Melle is a busy small town about 25 minutes drive from Vanzay. Melle was founded in the reign of Charlemagne as a mining centre and was, for a time, the home of the French mint, although silver had been mined there by the Romans. By way of a celeb connection, it is said to be the home of Ségolène Royal, although I haven’t seen her at the Friday morning market! As part of a series of posts exploring the medieval history of Poitou-Charentes, we travel to Melle to visit two of its three Romanesque churches and to enjoy some lunch.
Church of St. Hilaire
The 11th century church of St Hilaire is a UNESCO World Heritage site and like the smaller church of St Pierre, is open for visitors to just walk in and take a look around.
Listed on the UNESCO World Heritage list as a halt on the pilgrims’ road to Santiago de Compostela, this church is the largest of Melle’s three romanesque churches.
Beginning with a walk around this magnificent building – it’s hard to imagine how it was done when it was started 1000 years ago – look up for the detail around the doorways and the stone carved gargoyles. Whilst having a practical application such as draining water from the roof, gargoyles had another intended purpose: to strike fear into the hearts of ill-educated Medieval peasants, scaring them into the church. Many of these include elements of the grotesque: exaggerated, evil features or threatening poses, which leer down from on-high and in a world marked with fear and superstition, these creepy creatures would undoubtedly have encouraged many to seek solace and safety inside the church.
Entering through the north door under the knight on horseback, the altar and original 11th century part of the building is to the left at the eastern end. The south door directly opposite is decorated with 31 stone sculptures depicting the gates of Heaven, an architectural refinement unique to Poitou Romanesque art. The nave is truly impressive and a colossal door at the western end stands at the top of stone stairs. Anyone familiar with sitting for an hour in a cold church will feel at home here!
Then, off for some lunch to Les Glycines, a Logis hotel that has a gourmet restaurant accredited with the Logis “three pot” rating. The brasserie, for a lighter lunch, has a sunny terrace trimmed with Wysteria, making a great place to sit and enjoy lunch and watch the world go by outside. The king prawn risotto is recommended……..
Church of St. Pierre
The church of St. Pierre was built as a simple chapel in 950AD, but was subsequently enlarged and extended in two stages in the 12th century. The oldest part of the church is the choir and transept and the nave is supported by two tall side aisles which creates three naves, with the central nave being lit through the side aisles, creating a soft ambient light conducive to meditation. A Baroque tabernacle was installed on the main altar in the 17th century. Along with the other churches of Melle, St. Pierre saw the flow of Saint-Jacques pilgrims passing through, but was then burned and defaced during the Wars of Religion and then turned into a local meeting room during the Revolution. In 1855 restoration work began before it was officially classified as an historical monument in 1862.
Now this wasn’t quite a full day out and indeed, another couple of hours would have given time for a tour of the silver mines, also open to the public …….. another time! We’ll be visiting Poitiers next time, to look at the Palace of Justice, the 12th century great hall of the Angevin kings, Henry II and Richard the Lion-Heart and where Joan of Arc was tried in 1429, and the 4th century Baptistère St-Jean, one of the oldest Christian buildings in France.
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