestone plateau on which it is situated”, which, in turn, is named for the town Charles the Hammer founded, which in turn...
A rich corner to explore in central France
In any case, this part of the Correze has one of the most interesting concentrations of historical sites and charming towns in the deep heart of the country. It would be an aggressive day trip to see all of them, but there’s a 2-hour driving circuit starting from the fine hotels and restaurants in Collonges-la-Rouge. Your tour could include:
- Collonges-la-Rouge – an example of truth in advertising at its best: it’s called “la Rouge” because… well, because it’s red (the color of the stone used in most of its buildings). And it is officially one of France’s “most beautiful villages” because…it’s really beautiful. In fact, it was the first village to be called “one of the official Most Beautiful Villages in France”. A population rich in notaries, attorneys, and judges working for the Counts of Turenne made the village prosperous in the 15th and 16th centuries, and it’s still one of the most popular tourist destinations in this part of the country. (And while Martel is the “town of 7 towers”, Collonges is known as the “town of 25 towers”!)
- Turenne – also on the official list of “Most Beautiful Villages in France”, this village was not even officially part of France until the 1700s. Ruled by a powerful series of Vicomtes, starting in the 800s C.E., they minted their own money, levied their own taxes, organized their own armies, and granted their own noble titles – and while they did formally pay an annual “tribute” to the Kings of France, they essentially operated on their own, outside the authority of the King. The dominant feature is the ruin of the great Castle sitting at the top of a limestone peak on a platform of 1,500 square meters (about 16,000 square feet).
- Curemonte – yet another entry in the directory of “Most Beautiful Villages”. It’s distinguished because it has three castles clustered together in one tiny village of 211 inhabitants. And the history of these three châteaux is tied again in modern times to Colette, one of France’s most famous writers of the 20th century. As one tourism website puts it, Curemonte is “less 'modernized' than many of the most beautiful villages, adding to its charm, and also has less facilities than many. That is, there aren't lots of gift shops and cafes.” Still, walking through its narrow streets, taking in the dramatic profile of the three châteaux and the gorgeous green valley below, I found this one of the most appealing of France’s “most beautiful villages” in my recent travels.
- Carennac – one of the more “remote” of the official “Most Beautiful Villages”... Only 370 people live here now, but for such a small place Carennac has an unusually rich collection of historic buildings at its center. My favorite was the little church of Saint Pierre – a plain building put up to serve the priory established here in 1047 C.E. as an outpost of the great Abbey of Cluny. And although it’s not easy to get to, driving to Carennac comes with the distinct pleasure of driving through this exceptionally beautiful part of France.
… then on to Martel and the medieval riches covered in this post, and back to Collonges-la-Rouge for dinner! All of these places are nestled in the valley of the Dordogne River, where I always have the sense of experiencing a place that has been settled and appreciated for as long as there have been humans living in western Europe. (You’re also not far from other sites of exceptional interest -- the great cave at the Gouffre de Padirac, or the incredible little village hanging on the side of the cliffs at Rocamadour, for example.)
Do you have a favorite among the “most beautiful villages of France”? Or a place you think should be added to the list? Please share your experience in the comments section below – and take a second to share this post with someone else who loves traveling in France. Thanks for reading!