Transport yourself to the Middle Ages
If you're anywhere near central France next weekend, try to carve out time to visit Montferrand. The town has made something of a cottage industry out of its annual Medieval Festival which will fill the narrow streets of Montferrand this week from May 31st to June 2nd. I saw several signs around town offering to rent medieval costumes for the occasion (some of them are listed on the town’s official website), and they really do mount a serious affair. Each year’s festivities are devoted to a particular theme – “ancient trades,” “the Templars in Montferrand,” “the visit of King Henry II”, and so on.
This year will be no different. Street musicians, medieval combat, troops of actors and dancers, and artisans demonstrating medieval crafts will all be on display next weekend. Best of all, there's no admission charge.
No identity crisis here!
It would be easy to understand if the people of Montferrand carried some kind of grudge. Its name has all but disappeared as an independent entity from maps of France. When people talk about Montferrand these days, it’s mostly considered a quartier or neighborhood in the larger urban context of Clermont-Ferrand. But buried in that hyphenated name is a rich history of conflict and royal intervention -- and some modern-day attractions that make Montferrand worth a visit all by itself.
“Keeping the Church Under Control”
The first thing to know about Montferrand is that it was a deliberate creation, not like other French towns that grew over time because they are at an advantageous bend in a river or on some natural defensive placement. No, this was a town with a precise birthdate: 1120 A.D. The Counts of Auvergne had amassed a great deal of wealth and power in the region, but they were constantly frustrated by the fact that Clermont – the main city in this part of France – was administered and controlled by a Bishop of the Catholic church.
Feeling cut out of the picture, Count Guillaume VI took matters into his own hands and launched the building of a fortified town just down the road from Clermont. Beginning in 1120, he constructed a bastide – that particular walled military structure you see in several places in the deep heart of France – to counteract the influence of the Bishop in this region. The original walls (like the old chateau almost completely destroyed in the 1700s) had 22 towers and 4 main gates controlling access to the central city.
The mysterious “Countess G.”
Montferrand grew quickly as a commercial center. One of Guillaume’s successors, known to history only as “the Countess G” (we don’t know what the “G” stood for) cemented its position as a market town beginning in 1196. She reinforced the town’s walls and the chateau that used to stand here and welcomed merchants and other new arrivals by making available lots for them to build on.
More importantly, she gave the town a charter that was remarkable for the rights it gave to the people of Montferrand to administer their own affairs. Considered a model for other “liberal” charters across France, the one given by the Countess G encouraged great markets and merchant fairs to set up shop in town and drove its prosperity for decades. The Templar and Cordelier knights established bases here.
Union with Clermont
The town became so rich, in fact, that it attracted the support and attention of the court in Paris. In 1292, King Philippe le Bel bought Montferrand from the Counts of Auvergne and attached it to his royal holdings. It remained a separate entity for a long time after, even as the region was wracked by the Black Death, the Hundred Years’ War, and the other vicissitudes that brought so much grief to central France in the Middle Ages.
Although the King’s support insured that the town remained important as an administrative center (with royal offices and a major court passing judgment on financial disputes), its commercial impact went through a long, slow decline. (A particularly devastating raid led by Perrot le Béarnais in 1388 wiped out much of its merchant infrastructure.) In 1630, King Louis XIII issued the “Edict of Troyes”, declaring a merger between Clermont and Montferrand; the unification was confirmed again by Louis XV in 1731. Although the town’s citizens petitioned the government to give them back their independent status three times (in 1789, 1848 and 1863), they were turned down every time and the hyphenated city of Clermont-Ferrand persists today.
4 Other Reasons to Go (besides the Medieval Festival)
You might be wondering, if the chateau and town walls are destroyed and this is “just a neighborhood of Clermont-Ferrand”, why you might want to spend time in Montferrand today. I can think of several reasons, all confirmed on the day I recently spent there:
- The town retains many of its half-timbered medieval houses. It’s not as spectacular as the great medieval gems you’ll find in Sarlat-le-Caneda; when the government passed the Loi Malraux in 1962 giving towns the money to restore their historic buildings, the residents of Montferrand resisted and held out until 1973 before they got started. Still, it’s interesting to see how so many of these old houses have evolved over time, closing up
entrances and adding walls, presumably to adapt them to more modern needs. The chuch – Notre Dame de Prospérité – was built beginning in 1304 of somber black lava stone from the quarries at Volvic, and has some fine examples of stained glass and painted walls typical of medieval churches in this part of France.
2. The Musée Roger Quilliot houses one of the major art collections in the deep heart of France. Named for a long-time Mayor of Clermont-Ferrand, it occupies part of a 17th-century Ursuline convent (although a contemporary façade has been added on). The exhibits are laid out chronologically, and include paintings, sculpture, architectural pieces, and decorative pieces spanning the 7th century to the 20th.
3. