The History of Saint-Martin-le-Beau in the Loire Valle

It took a while to find the little town of Saint-Martin-le-Beau that rests on Cher River in France’s Loire Valley.

The GPS started talking in British-accented circles as soon as the compact rental car left the well-lit main road for the narrow street marked with only a small arrow pointing toward Saint-Martin-Le-Beau.

signs pointing to saint-martin-le-beau in the Loire Valley

Road signs pointing to Saint-Martin-Le-Beau in France’s Loire Valley.

But beyond the bumpy train tracks, an open gate revealed a little chalet with a crackling fire and a tiny, smiling woman, who patiently waited on the porch even as a sudden spurt of January rain soaked us all.

What that woman lacked in size she made up for in personality as she hollered at the rain and grabbed our bags, hustling us into the warmth of “Le Chalet,” a cozy rental cabin on her property. 

The cozy little home crackled with the warmth from the fireplace and with the empathy of a host who understands a long travel day.

a fire warms a rental home in saint-martin-le-beau in france's loire valley

The cozy cabin affectionately nicknamed Le Chalet in Saint-Martin-le-Beau

That travel day was, in fact, New Year’s Day, and there wasn’t a soul in that little chalet that wasn’t hungover.

We laughed at our mutually sorry states and our host, Sarah, gamely buzzed about the little chalet full of stories from her previous evening in a nearby village with friends, family and margaritas. Tired as I was, I was sad to see her go as she ducked into the rain and headed home toward the “big house” up the hill.

I was relaxed into the couches near the fire, cutting into the fresh baguette that Sarah had provided and enjoying the quiet of the countryside when my phone buzzed. It was Sarah, checking to make sure I was comfortable and wondering what it was that brought me to tiny Saint-Martin-Le-Beau.

The WWII History of the Loire Valley

The tucked-away town of Saint-Martin-Le-Beau rests upon the River Cher which, during WWII, separated “Free France” or “Vichy” France from the occupied zone. It was also home to a woman who had inspired me to start researching the area in the hopes of one day writing a novel about the WWII history of the Loire Valley.

The Cher River was the demarcation line in WWII France. It cut the Loire Valley in two.

To stand where I took this picture meant living under the German Occupation. To cross the bridge meant entering the “Zone Libre” and (relative) freedom.

That woman was Raymonde Sergent who lived in Saint-Martin-le-Beau. The arbitrary demarcation line met Raymonde lived in the Occupied Zone while many of her lifelong neighbors and friends over the river lived in the Free Zone.

Raymonde worked with a clergyman on the other side of the river to smuggle countless people from the Occupied Zone to the Zone Libre.

Together they schemed ways to sneak people from one side of the river to the other, even staging funerals and carrying live people in coffins across the bridge from Saint-Martin-Le-Beau to Athée-sur-Cher and relative freedom.

The River Cher divided the Loire Valley during WWII. Saint-Martin-le-Beau was in the Occupied Zone.

Raymonde Sergent crossed this river many times to smuggle people from Occupied France to Free France.

The Passeur of Saint-Martin-le-Beau

It was Raymonde that brought me here, I wrote to Sarah that night beside the fire as the rain lightly drummed against the roof of Le Chalet.

I stumbled on Raymonde’s story reading Caroline Moorehead’s well-researched and awe-inspiring book “A Train in Winter,” a story of 230 French women deported together from a Paris prison and bound for the network of German concentration camps that would claim the lives of all but 49 of the women, including Raymonde’s.

 It was Raymonde’s story that fascinated me, in particular, because she brazenly hid those who sought escape over the demarcation line inside a café and hotel that she operated in the little village of Saint-Martin-Le-Beau.

I set off for the Loire Valley with the goal of walking the same streets that Raymonde did. Maybe even finding the hotel and café where she hosted so many dinners, sometimes with escaped prisoners from the nearby work camp in Amboise hidden among the guests. I had no idea I would find so much more – thanks to one heck of an Airbnb host.

Two women in the Loire Valley of France

Exploring the Loire Valley with Sarah

Walking Through History in Saint-Martin-le-Beau

The former Cafe de l'Union in Saint-Martin-le-Beau

This used to be the Cafe de l’Union where Raymonde hid downed airman and escapees from nearby labor camps.

The next morning, Sarah showed up on the porch of Le Chalet in a state of pure excitement. While her husband Marc rebuilt the fire, Sarah reported that she had been on the phone with neighbors and family members – all of whom knew someone who knew the Sergent family. She said that she knew where Raymonde’s café had been and, before I could say foie gras, Sarah was whisking me toward town in her car with her little dog curled up in my lap.

