A fortress towering over the Creuse Valley in the Middle Ages, fought over by French and English, Argenton finally became French in 1589. Now a lively market town (markets Thursday and Saturday) with cobbled streets and picturesque medieval houses overhanging the river, the town has been compared to Venice. Visit the shirt museum - the town was a major producer of shirts in the nineteenth century - and chapel of La Bonne Dame which has superb views along the valley. You’ll find a swimming pool and plenty of cafes and restaurants. Guided tours can be booked at the Tourist Office in the main square. The Argentomagus Museum at Saint-Marcel is well worth a visit. This important archaeological site lies on the remains of a Gallo-Roman town. Visitors are free all year to walk along ancient roads past houses, temples, a fountain and even a living theatre. The museum itself takes you from pre-history to Roman times with the aid of audio-visual displays and light shows. Museum open every day July and August; closed Tuesdays off season and every day from Christmas to end January. www.argentomagus.com
The village of Nohant close to La Chatre has gained fame as the home of France’s most prolific nineteenth century woman writer, the bohemian George Sand. She lived in her grandmother’s nineteenth century mansion here from the age of 4 to adolescence, returned to it constantly during her lifetime and is buried in Nohant’s little churchyard. The home where Sand entertained writers, intellectuals and composers of the day like Flaubert, Delacroix, Liszt, Balzac and Dumas is now a museum open to the public. The chateau is very much as she left it, containing family mementos and furniture, a large reference library and puppet exhibition. Chopin, one of Sand’s many lovers, spent summers at Nohant from 1839 to 1846 and composed nearly two thirds of his musical works there. An international Frederic Chopin Festival in his honour takes place in Nohant for 8 days every July (see Culture and Events). The writer loved the people and the countryside around Nohant and used local pastoral descriptions in many of her novels of the Vallee Noir. Ask at local Tourist Offices about George Sand rambles and motorist’s guide to discover the settings and places she used. Guided tours of the house, which is now owned by the state, daily April - Oct and visits to the garden are free. On-site museum and shop. Tel: (00 33) 2 54 31 06 04 for more details.
Justly awarded the title of one of France’s Plus Beaux Villages, Gargilesse, set in a hollow on the little river of the same name, has a beauty which continues to charm artists and visitors alike. Take a walk along the river banks to where the Gargilesse meets the River Creuse and enjoy the landscape which inspires painters, craftsmen and musicians to make Gargilesse an artists’ village to this day. Some studios are open to the public. Visit the tiny village house where writer George Sand lived with engraver Alexandre Manceau in 1857 to escape society followers at her manor house in Nohant. Sand wrote prolifically at Villa Algira and the writer’s simple furniture, documents and possessions are now part of a museum thanks to her granddaughter. Tel: (00 33) 2 54 47 84 14 for information about visits April - 30 September. Don’t miss the wonderful twelfth and sixteenth century frescoes in the crypt of the Romanesque village church. Gargilesse castle dates back to the eighth century but was rebuilt in the eighteenth century. In the 1990s, painter Annick Thevenin transformed part into a modern gallery (open April to Sept) showing exhibitions of painting, sculpture and ceramics. The village holds a summer festival in July.
The quaint cobbled streets of medieval La Chatre, in a picturesque hilltop position overlooking the River Indre, were a favourite haunt of nineteenth century French writer George Sand. A fifteenth century keep - once used as a prison - is now the George Sand and Black Valley Museum. The collection holds a mixture of letters, original manuscripts and photographs of the writer as well as local artefacts, paintings of the Crozon-Gargilesse school and a huge display of stuffed birds from around the world collected on eighteenth and nineteenth century expeditions. (Guided tours on request and closed Jan). Ask at La Chatre Tourist Office about George Sand walks and follow the river to discovered ancient water mills. The town has many attractive seventeenth and eighteenth century mansions, a lively Saturday morning market and at various times becomes a staging post for the famous Tour de France cycle rally and tough Paris-Dakar off road car rally.
