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The town of Montbron, in the Charente Department has a sad tale to tell in recent times – but it is rising like a phoenix from the ashes after the uber cool brand Hermès moved in.
A former mayor had this to say: “Montbron, in Charentes, has endured two catastrophic decades. The unemployment rate reached 15% in the late 1990s. Young people moved away, houses and shops stood empty, and the school lost a class every four years. It was becoming a dormitory town for Angoulême. The 300 jobs created since the opening of the Hermès Tardoire manufacture replaced those that were lost. Not all our problems are resolved, but hope is returning.”
Montbron was once a bustling town, enlivened by the textile and felt industries.
At its peak, the Bricq factory employed 400 people, compared to around 60 today, who now work in textiles for industrial use. Just one slipper manufacturer, DM Production, has survived.
The downgrading of these industries was catastrophic for Montbron – young people moved out of town, and the population dropped like a stone.
It was such a shame for young people to move out of this lovely place, where the River Tardoire glitters through the fields, watched by Limousin cattle.
But since the opening of the Hermès leather workshop, which created over 250 jobs, families have been moving back in, a nursery class has reopened and community activities have resumed.
The town stretches over a wide area, with many hamlets, including Neuville, Chez Joubert, Vergnas, Chaises, Puybon, Courtillas, Lavaud, Grignol on the road to Angoulême, Chez Marvaud, Panisson, les Brousses and Chez Vincent.
Montbron is on the first limestone hill of the Aquitaine Basin at an altitude of 140m, descending from Limousin on crystalline and metamorphic rocks.
To the north going towards Montembœuf is the massif de l’Arbre, which culminates at a towering 353m.
Oak and chestnut trees jostle for space alongside fields of cereals, rapeseed, sunflowers and vines in the Tardoire valley. Towards the centre there is colour and life too – in 2017, the town was awarded a flower by the National Council of towns and villages in bloom in France.
Montbron has just over 2,000 residents, bolstered by the luxury leather goods turned out by Hermès there since 2012. The firm opened a new 5,500 m2 premises in 2015.
Elsewhere in the town it is clear people have loved to live here for many years. There are many, many churches and chateaux – even a Paleolithic cave.
The Barbican was once the main entrance to the walled city. The Barbacane ramp which starts from the Old Castle and descends to the “lower town” was revamped in 2004.
The Renaudie Valley Regional Nature Reserve is partly in the town’s boundaries and the GR 4 hiking trail from Royan to Grasse crosses the town.
Montbron has several castles – The Castle of Montbron (or Old Castle) was built in the 15th century, around 1480, shortly after the Hundred Years War, under the authority of Marguerite de Rohan, Countess of Angouleme. It has a spiral staircase in a polygonal tower.
The castle Chabrot, an elegant construction of the 15th century and altered in the 17th century, is a house with turrets and a two-level gallery on a portion of the facade.
The Château de Ferrières has three wings around an open courtyard and the Menet castle has three towers, one at the centre of its façade.
You can actually stay in a couple of the chateaux! The Château de Sainte-Catherine is composed of an old dwelling framed by two pavilions and is now a hotel. The Château de Lavaud, on the edge of the Tardoire, is now converted into guest rooms.
There is also the 18th century Castle Marendat and the castle of Montgaudier overlooks the eponymous cave.
Montbron has been inhabited since prehistoric times as evidenced by the skull found here, now at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris – as well as various human bones and artefacts found in the Montgaudier cave, on show in the Musée du Vieux.
At the Fontéchevade cave on the edge of Orgedeuil, some vestiges of the La Tène III period were also found.
A vestige of a Roman villa was also found on the plateau between Lavaud and Courtillas.
According to the chronicle of Aymar de Chabanais, the first lords of Montbron were warriors. These lords succumbed to the murderous war waged by Waïfre, Duke of Aquitaine, to maintain his independence.
During the Middle Ages, Montbron was on a secondary east-west route frequented by pilgrims who went to the sanctuary of Santiago de Compostela and to the relics of Saint Eutrope at Saintes. Numerous epidemics and particularly leprosy killed many people, as evidenced by the Chapel of the Lepers.
The powerful barons protected the town of Montbron by a wall enclosure flanked by towers and pierced by five doors: the doors of Cahue, Prestin, Fer, de la Fontaine and Brébines 19.
After Marguerite de Rohan, the barony of Montbron passed into the hands of Louise de Savoie. In 1526, this land was incorporated as a dowry to his niece, Madeleine de Savoie, who married the Constable Anne de Montmorency, thus passing into the house of Montmorency 17.
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These days, Montbron benefits from a lively economy while having all the benefits of a peaceful and beautiful environment.
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Montbron is 15 miles east of Angouleme, a mile north-west of the Dordogne and six miles south-west of Haute-Vienne.
Montbron is also six from La Rochefoucauldten miles from Nontron, 20 miles from Confolens, 27 miles from Périgueux and 30 miles from Limoges.
