In the south of Charente, on the border with Périgord, Aubeterre-sur-Dronne is built like an amphitheatre on a white stone cliff overlooking a meander of the River Dronne. From its past as a stopover on the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela, this village of red-tiled roofs dominated by its feudal castle, has an exceptional array of heritage buildings along its sloping streets, lined with charming, southern-style houses and numerous art and craft workshops.
At the top of the village, the 12th century Romanesque church of Saint Jacques, damaged during the French Wars of Religion, has nevertheless preserved its remarkable 3-storey facade rich in sculptures of geometric shapes, plants, animals and monsters. Aubeterre-sur-Dronne also has a remarkable, well-preserved natural heritage and a delightful way of life. It is classed as a « Petite Cité de Caractère (character village) » and also one of the « Loveliest Villages in France ». The village attracts thousands of visitors every year, not least for the unusual attraction hidden in its centre - the monolithic church of Saint-Jean, the largest underground church in Europe.
Unique in Europe, the underground church of Saint-Jean is magnificently proportioned, with its 20 metre high vault hewn out of the limestone. A flight of steps cut into the rock leads to an amazing high gallery which runs around three sides of the church. Many tombs have been discovered in the nave as well as a totally cross-shaped cavity which contained relics. In the centre of the sanctuary stands a hexagonal reliquary, 6 metres high and 3 metres in diameter, carved during the Romanesque period from a single block of stone. This mysterious church, hewn into the hill on which the castle stands at the beginning of the 12th century bears strong witness to the Christian fervor of the Middle Ages and is a place with a highly-charged emotional atmosphere.