Medieval Apremont is a “Most Beautiful Village” – but is it “authentic”?

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Apremont-sur-Allier is, without question, one of the most beautiful villages in France (“un des plus beaux villages de France”) – and not just because it’s on the official list.  But as tourists demand more and more “authenticity” in their travel experiences, I wonder how Apremont stands up to the test.

There’s no doubt that it has all the requirements, and everything is arranged in one of the most aesthetically perfect settings I’ve seen anywhere in France.  It’s authentically medieval; quarrymen in the Middle Ages were cutting stones here and sending them on boats down the Allier to the Loire to be used in buildings like the great Cathedral at Orleans. The town church was built in the 13th century.  

A chateau has looked out over the little town since at least the 1100s A.D., growing into a grand fortress by the 15th century.  (The current building apparently bears little resemblance to the historic castle, though, and is not open for visits because it has been continuously occupied by the descendants of Louis de Bethune since 1722.)

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Lou Messugo

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Apremont-sur-Allier is breathtakingly beautiful.  On a fine fall day, I took the backroad network of “D” roads and drove 35 miles southeast from Bourges.  The town sits near the junction of the Allier and the Loire, not far from other great destinations like Moulins and Nevers – like many other places on the list of “most beautiful villages”, this one requires an intentional effort to get there! 

Once there, though, it’s an easy place to visit.  I counted no more than 500 footsteps to get from the parking lot next to a cow pasture at one end of town to the other end of the road, although you can easily spend a couple of hours doing it.  There are beautiful medieval houses, and the Brasserie du Lavoir has a pleasant terasse out back where you can linger over a long lunch of duck in blackcurrant sauce. And there are flowers in almost every open space in town, giving it that look of long cultivation and the feeling that people have lived here forever.

The real jewel (in season) is the Parc Floral, opened in 1976 in a design by Gilles de Brissac.  It’s an artful combination of flowers, shrubs, waterfalls, and touches of Chinese, Turkish and Japanese decoration, and it makes for a very nice walk and an appropriate backdrop for such a beautiful village.

So why the concern about this particular village’s “authenticity”?  Because much of the aesthetic beauty of Apremont-sur-Allier is the product of art and intention more than the natural evolution you see in other French villages. 

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In the period between the two World Wars, Eugène Schneider – the industrial baron who had married into the family of owners of the chateau – decided to “transform and improve” the town.  With help from the architect Antoine de Galéa, Schneider spent decades tearing down old buildings that did not fit his vision for his adopted village.  When new buildings were required, they were constructed in a “neo-medieval” style to maintain the overall harmony of styles Schneider wanted.

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Does it come across as a little “Disneyfied”?  Some visitors think so.

L’Express described the houses of Apremont in 1993 “with shutters painted all the same color… Nothing modern, or almost nothing, pollutes the décor: not an electric line, not a telephone pole, not a neon sign.  In the evening, light falls from iron lanterns.  The ensemble is bathed in climbing roses, clematis, tufts of delphiniums…Generic.”

Here’s the thing, though: until I dug into all this history, I didn’t think Apremont-sur-Allier looked or felt the least bit inauthentic!  I enjoyed the walk through the park, sitting on a bench by the riverside, taking my time in the Brasserie du Lavoir.  And there is authentic history here, in real medieval houses, in the ancient church, and in the story of the family that owns the current evolution of the chateau. 

Was it worth the trip?  I’ll cast my vote with the estimated 150,000 other people who find their way here year after year and say “yes, absolutely!”  This is one of the most pleasant detours I’ve found anywhere in my wanderings around France.

What do you think?  Are you put off by 20th-century “revisions” of a historic place like Apremont-sur-Allier?  Please share your experience and opinions in the comments section below – and please pass this on to your friends and colleagues who might be interested.

(all photos in this post © 2016, R. Alexander)

 

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12 thoughts on “Medieval Apremont is a “Most Beautiful Village” – but is it “authentic”?

  1. Tricky question without actually having been there. Your photos make it look perfect. If burying electricity wires and keeping out modern hoardings implies Disneyfied I’m happy with that. Schneider “modernised” it 80 odd years ago which in itself is historic, and if you felt it was authentic before reading about its history then I’d say it worked. Haussmann completely changed the face of Paris after all and his buildings and their uniformity are now part of what everyone loves about the place. I don’t think towns need to remain untouched to be “authentic”.

    1. Phoebe, I agree! The Haussmann comparison is absolutely right, and (while what he did to Paris was controversial at the time) I think everyone would agree the transformation was worth doing a hundred and fifty years later. Apremont certainly benefits from what Schneider did, and it will probably guarantee the town’s existence and viability for the long term. Thanks for reading, and thanks for your comment!

  2. I suppose that authenticity isn’t black or white, but on a sliding scale where the “cut-off” point varies depending on your personal view. For me, Apresmont passes the “authenticity” test with flying colours because of its long history and the fact that it was not built (or heavily reconstructed) merely for the pleasure of tourists.

    Another great article – I really enjoy your blog. Thanks, and greetings from Luxembourg.
    #AllAboutFrance

    1. Thanks for reading, and for your kind comment! In the end, I came to the same conclusion — “history” has to include the fact that a place evolves over time, and the “amendments” done at Apremont do nothing to undercut the town’s charm and character.

  3. I personally don’t seem to enjoy “authentic” broken-down structures so much. My taste is more in the neat, tidy, and quaint, which Apremont certainly exudes. What a beautiful town. Thanks for sharing.

  4. I think that there are many examples of villages like Apremont all through France that are so beautifully kept that they’re almost like fake villages. I think though, that there’s nothing wrong with renovating the buildings and keeping them clean, as long as the village is still lived in by locals. If the small towns and villages become so invaded by tourists and souvenir shops that there are no real services left and the only people who “live” there are holiday-makers, then I feel that they become more like museums rather than real villages.

    1. That’s a good point, Lisa – and I think it’s why Apremont passes the “authenticity” test for me, too. Thanks very much for your comment!

  5. What a bucolic little place! Personally I like the trimmed hedges, but maybe that’s because I actually love the architecture of Disney! Have you been to Carmel by the Sea in California? They have the most adorable houses. It totally reminds me of Disney… But I digress. Apremont-sur-Allier seems simply delightful. Thank you for your article!

    1. Hello, Tammy. Thanks very much for your comment. Yes, we’ve been to Carmel by the Sea, and I agree that the comparison with Apremont is apt!

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