The main roads are the D 699 (Angoulême to Limoges via Saint-Mathieu), the D 16 (Confolens to Montmoreau via La Péruse, Marthon and Villebois-Lavalette) and the D 6 (Mansle, La Rochefoucauld, Montbron, and goes towards Piégut -Plovers, named D 91 in Dordogne).
Montbron has a secondary school, a primary school and a kindergarten.
Saint-Germain-de-Montbron is in the Bandiat valley between Chazelles and Marthon.
The town of Saint-Germain is also a mile west of Marthon, four miles south-west of Montbron, six miles south of La Rochefoucauld and ten miles north-west of Nontron.
The town has many important hamlets, especially located near Bandiat, such as Pont-Sec, Rochepine, Birac, la Brousse, but also others located in the woods to the north such as Tourtazeau, Mas de Baud and Chaillats.
The sloping village is located on the northern slope of the valley, and ranges between 105 and 135m above sea level. The highest point of the town (182m) is on the road to Vouthon (D 108), to the east of the locality le Poteau, on the border with Marthon.
The Bandiat runs two mills in the town, Pont-Sec and that of La Chaume. The Moulin de la Chaume is a mill that produces oil from the nuts of the region. Indeed, the limestone ground is suitable for the cultivation of walnut trees, which is traditional on both sides of Bandiat up to Bunzac.
However, there is no river in the town apart from the Bandiat, despite many small tributary valleys.
The town was created Saint-Germain in 1793. In 1956, it became Saint-Germain-de-Montbron, at the same time as Saint-Germain in the canton of Confolens-Sud was called Saint-Germain-de-Confolens to avoid confusion.
In 1849, the local priest was sentenced to hard labour for life for the murder of his servant. He died a few years later in Cayenne. This news item is described in detail in a book by Marie-Bernadette Dupuy entitled: “The lovers of the presbytery” and the trial in an episode of The Witnesses of Their Time, broadcast in 1979 on Antenne 2.
The parish church of Saint-Germain is a Romanesque church from the 12th century.
The village of Marthon is four miles south-west of Montbron and 11 miles south-east of Angoulême, in the Bandiat valley.
The principal hamlets of the commune are Saint-Sauveur, Chez Trape, the Métairies, Maine, Petit Breuil and Grand Breuil.
The village, on the edge of the Bandiat, is located between 100 and 120 m above sea level 3.
The centre of the town of Marthon is occupied by the Bandiat valley, a sub-tributary of the Charente. To the north and south, the valley is dominated by wooded highlands where cereals are grown.
The chatellenie of Marthon was, until the Revolution, one of the most important in Angoumois. Its jurisdiction extends over 14 parishes and its lords have the right to high, medium and low justice throughout the extent of the chatellenie. The location of Marthon, on the borders of Angoumois and Périgord, makes it an important possession for its lords who, from there, can watch over the entire Bandiat valley.
An old keep, half dismantled, dominates the village.
The oldest lord that is known is Hugh of Marthon, son of Robert of Montbron, himself a grandson of Hugh III of Lusignan. He left three children, the eldest of whom, Robert de Marthon, succeeded him in the barony.
Robert de Marthon married Emma de La Rochefoucauld, daughter of Adémar and heir to Gui III de La Rochefoucauld. After him, the barony of Marthon passed into the hands of the family of La Rochefoucauld, by Guy, son of Emma de La Rochefoucauld and Robert de Marthon.
During the Hundred Years War, the lords of Marthon remained faithful to the kings of France, valiantly defending their cause. On the night of May 5, 1347, the English set fire to the castle of Marthon and ravaged the entire chatellenie. Later, during the quarrels between King Louis XI and his brother Charles, Duke of Guyenne, the royal army found solid support in the Château de Marthon.
Towards the end of the Hundred Years’ War, the estate was almost completely ruined. On March 8, 1449, it was acquired by Bertrand Farinard, captain of the castle and the city of Marthon.
Between 1870 and 1940, the town was served by the line from Quéroy-Pranzac to Thiviers joining Angoulême to Nontron, and the station was located at Le Colombier. The track was gradually removed and the last section still open to freight traffic was closed in 1985.
In 2017, the town had 559 inhabitants, who benefit from a public primary school, a cinema Le Silverado and a “Book Space”.
Built on the site of a Romanesque castle burned down in 1347, the Château-Neuf dates from the Renaissance. It was significantly modified in the beginning of the 20th century.
Crown Castle, which was used as the set for the film Our Happy Days with Jean-Paul Rouve in 2006, has been transformed into a hotel.
The Church of St Martin dates from the 12th century, and the remains of the Church of Saint-Sauveur are from the 11th century.
Grassac is a rural commune in the Pays d’Horte et Tardoire region located ten miles south-east of Angoulême, which is the nearest large town.
Grassac is also two miles south-west of Marthon, five miles east of Dignac, six miles south-west of Montbron, eight miles north-east of Villebois-Lavalette and ten miles north-west of Nontron 1.
