Wine lovers go on at length about the “terroir” of a wine, which roughly means how the soil in which the grapes are grown affects the flavor of the wine. As we’ve traveled in Europe, we’ve come to realize that the peculiar characteristics of a specific place are just as important for architecture and art as for drink and food.
For example, as you travel through France, you notice the color of buildings changing almost from one village to the next. In the Loire Valley, one of the first things that caught my eye from the train window was the startlingly white chalk cliffs. A split second later, I noticed that houses and churches below the cliffs had that same bright white hue. The reason, of course, is that it makes sense to build with whatever stone is closest to hand.
At the opposite end of the color scheme, stone buildings in the Massif Central region—an area of old volcanoes—tend to be dark grey, almost black. They look like they all need a good cleaning, but in fact they’re simply the color of the local volcanic rock. Viewed from a distance, traditional French villages have a tendency to merge into the landscape. That’s because they’re made out of the same stone as the hillsides around them.
In some cases, what is closest to hand in one place can be very precious elsewhere (because it’s hard to get). That was brought home to us in Italy, in the hamlet of Equi Terme in the mountains of northern Tuscany. That tiny village has a poor, pokey little church, dark and nearly devoid of artwork. But its otherwise plain altars are all made of marble—because just over the next hill is the town of Carrera, where marble has been quarried for millennia.
By comparison, in the French city of Poitiers, the lofty Gothic cathedral commissioned by King Henry II and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine has stone columns painted to look like marble. So, thanks to an accident of geology, a poor remote hamlet in rural Italy could be richer in some things than the capital of one of France’s major provinces.
What the medieval churches and villages of central France do have, though, is wonderful carvings in stone and wood. The artistic energy that went into painting in Italy or Flanders appears to have gone into carving in this part of France.
Why? Local tastes and traditions and abilities, maybe. The result is that many old churches have intricate carvings of people and animals in the capitals on the tops of columns, where churches in other places have simple leaf designs or plain stone. Besides the usual carved archways over doors and fantastical gargoyles, some medieval churches around the Loire Valley and Poitiers sport hundreds of human faces or animals carved into the jutting stone corbels that support upper levels.
Half-timber houses in Burgundy also tend to be decorated with carved wooden figures next to the windows, on the corbels, or on the sides of the main beams. If you’re strolling through a village in those areas, it pays to look up often and keep a sharp eye out for the whimsical carvings stuck into so many nooks and crannies.