We decided to launch our French travel experience the second weekend we lived in the country. We arrived in Clermont-Ferrand on a Tuesday, I went to the office the next day, and we used the first weekend to get settled in our temporary apartment. By the second Saturday, though, we were ready for a day trip to see what we had gotten ourselves into.
Our target for this first adventure? Le Puy en Velay, one of the most important medieval towns in the deep heart of France. We’ll see Le Puy in detail in another post – but on the drive there we were startled to see the crumbling ruins of a great castle, sailing like a clipper ship on a plateau of basalt near the highway. 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. Obviously this called for a detour.
Our impromptu side trip to the Chateau of Polignac gave us some unexpected insights into our adopted country even from that first weekend – and they help explain why I love this “under-explored” part of France.
Here are some of the things we learned in the rush of trying out our new home on that first trip:
- 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, but 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 as long as you trust the traffic signs. OK, I’ll admit to being a very negative example of this maxim on this 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.”
- The French legal system makes some refreshing assumptions about your intelligence level. The Chateau, when you actually get inside the walls, is 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 although things have evolved some in recent years, it’s still true: 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!)
- There’s a reason why Impressionism started in the countryside of France - there’s magic in the light! I’ve been back to Polignac several times since that first trip, and every time there’s a play of sunlight and shadow that reveals something new about the castle. 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.
That first weekend trip into the countryside confirmed for us that we had done the right thing in moving to France – and it was the start of our love affair with “the deep heart of France”, miles and centuries away from Paris. The seeds of this blog were planted in that first adventure, now almost twenty years ago, and I hope you’ll go with me as we explore the majestic landscapes, the stories of people who shaped the country, and (especially) the tourist destinations that will take you far off the beaten path into areas rarely seen even by most French people.
In the meantime, please share -- 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?
A bientôt !