The town has only a few hamlets, such as Doumerac and Maine Épauty to the south-east, l’Hermite to the west, Chez Durand near the town and Cibardie on the edge of the forest north of the town.
Grassac is near the Périgord Limousin regional natural park.
Under the Ancien Régime, Grassac had many fiefdoms.
The old castle Horte was at the top of the village in the forest of Horte. This was abandoned during the Revolution and fell into ruins. A new castle was rebuilt next door.
In l’Hermite there was a small glassworks operated by two noble families in the 18th century. The glassworks collapsed and the owners left Angoumois for Périgord. The glassware was transformed into a brick factory, which still operated in the early 20th century.
Like a large part of the department, the commune of Grassac is located on the territory of the controlled designations of origin (AOC) for Charentes-Poitou butter, white, rosé and red Pineau des Charentes, Bois cognac eaux-de-vie. ordinary or Bois à terroirs, Bons Bois cognac, and Esprit de Cognac.
Grassac is also in the perimeter of protected geographical indications (PGI) for Limousin veal, Poitou-Charentes lamb, Limousin pork, Bayonne ham, as well as white, rosé and red Charentais wines.
Despite the village being small and rural, its 12th century church of St John the Baptist is huge, with a square bell tower and a double nave.
The Castle of Bréchinie was built in the 17th century. The enclosure, the enclosure, the chapel, the dovecote and the tower are protected. It is not open to the public.
The ruined Château d’Horte, just outside the village gave its name to the forest.
Feuillade is a village in the Pays d’Horte et Tardoire, 12 miles east of Angoulême, a few hundred metres from the Dordogne department.
The village is at the crossroads of departmental roads 4 and 163. Departmental road 111 also crosses the town from west to south-east.
The town has a few hamlets such as Fraisse, Chez le Moine, Maine Gué, Mothe, Chez Raby, Croix, Coufour, Grand Coutillas and La Bergerie.
The village itself is actually no bigger than a hamlet.
Before the creation of the department of Charente, the parish of Feuillade, although part of the diocese of Angoulême, belonged for the most part to the province of Périgord.
In the Middle Ages, Feuillade was the seat of an important stronghold, which depended in part on the bishopric of Angoulême, the barony of Marthon and the counts of Périgord.
Belleville castle, near the church, was acquired in 1514 by Jean Hélie de Colonges, who had royal permission to build a house there.
A little further upstream, the Château de la Mothe (formerly spelled la Motte) was the seat of an important forge, driven by the Bandiat and fed by the iron ore found on the surface around, and the surrounding wood. This blast furnace, built in the 15th and 16th century, produced the cast but also manufactured guns in the 17th and 18th centuries. It ceased operating in 1890. Other forges existed in the surrounding parishes.
In the 18th century, the mill of Guillot, downstream from the town, was a place of gathering and shipping the ore, iron and guns by carts to the Foundry Lane.
The village’s 11th century church of St Peter saw its interior restored in 2009. Another historic building here, Belleville Castle, is private property.
Saint-Sornin is in the Tardoire valley, halfway on the road linking Montbron to La Rochefoucauld.
It is three miles from Montbron, three miles from La Rochefoucauld, and ten miles from Angoulême.
Quite large hamlets dot the town – Rochebertier on the banks of the Tardoire, Les Combes to the south, the Michelots, La Faurie, Les Chaumes and Couret.
The east of the town is quite high in altitude because it is located on the foothills of the Massif de l’Arbre, the first mountain of the Massif Central which begins in Mazerolles.
The highest point is at an altitude of 242m located east of La Faurie on the border with Orgedeuil.
Saint-Sornin is known for a curious optical illusion. At the east exit of the village on the D 110, a small road continuing to the right towards a chapel seems to descend, but in fact it goes up. The explanation is that the whole landscape is tilted towards the west, and the rise is accentuated towards the east, causing the illusion of a valley side.
The town is on the right bank of the Tardoire valley, a sub-tributary of the Charente, but the town only touches the river in two small places in Rochebertier.
Saint-Sornin has a vineyard producing the only Charente country wine. Its main grape varieties are cabernet and sauvignon. The vineyard is at the foot of the Massif de l’Arbre, looking over the Tadoire Valley.
The Saint-Sornin school, located in the village, has two kindergarten classes and an elementary class.
The parish church of St Saturninus dates from the 12th century but was rebuilt. As such it is well maintained but without any striking architectural character.
It contains a statue of St Anthony in carved wood and polychrome.
The Saint-Roch chapel (or Notre-Dame-de-la-Lande) is located on the old path of the English, which was in the Middle Ages one of the secondary east-west routes frequented by pilgrims who went to the sanctuary of Saint -Jacques-de-Compostelle and the relics of Saint Eutrope in Saintes.
The Fountain St Anthony was a miraculous fountain for healing children.
The Logis de la Fenêtre offers a magnificent view to the west and south. It has two cylindrical towers topped with pepper shakers. The main building dates from the 15th and 16th century.
The GR 4 hiking trail which goes from Royan to Grasse crosses the town.
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