Guide to the Loire regions

Côte Roannaise


The villages of the Côte Roannaise present enough points of interest for those passing through the region and these are easily accessible for those who might choose to use the town of Roanne as a base. The list below works on the premise that one is travelling down the côte from the north, but it starts with a profile of the town of Roanne itself.

Founded more than one hundred years before the birth of Christ, the Gallo-Romain city of Rodumna was celebrated as a centre for decorated pottery as long ago as the 2nd Century. In the 11th Century the seigneurs of Roanne built a fortress here which was occupied, at various times through history, by the counts of Forez, Jacques Coeur and the dukes of Bourbon.

It is not the most attractive of places, and has all the carbuncles one expects of an industrial town. It was famous as a centre for cotton and textiles, the town’s soft waters being ideal for dying the fabric, and in 1880, there were 6,000 weavers employed in the city. It has long enjoyed its privileged position as a staging post between north and south, the famous N7 holiday route to the Midi runs right through the town.

In the last few decades, it has become known as the production centre for France’s weapons arsenal, including the production of the Leclerc battle tank. But more than anything, Roanne is famous for its gastronomy, being home to Maison Troisgros.

A pretty medieval ‘city’ with an impressive panorama, Le Crozet is situated at the northern end of the Monts de Madeleine. From the Tour de Guet, the 12th Century keep near the church, one has commanding views over the adjoining mountains.

Ambierle is a distinguished looking village full of charm and character which sits on a slope. The theory is that it takes its name from the Gallic tribe of the Ambivarètes. Benedictine monks established an abbey here in 938 although it was ‘downgraded’ to a priory in 1101 by Saint Hugues, the Abbot of Cluny. The church, with its coloured tile roof, dates from around the same period and contains one of the finest alter pieces in France. Of Flemish origin, it was erected in 1466 and carved from walnut. Its gilded panels depict the Kiss of Judas, the painting being attributed to Rogier van der Wayden. From the same period, there are five impressive stained glass windows to be seen in the apse.

The village hosts a market each Thursday morning.

Museum – Alice Taverne
Rue de la Grye
T: +33 4 77 65 60 99
This museum, dedicated to the arts and traditions of the Forez, was established by Alice Taverne (1904 – 1969) and is an historic account of life in the region in the first part of the 20th Century. Open every day from February to November.

This well preserved fortified, medieval village of six hundred people is anchored on a granite promontory with commanding views across the plaine de Roanne to the east and faces the Monts de la Madeleine to the west. In the Middle Ages, it was the capital of the comtes de Forez, and as such, the most important commercial centre in the region until it was supplanted by Roanne in 1677. Its half timbered houses date from 15th and 16th Century, and at the very top of the village one finds a beautifully simple Romanesque church which dates back to the 12th Century.

Renaison is pretty dull and uninteresting in comparison to some of the other neighbouring wine villages, but its importance lies in the fact that it is the viticultural focal point of the Côte Roannaise, being at the very centre of the vineyards which run north and south from here. The town is centred on its market square (its market is on Saturday’s) although it also hosts a covered market that is open everyday except Monday. It is the quality of the permanent stalls here, such as Pralus, the chocolatier (see eating and drinking), that make it a worthy detour in order to pick up essential provisions.

Les Sabots de Renaison
On the road up to the cellar of Robert Sérol, one passes the workshop of Daniel Drigeard, artisan of bespoke clogs, known throughout France as sabots. Every so often it’s still possible to see the older generation of French paysan tottering around in a pair. His workshop and showroom is open for viewing from May to September.
T: + 33 4 77 64 25 66

More famous for its naturally effervescent mineral water than for wine, its thermal springs have been recognised since the time of the Romans and its waters have been exploited commercially since 1605. In the 19th Century the Grand-Hôtel was built as a thermal spa and casino. Today, it is still a pleasant walk up through the village, situated in a side valley, following the river up towards its sources in the Monts de la Madeleine. On the edge of the village, one finds Les Eaux de Saint-Alban. They have been bottling and selling the water since 1815.  

This fortified village, with its half timbered 13th Century houses, sits on the site of a prehistoric encampment with a privileged position overlooking the Loire gorge and is otherwise distinguished for its barrage. Plans to erect a dam at Villerest were first drafted at the start of the 1900s, but opposition from the local inhabitants saw the project shelved. Construction on this 600 metre high, half a kilometre long block of concrete began in 1978, despite ongoing objections and became operational in 1984. The dam was built to combat low water levels on the Loire, such as in the drought year of 1976, or help to control the rivers flow and prevent flooding downstream, as in 1856. It also contributes to the Electricité de France (EDF) network, as well as providing cooling for two nuclear power stations. The design is slightly curved to help reinforce its strength and stability in containing some 130 million cubic metres of water. What was once a twisting gorge is now the Lac de Loire, a 33 kilometre stretch of water, which now attracts sailing enthusiasts and hosts a range of other leisure activities.  

Beyond the dam, the Loire passes swiftly through the end of the gorge as well as the 300 metre contour line, and starts to develop into the placid, broad and steady river we believe it to be.

These two villages co-existed as settlements on the edge of the Loire gorge in Gallo-Romain times. Saint-Jean is built around a Benedictine priory established in the 12th Century; its bell and tower being incorporated in 1874, whilst Saint-Maurice stands on top of a rocky escarpment and offers amazing views over the still water of what is now a lake, although the scene just three decades ago would have been of the deep, looping Loire gorge. This was once a treacherous part of the river, with the water tumbling down a steep gradient as it fell towards the city of Roanne. Such was the notoriety of this section that the old mariners had names for all the most dangerous points - Black Rock, Stairway, the Wolf - and would offer a prayer to a stone cross erected on the hill above before attempting the Saut de Perron, the most challenging set of rapids.

From the village above, it was once possible to descend to the bottom of the gorge to the pont romain. Neither a bridge nor from that era, it was a fortified, medieval outpost, erected most probably, for collecting taxes from the mariners who moored here prior to navigating the gorge. A document written in 1340 already stated that it was an abandoned ruin. 

Within Saint-Maurice itself, there is a 12th Century dungeon, which is all that remains of the château that once stood there, although evidence of the medieval ramparts that protected the village is everywhere, incorporated into the houses built in crags in the granite rock and alongside cobbled passages.

The church also dates back to the 12th Century and consists of a rectangular barrel vaulted room and is decorated with frescos. They were discovered in 1913 as the church underwent renovations. They had been hidden, but well preserved, for centuries under a layer of plaster and are considered to be some of the finest illustrations of 13th Century sacred art. Each scene needs to be viewed in sequence, as there are several panels which unfold into the story of Adam and Eve, replete with images of heavily laden vines. One fresco, rediscovered next to a window, depicts a pilgrim on the route of Saint-Jacques de Compostelle, thus proving Saint-Maurice was a stop-over point on the journey from Cluny to Le-Puy-en-Velay.

Adam and Eve fresco

Tourist Information Offices:

Office de Tourisme du Grand Roanne
Place Maréchal de Lattre de Tassigny
T: + 33 4 77 71 51 77
F: + 33 4 77 71 07 11 

Syndicat d’Initiative de la Côte Roannaise
T/F: + 33 4 77 62 17 07

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