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France > Loire > Cher > St-Aignan

ST-AIGNAN, 15km south of Montrichard, is a small town comprising a cluster of houses below a huge Romanesque collegiate church and sixteenth-century private Château. The Collégiale de St-Aignan (Mon–Sat 9am–7pm, Sun 1–7pm) features some of the best ecclesiastical decoration in the region. Its capitals are adorned with mermaids, a multi-bodied snake biting its own necks, a man's head tunnelled by an eagle, doleful dragons and other wonders of the twelfth-century imagination. The crypt is renowned for its remarkably preserved, brightly coloured twelfth- and thirteenth-century frescoes, some of which show the beginnings of naturalistic Gothic tendencies.

St-Aignan lends itself to aimless wandering, with the terrace and Renaissance courtyard of the Château accessible to the public and some pleasant walks down by the river – or a swim if you feel inclined. The Maison du Vin, on place Wilson, is open for tastings and sales of Côteaux du Cher wines (July & Aug). Boat trips on the Cher have been suspended until at least 2004, due to works on the channel, but you can windsurf, canoe and sail at the lake a couple of kilometres upstream, in Seigy.

For a good break from ancient history, head for the excellent Zoo Parc Beauval (daily: mid-March to Oct 9am–dusk; Nov to mid-March 10am–dusk; €13;, 2km to the south of town on the D675. The space given to the animals is ample, and it's part of the European programme for breeding threatened species in captivity. Sumptuous flower beds give way to little streams and lakes where islands provide natural enclosures for some of the monkeys. Two hothouses with tropical flowers and greenery are home to an extraordinary collection of birds as well as a large group of chimpanzees and two families of orang-utans. But the creature most children will want to take home with them is the rare white tiger.

Pages in section ‘St-Aignan’: Practicalities.

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