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.)
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.
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.
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)