Between Sarah’s friends in town and our own explorations, we were able to find Raymonde’s café and the place where her husband Paul had operated a dance hall just across the street. It was winter and nothing was open in town, but you could almost hear the people who once came on the train from Paris to enjoy a weekend away in the countryside, dancing at Paul’s club and sipping wine at Raymonde’s café.

The parking lot in front of today’s town hall once held a festive dance hall.

Later, standing on the bridge that Raymonde had used to smuggle so many people out of Occupied France, I wondered at how quickly the war must have turned guests from joyful weekenders to desperate refugees and at the effect that must have had on Raymonde’s livelihood – and on her conscience.

This is the home where Raymonde once lived. It sits on “Rue Raymonde Sergent” or Raymonde Sergent Way.

Saint-Martin-le-Beau in the Loire Valley of France

Raymonde’s house and her cafe were just across the street from Paul’s dance hall.

Meeting the Family of a Heroine in Saint-Martin-le-Beau

I was back at Le Chalet reflecting on the day when Sarah came by with news that took my breath away. The grandson and great-grandson of Raymonde Sergent were willing to meet with me. And, once again, before I could even ponder the information, I was following Sarah toward the big house and yet another unforgettable experience with an Airbnb host turned friend.

Raymonde’s family members were understandably skeptical of me, especially when I told them (through Sarah’s translation) that I wasn’t a fancy writer, but just someone inspired by Raymonde who hoped, one day, to write a novel of historical fiction based on her life. For my part, I was taken by them immediately when they entered Sarah and Marc’s home carrying the book “A Train in Winter.”

Meeting Raymonde’s Grandson and Great-Grandson.

The book wasn’t translated into French until many years after it was published (read this fascinating interview of Caroline Moorehead for more on this). So, I met Raymonde’s family just months after they had read the book for the first time. It was accurate they told me.

And then they told me so much more.

They told me that Raymonde’s café, the Café de l’Union, was a known gathering place for Communists like Raymonde and her husband Paul. They told me that the priest from Athée-sur-Cher worked with Raymonde to smuggle people across the river despite her ardent atheism and that she worked with him despite his unwavering faith.

Memorial to Monsieur L'Abbe Lacour a WWII hero of the Loire Valley

Memorial to Monsieur L’Abbe Lacour. He died in the Buchenwald Concentration Camp.

Like Raymonde, the priest died in a concentration camp, but not before they both saved countless lives.

People still come through town occasionally to pay tribute to Raymonde, like the elderly Canadian and former pilot downed in the Loire Valley and saved by Raymonde who stopped by the cafe to give thanks for his life.

Raymonde’s grandson and great-grandson have matching tattoos on their wrists with the number 31-790 – the same number tattooed on Raymonde’s wrist at Auschwitz. But, despite their pride in Raymonde, they told me that they think she was both brave and selfish. They reported that their mother and grandmother, Giselle, who grew up without her mother, suffered from feelings of abandonment.

It is this conflict and contradiction within Raymonde that I find so fascinating. We are all capable of doing great things and of causing great hurt. Often, we are capable of doing both – even at the same time. As I listened to Raymonde’s family, I earnestly hoped that I could capture that human contradiction in my future heroine.

But, at that moment, it wasn’t about writing. It was about experiencing. As I watched my hosts Sarah and Marc laugh and toast Raymonde’s family into the early morning hours, and as Marc’s homemade absinthe dissolved all nervousness and language barriers between us.

I have returned many times to visit Sarah and Marc, Raymonde’s family, and the Loire Valley. It has become my happy place. (Note: If you would like to book “Le Chalet,” I would be grateful if you would use this affiliate link that will provide me a small commission at no cost to you!)

If you liked this story, please find my collections of stories on traveling France or my collection of stories of travel and history:

My Love Affair with the Loire Valley

The first time that I visited Saint-Martin-le-Beau, a commune resting near the banks of the River Cher in central France, it was a cold evening…

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    3 Comments on “The History of Saint-Martin-le-Beau in the Loire Valle”

    1. Pingback: My Love Affair with the Loire Valley | The Lens of Jen

    2. Pingback: Learning to Ride a Bike (Again) | The Lens of Jen

    3. It was an unforgettable and unexpected encounter for us. A great moment shared with you.
      We are eager to read what this story will become under your pen!

      Kind regards


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