Just across the border in the department of Creuse is the artists’ village of Fresselines where Claude Monet and other nineteenth century artists of the Crozant School loved to paint. The valley of the River Creuse is a landscape of great beauty which continues to delight visitors today. The bubbling waters where La Grande and Petite Creuse Rivers meet in the wild gorges near Fresselines create a magical picture. This beautiful area was a favourite with nineteenth century writer George Sand and later poet Maurice Rollinat, who introduced famous artists to open air painting in the Creuse Valley from the 1820s to 1890s . Walk beside the river to the spot where Monet set up his easel in 1889 and see work displayed in the Painters of the Valley of the Creuse Artistic Centre. You can also visit workshops and galleries of contemporary artists. For those interested in more active leisure pursuits, the fast flowing river is great for canoeing, kayaking and game fishing.
Indre’s capital Chateauroux, located at the very centre of France, has a leisurely air despite being just 2 hours by road from Paris. Set between the vast Chateauroux Forest and the Brenne Regional Natural Park, the town is ideally placed to be an outdoor leisure base. Roman Castrum Dolis occupied the site over 1000 years ago. The present Chateauroux was developed around Chateau Raoul on the left bank of the Indre founded by the princes of Deols in 937. Walk Chateauroux’s floral streets to admire ancient buildings in the centre and visit museums to learn more of its colourful history. Occupied alternately by both French and English in the twelfth century, the town was a place for tanning and cloth making. Signs for these trades can still be seen on display. Later, Chateauroux embraced modern industry with the coming of the railway in the mid-nineteenth century. Look for Napoleonic memorabilia from his companion General Bertrand, archaeological finds and contemporary art at the Hotel Bertrand Museum. The birthplace of actor Gerard Depardieu also has a selection of major retail outlets to please serious shoppers and restaurants offer French and foreign cuisine. Follow meandering River Indre to the sandy beach of Belle Isle on summer afternoons to hire kayaks, boats and pedalos at the watersports centre. Parents can feel relaxed as the swimming pool is also supervised during the afternoon.
Le Blanc is located where the provinces of Berry, Poitou and Tours meet. It probably owes its existence to a ford across the Creuse River and its name appears to have nothing to do with the colour.
The Creuse River has influenced the town throughout its history. More recently, the Lower Town to the north and belonging to Berry province built up around St Genitour Church along the old Roman road. The Higher Town, to the south, belonged to both Berry and Poitou provinces with 2 opposing forts – Le Chateau des Naillac (Berry) and Le Chateau du Donjon (Poitou), the latter no longer in existence. So, over a long period, the town’s administration was complex and difficult.
In the Middle Ages, the 2 towns were linked by a bridge but it was swept away in the 1530 floods and was only rebuilt in the early nineteenth century as part of the town’s expansion. So for more than 300 years, the Creuse could only be crossed by barge.
Today, a huge viaduct dominates the skyline of Le Blanc. It carries the railway over the River Creuse and there’s also a lower road bridge.
As the main town of the Brenne, Le Blanc celebrates the great outdoors. Obtain literature and advice on walking, pony trekking and mountain biking along signed trails at the local Tourist Office. An Outdoor Pursuits Centre offers courses on everything from archery to orienteering and Le Blanc’s Canoe-Kayak Club can help you discover the Anglin Valley by canoe.
Surrounded by a fertile landscape of walnut and cherry orchards, cornfields and market gardens, the Wednesday and Saturday morning markets of Le Blanc are great places to buy local produce. There are guided tours of the town in summer.
Visit the Ecomusee de la Brenne at Chateau Naillac for a snapshot of traditional life in this fascinating area (closed January).
Set on a granite spur above the River Portefeuille, St-Benoit-du-Sault became important during the Renaissance for its Benedictine abbey founded in 974. Picturesque narrow cobbled streets and pretty houses fit to grace any medieval film set helped classify St Benoit as one of France’s Plus Beaux Villages in 1988. The Tourist Office will give you a leaflet in English describing town walks and gardens, including traces of the original ramparts, fortified gate, Romanesque priory church built in 1020 which is still intact and a fourteenth century belfry. Houses of doctors, lawyers and a money lender, all dating from the sixteenth century are testimony to the town’s rich history and past prosperity. St Benoit has a weekly market on Saturday mornings, August sheep fair, and there are often concerts in the church during the summer months.