Some people are put off by the French tendency toward self-criticism and self-deprecation, but I find it somewhat charming. When I got to Saint-Amand-de-Coly (officially one of the “most beautiful villages in France”), I went straight to the massive Abbey of Saint-Amand in the middle of town. It’s a medieval wonder combining a long religious history with a commanding presence as a military fortress. But I was brought up short by its historical marker, which describes, in big letters,
“the grandeur and the decadence of an abbey. […W]ars, epidemics, and the abuse of the Abbey’s provisional management mark the steps of a progressive decline.”
Well, who wouldn’t want to know more after a rousing introduction like that?
Arriving in Saint-Amand-de-Coly
As I drove south from Limoges to the village, I contemplated again one of the great mysteries I’ve found in traveling the back roads of central France. My destination is on the official list of “plus beaux villages” in France, deep in the Dordogne (only 25 minutes from Sarlat-le-Caneda), one of the country’s most popular tourist regions, at the height of the summer season… so the road should be packed with other cars, right?
In fact, as I worked my way around the narrow “D” roads on the way to Saint-Amand, I drove for long periods without every seeing another vehicle in any direction. That’s been true for my trips to other remote “most beautiful villages” like Apremont-sur-Allier and Arlempdes. So how is it possible to drive for so long with no one else in sight, but to find the parking lot in Saint-Amand full and the village buzzing with tourists?
The great Abbey of Saint-Amand
I don’t have a ready answer, but I know it happens more often than you’d think. In fact, only about 400 people live in Saint-Amand-de-Coly, but they host more than 12,000 tourists every year. The most obvious draw is the medieval Abbey in the town’s center. It’s a great hulk of a building, like a medieval aircraft hangar, and its story is the whole story of the village itself.
Saint Amand was one of the many “evangelizing hermits” who roamed western Europe in medieval times. Born in the 6th century C.E., this young noble went into a monastery in Genouillac before he decided that he was called to the more solitary life of a hermit. He found a cave to his liking near the river Coly, and spent his life working to convert the local population.
(This Saint Amand, though, is not the “famous” Saint Amand who was sent by the Pope as a missionary to Flanders. That’s too bad, in a way – the “famous” Amand must have had an interesting life, since he was the patron of “wine makers, beer brewers, merchants, innkeepers, bartenders, and Boy Scouts.” In fact, the local sources don’t have any biographical details about this village’s namesake, and I couldn’t find him in any of the online Catholic directories of saints, so it’s possible he was venerated locally for his work here but not actually recognized as an “official” saint.)
In any case, as the town’s markers drily put it, “as in so many other places, the humble shelter of a hermit and the tomb of a Saint mark the start of a monastery and a village.” In fact, we know there was a monastery here as early as 1048 C.E., but Saint Amand’s real moment in the historical sun began around 1120 when construction of this Romanesque building started.
The long decay
The 12th and 13th centuries were relatively good times for the abbey – a future Pope visited in 1304, and the monks built a hospital here in 1381. Inevitably, though, the Hundred Years’ War took a heavy toll on this little community (as it did on so many other places in the Dordogne); by 1450 the great Romanesque building was heavily damaged and only one monk remained.
They did try to rebuild, and in fact many of the massive defensive structures you can see here today were added during this period. Other indignities were to follow, though: the heads of the abbey became political appointees of the King of France (rather than devout religious men), and when the Wars of Religion came to Saint Amand in 1575 a Protestant captain seized the building and could be dislodged only by 6 straight days of cannon fire. In the French Revolution the abbey was further reduced to the status of a parish church.
Visiting Saint Amand today
It’s still an impressive building, although very plain in its decoration. The outer walls of the monastery remain, half ruined, but you still get a clear sense of how villagers might have run to the abbey for defense when invading armies ravaged this part of France.
Saint Amand is is one of the smallest of all the “most beautiful villages of France”, so you won’t find touristy stores – in fact, you won’t find much commerce of any kind, except for a shop selling regional products and a small bar/café across from the church. You can walk all of the streets in town in less than an hour, although there are signposts for a more serious hike if you want to follow them into the surrounding countryside.
I wouldn’t place this on a list of “must see” sights, but if you’re in the Dordogne already, Saint-Amand-de-Coly is a pleasant place to spend an afternoon. It captures a specific moment in the history of France, and the great Abbey of Saint Amand provides an interesting insight into the medieval life of this corner of the country.
Have you visited other “most beautiful villages” in your travels around France? What did you like best? Please tell us your experience in the comments section below. As always, I’d be grateful if you’d also take a second to share this post with someone else by clicking on the button(s) for your preferred social-media platform(s).