Small Town France: Argenton-sur-Creuse

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.

Argenton

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.

Argenton

Argenton

Argenton

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
Le centre-ville
Argenton
Eglise Saint Sauveur
Argenton
Place Carnot

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.)

Argenton
La Creuse, seen from le Vieux Pont (the Old Bridge)

Argenton
La Venise du Berry (The Venice of Berry)

Locals have learned to be wary of the river’s moods. Around town, signs remind visitors of memorable floods.

Argenton
Crue de 1845 (La Creuse reached the mark on the wall.)

In la ville haute (the upper town,) where the old fortress used to be, delightful sights abound.

Argenton
La Bonne Dame (Virgin Mary) watches over Argenton

Argenton

Argenton

Argenton
Argenton (ville basse) et la Vallée de la Creuse

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.

Argenton

Argenton
I met another Seattleite on my walk…
Argenton
“To Argenton’s children, who died for France.”

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!

A bientôt.

 

All photos by French Girl in Seattle. Please do not use text or images without permission. 

 

More about Argenton-sur-Creuse:

 

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37 Comments

  • Mon père était un adolescent quand la 2eme guerre a éclaté et comme notre famille est juive ils ont été se réfugier dans la Creuse pendant presque toutes les années de la guerre, dans un petit village qui s’appelle Dun-le Palestel, ou nous sommes alles plusieurs fois dans mon enfance retrouver la famille du pharmacien du village qui avait si activement aidé mon père et son frère et leurs parents et qui sont reste lies au destin de ma famille au dela des generations.
    Un de mes souvenirs est d’être allée à la pêche à Dun dans un petit coin ravissant, et tout comme vous ma France est celle de la Province ou j’ai grandi (A METZ, en Lorraine) Paris oui, mais la campagne francaise c’est le top, et quand j’amene des amis americains en France on commence par Paris mais on finit toujours sur les petites routes de campagne, et ils tombent sous le charme a chaque fois.
    Merci pour tout ce que vous faites pour les expats comme moi, qui ne peuvent pas rentrer tous les ans au pays mais qui continue à se languir du pays natal.

  • What a tranquil little town on a beautiful river. Even here in the U.S. we find ourselves bragging about the number of miles we have driven in one day, not realizing the beauty and joy we might discover it we would take the time to exit the freeway.

    • Many modern-day travelers only have efficiency in mind, not just in the US. To be fair, not all adventures off the freeway are as rewarding as a visit to Argenton. Still, worth a try, and with minimal research, staying off the beaten path usually pays off. Happy New Year Janey!

  • I love your blog and would like to subscribe. Spent my junior year abroad in Besancon in the early 70’s and fell in love with France. I teach high school French and have taken students to France several times in recent years. Keep up the good work!

    • Merci beaucoup Pam. Signing up for the blog’s Mailing List (scroll down on the Homepage to find it,) is the best way to hear about new stories. I am stepping away from Facebook for a while and will be focusing on this website for the next few months. Happy New Year to you!

  • What a beautiful little town! In late 1960’s I spent two month in Vichy (about 200 km) learning French in Centre Audio-Visuel de Langues Modernes. I love you blog – thanks.

  • This looks like a “must see”. I try not to drive when I’m travelling so I wonder if there is a train or bus that connects. J’aime le chien de la maison. 🙂

    • Bonjour Dave. You can catch a train at Paris-Austerlitz that will take you to Argenton in as little as 2.5 hours. Spending a day there is just about perfect, but like I mentioned in my introduction, there are many more delightful discoveries to be made around Argenton if you can get out of town. I am certain buses are available locally.

  • Another one on my list now, thanks to you. We will have an extra 2weeks in France and it will be a great and relaxing visit there.

  • What a beautiful French town!! I am hoping on my next trip to Paris, I will spread my wings and explore more of France. Little gems like this would be a perfect stop!

    • Bonne Année Chérie! Thank you for continuing to follow my adventures. You must have been one of the first to sign up for email updates, so many years ago. Excellente année 2018! My little finger told me you may be returning to Paris with a good friend of yours this year…

  • I’m going to have to give la Creuse a second chance. The only time I was in the departement (besides passing through on the autoroute) was for an offsite for the unit in which I worked at the boss’ place in the country. It was a big, beautiful but very drafty old manor house, 2 colleagues brought their babies with them, weird office rivalries exposed themselves as we worked in teams to prepare the meals, the boss led a forced march in the rain, I got blisters from the borrowed too big wellies — yep, I have PTSD from the experience. I was stuck driving the mom-mobile with the 2 screaming babies because the colleague who was supposed to drive that vehicle couldn’t even get it out of the rental company garage because it was an automatic… But you make a compelling case, so I will try to work through my demons. 😉

    • Great story Karen. I don’t think I would have had a lot of fun during that weekend either, in la Creuse, in Paris, or anywhere else. The trip in the mom-mobile seems positively awful. Funny how some people can’t drive an automatic car (I am guessing the culprit was a French native,) while others balk at driving a stick shift (many of my American friends do…) You should definitely give la Creuse (and la province) another chance. I guarantee it will provide the peace and quiet you were deprived of last time you visited. Happy New Year!

  • Salut Véro, je suis ravi de découvrir ce superbe reportage sur argenton sur creuse… Nous connaissons le café de la place et l’hôtel depuis les années 1962/1963…Nous nous y arrêtons, tu le sais chaque fois que nous le pouvons, lors de nos escapades vers le gers.nous revoyons argenton avec un plaisir sans cese renouvelé!!! Tes photos sont splendides, ta documentation exhaustive et ton style brillant.. Bonne continuation??? Un jour, il faudra “attaquer” l’isle-jourdain et le fers! Continue…

    • Coucou! Je suis ravie que ce reportage t’ait plu. Tu vois ainsi l’aboutissement de notre bien agréable promenade il y a quelques mois. Merci de m’avoir fait découvrir Argenton! Quant au Gers et à l’Isle Jourdain, ce sera avec grand plaisir, dès que j’aurai l’occasion d’y retourner. Vive la Gascogne!

  • Thank you, Seattle Girl. When I was 14 (I’m 78 now) my middle school French teacher in Brooklyn, NY, arranged for each student in her class to get a French pen pal of the same age. Mine was a girl from Argenton sur Creuse, Annie Jouhanneau, who lived on Rue Jean Jacques Rousseau (maybe it was #14? I forget the precise house number but it was low double digits and definitely on Rue Jean Jacques Rousseau.)

    We had a brief correspondence going. I wrote to her in terrible French. She replied to me in somewhat better English, on that faintly ruled graph paper that French school kids use. I abruptly terminated the correspondence when she sent me a letter of such adult sophistication that I was too terrified to reply. I remember to this day the shocking sentence that left me with trembling with fear: “After school, I go down to the edge if the river and I smoke with the boys.”

    Yikes! That was so grown up I couldn’t handle it and I never wrote to her again. All the same, I’ve wondered all these years what became of her? Did she get hooked on nicotine, as I did some years later as a high school student? Did she ever quit smoking, as I finally did at the age of 51? Or is she still down there on the bank of the Creuse River, blowing smoke rings at the water after all these years?

    • Dear Peter, thank you so much for sharing your memories with us. What a wonderful story! You have gotten me to wonder as well what happened to Annie Jouhanneau. I like this story so much I am going to share it tonight with the French Girl in Seattle community on Facebook. Who knows? Maybe Annie (or someone she knows,) will spot it. I will let you know if this happens. Encore merci et à bientôt.

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