15 June 2009

Saint-Savin stories and coincidences

Here's my story about Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe, where we drove to see the church on Saturday. It's about 100 km (or 60 miles) south of Saint-Aignan, in the Haut Poitou département.

In the 1970s, I spent a lot of time in Paris, but I also spent a lot of time in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, at the university there. I was a graduate student and teaching assistant for French language courses. To make ends meet, I also worked part time in the offices of the American Association of Teachers of French, which had its headquarters in Champaign at the time.

At the AATF office, we had a big closet full of travel posters that were donated to the association by the French tourist office for distribution to teachers around the U.S. We advertised them in our publications. Teachers who were members of the association would write in for posters to decorate their classrooms, and we would send some out. We employees also helped ourselves — we were teachers and members too.

One of the posters I liked was a photograph of a river and a bridge, with a church in the background. It was all blue sky and blue water, and the church spire was exceptionally tall and pointy. The words on the poster said Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe, a place I had never heard of.

In 1979 I moved to Paris and spent three years there. Then I moved to Washington DC, where I ended up with a job as a translator — thanks to CHM, who is visiting us now in Saint-Aignan. He hired me in January 1983, and we've been friends ever since. In 1986, Walt and I left DC and moved to San Francisco to seek new opportunities and a better environment.

In 1989, Walt and I took a trip to France. We did a week-long driving tour, from Grenoble to Toulouse and on to Bordeaux and Paris. Along the way, we decided to drive through Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe, because we had the poster and wanted to see the real place. It was just east of the city of Poitiers. We went to Saint-Savin and saw the church from the outside. We didn't know about the historic frescoes.

A few years later, Walt had that poster of Saint-Savin and some others mounted on boards at a frame shop in Berkeley. We figure it must have been in 1990 or 1991. We hung the travel posters on a wall in our apartment. Not long after that, CHM visited us in California for the first time. He saw the poster, and said, can that really be Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe? I spent some of the war years there.

CHM was a teenager during World War II. He, his mother, and his older brother cleard out of Paris when the Germans invaded and went to spend time in the country, out of harm's way. They knew people in Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe and took refuge there..

We told CHM about making a point of driving to Saint-Savin to see the place on our 1989 trip around France, because of the poster. Did you see the frescoes? he asked. No — what frescoes? Oh là là, CHM said, they are amazing and you didn't even go into the church. Quel dommage ! Oh well, we were on driving trip. We had just breezed through the town and checked it off our list.

I think it was an amazing coincidence that I had that poster showing a place that was so important in CHM's life.

It wasn't until June 2006 that I finally went to Saint-Savin with CHM and actually went inside the church. Unfortunately, major restoration work was under way there, and half the church was walled off and closed to the public. The half that was open was dark and dusty because of the restoration work. We didn't see much.

In June 2007 when CHM came to visit, we knew the Saint-Savin church was still half closed up for the restoration work. In June 2008 CHM came back and he sent an e-mail to the tourist office in Saint-Savin. The restoration work would be finished in about a month, he was told. That was too late.

So it was only on Saturday, at least 30 years since I first heard the name Saint-Savin-Savin-sur-Gartempe, and nearly 70 years since CHM first saw the town and the church, that I finally got to go into the building and admire those frescoes. They call it the Sistine Chapel of France.


  1. The frescoes are so beautiful. Thank you Ken for posting these pics.

  2. I have been to Poitiers and was pretty amazed by the beauty of the church but I have never heard of Saint-Savin's church. I will inquire if anybody has heard of it when I am in France.
    What amazes me all the time is that you don't have to go far in France to be in a different climate, region with their own culinary dishes, chateaux, cathedrals, museums of this and that... It is fun!

  3. What a great story. Looks like your visit was meant to be. Thanks for the lovely photos.

  4. wonderful photos. Thanks for the link to Days on the Claise.
    The rain seems to have stopped, for now, in the Paris area.

  5. So nice that you were finally able to close the gap in the circle, for you and for chm. Great photos!


  6. Your persistence paid off. The church and frescoes are really beautiful.

  7. Wonderful! It must have been very special to finally get there with CHM and see the frescoes. They look fabulous.

  8. I agree with Nadege about how France is such an abundant source of historic, cultural, and culinary wonders, of all different kinds. I was very touched by your story today about how much this church means to CHM, and how great it is that you two were able to visit this important place together. I love the coincidence of the poster you had, and all of that being tied in to other parts of your life.

    I have always been very interested in and moved by the experience of France during WWII, and read every novel I find that seems to touch on that period. Last year I read Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky, and that finally gave me a better idea of what the experience was of the families who were fleeing Paris.

    Thanks for this interesting post. I'm just going to have to spend about a month in France next time -- I add a new spot to visit every day!


  9. Judy, a month sounds like a good plan. With some days in the Loire.

    All, thanks for the nice comments. Life continues apace.

  10. Fantastic story! I'm so glad CHM finally got to see them (and you, too, of course)!


What's on your mind? Qu'avez-vous à me dire ?