Remembering our 1st weekend in France
When I wrote my first post for this blog back in 2016, I focused on the choice we made for our very first weekend after we moved to the Auvergne for our initial expat assignment, now more than 20 years ago.
Our plan was to take a daytrip to Le Puy en Velay but we got so distracted by the extraordinary sight of the crumbling ruins of a great castle, the Chateau de Polignac, sailing like a clipper ship on a plateau of basalt near the highway, that we took a detour to explore it first. The sun’s brightest rays seemed to settle on it, and we could see from miles away how unassailable this powerful fortress must have been against all attack. We had to go explore the site.
Much has changed since then (more about that in a moment), but that first trip to Polignac made a lasting impression on us in several ways and began even from that first weekend to shape my feelings about our adopted home in the deep heart of France. Here are four of the things we learned 20 years ago that have stuck with me over time:
French history is rich in twists and intrigues that happened far from Paris – but they shaped the country’s destiny.
The Roman emperor Claudius visited this butte while there was still a temple to Apollo here in 47 A.D. One of the first lords of Polignac went to Antioch as a knight in the first Crusade in 1098. In 1713, Melchior of Polignac led negotiations of the famous Treaty of Utrecht on behalf of Louis XIV, settling conflicts that engulfed most of Europe. Just before the French Revolution, Jules de Polignac became the first Duke of Polignac, thanks mostly to his wife’s very close friendship with Marie Antoinette. That same friendship drove them from the country when the Reign of Terror ended Marie's reign, but a generation later they were back -- their son became Prime Minister of France in 1829.
All this history was our first exposure to one of the most interesting aspects of living and traveling in the deep heart of France: many of the country’s most important movers and shakers come from some of the most isolated and unvisited corners imaginable. Their climb from unknown local to the national, and even international stage, is almost always improbable but among the most interesting stories possible.
It’s not hard to go exploring on impulse if you just trust the traffic signs.
OK, I’ll admit to being a very negative example of this maxim on that first weekend trip, since I ended up trying to drive our rental car up the side of the butte to the Chateau on a path that got narrower and narrower before it disappeared into a patch of unkempt grass. At one point, Karen and our son announced they were getting out of the car “so we won’t tumble back to the bottom of the mountain with you.” Still, as we reconstructed later, even a remote site like this is very well sign-posted almost everywhere in France; you just have to keep your eyes open and (yes, I confess) listen when your family says “Go back -- I think we just passed it.”
There’s a reason why Impressionism started in the countryside of France - there’s magic in the light!
Especially in the Auvergne and Cantal, where the rolling hills often put you at different elevations in the space of a mile or two, the mix of clouds, shadow, and sun produces amazing effects that make the landscape look like a living work of art.
Il ne faut pas prendre les gens pour des cons...
That first visit to Polignac made a big impression on us another way. As I wrote in that original post for this blog, we gathered from our time there that “the French legal system makes some refreshing assumptions about your intelligence level.” Twenty years ago, when you actually got inside the walls, the castle was a tumbled-down ruin…but there were no signs saying “keep off the piles of rubble”, there were no iron rails to prevent you crawling on the inner walls, there were no “DANGER” warnings next to the holes that pit the grounds.
We saw this again in many other French historic sites, and it’s still true in many places: French law largely assumes that if you are dumb enough to climb on a pile of loose rocks, you might well deserve the consequences. (This goes for burning your tongue on hot coffee at McDonald’s or running your car into a post after you’ve had too many glasses of wine – life is full of risks, and you can’t usually sue someone else if you do something that defies common sense!)
Updating Polignac for the 21st Century
That first impression was still in my mind when I went back to Polignac a few months ago – and what a surprise I found there! The site has been radically cleaned up and made safer for visitors – no more rubble piles or open stone staircases. Good historical signposts have been added to all the key elements of the castle; it’s much easier now to imagine how it would have looked at the height of its power. And (most important from my family’s point of view) the rough little path I tried to drive up in 1998 has been sealed off and the parking lot for the site is clearly marked.
The seeds of this blog were planted in that first weekend outing, now almost twenty years ago, and that sense of adventure has stayed with me as I continue to explore the majestic landscapes, the stories of people who shaped the country, and (especially) the tourist destinations that can take you far off the beaten path into areas rarely seen even by most French people.
What were your first impressions when you arrived in France? How did they challenge what you expected? Were you pleased or put off by what you found? Please tell us about your experience in the comments section below – and I’d be grateful if you’d take a second to share this post with someone else by clicking on the button(s) for your preferred social-media platform(s)!
A bientôt !