Argenton-sur-Creuse, nicknamed “la Venise du Berry,” (the Venice of the Berry,) is a small town located in the center of France. For many travelers, zooming up and down the busy Autoroute (freeway) A20, linking Paris to southwestern France, Argenton-sur-Creuse may remain a pretty name on the map. Châteauroux, the second largest town in the Berry, is located only 30 kilometers (19 miles) north, and it draws more tourist traffic. So does Limoges. Gargilesse, one of “France’s most beautiful villages,” where author George Sand‘s once owned a cottage, is only 10 miles south. Lucky for me, my parents have long elected Argenton their favorite layover during their summer adventures in southern France and Spain. They have been staying there at the same modest hotel, for years. This spring, I joined them on the trip back to Paris after a family reunion near Sarlat (Périgord.) I drove the family car for several hours, the radio on, singing loudly when a popular song came on, along the efficient autoroute. We reached Argenton-sur-Creuse in the afternoon; unloaded our travel bags; checked into the hotel, located exactly in the center of town, by a busy intersection. Even after spending a few days in la Province, i.e. France outside Paris, I still needed a reminder of what life in small town France is like. Argenton-sur-Creuse was happy to school this city girl and longtime expat in the art of French provincial living.
Outside Paris and other major cities, everything, buildings in particular, seems to be on a smaller, more humble scale. It’s as if the pressure was off: French small towns do not need to put on a show to impress visitors, or to live up to a reputation. Blessed with good looks or not, they are what they are, glorious in places, mundane in others, yet irresistibly charming to those who take the time to get to know them. In Argenton, our 2-star hotel, le Beauséjour, has been managed by the same family for several generations. My dad, a frugal man, likes to stay there because the hotel sits conveniently in the center of town, (Place de la République, as it should,) with ample parking across the street, and a restaurant on site. It provides a cheap, safe place to stay, with no frills, and limited service (I got a great upper body workout dragging my suitcase to the second floor along a steep and narrow stairway.) For 40 Euros (under $50) a night, one can’t be too picky. My bedroom was simple and clean. I imagine the decor was selected decades ago. In the morning, a copious continental breakfast was available for 5.50 Euros ($6.50) per person. In the café section of the dining room, the owner sat at the table next to us, enjoying a hearty breakfast and the daily newspaper under his dog’s watchful eyes, much as he had been doing every morning, I suspect, for years.
That afternoon, my dad and I promptly left our rooms for a stroll in town. After driving in the rain, I was happy to see the sun peek through the clouds. It was spring after all! The main street was empty and quiet, a reminder that en province, time slows down, and life gets planned around local businesses’ opening hours. I had never visited Argenton, yet it felt familiar. Peeking into side streets, I could see la Creuse, the river the town is named after.
Argenton (population 5000+,) is ancient. Ruins of the old Gallo-Roman city of Argentomagus lie nearby. It was once a bustling town, tanneries and mills lining up the river banks. It was first renowned for its silver work, and later, for its production of linens, shoes and boots. The “Museum of the Shirt and Masculine Elegance” draws a steady stream of visitors. In the Middle Ages, a medieval fortress towered above the fortified town, dismantled in the early 17th century on Louis XIII’s orders. Former hôtels particuliers built in the 15th and 16th centuries, can still be spotted along quiet streets. In short, there is more to Argenton-sur-Creuse than meets the eye. Yet, it is la Creuse, spanned by two bridges, that remains the town’s lifeline, and splits it into “la ville haute,” and “la ville basse,” (the upper and lower towns.)
Locals have learned to be wary of the river’s moods. Around town, signs remind visitors of memorable floods.
In la ville haute (the upper town,) where the old fortress used to be, delightful sights abound.
This is France, the real France, at its finest and most seductive, deeply rooted in old provinces, their history and local traditions, one foot in the present, one foot resolutely planted in the past.
Next time you head south from Paris on the busy A20 toll road, make sure to let your foot off the gas pedal around mile 180. There is a small town waiting. You will spot it easily: It sits in the middle of a scenic valley. A river runs through it. Bienvenue à Argenton-sur-Creuse!
All photos by French Girl in Seattle. Please do not use text or images without permission.
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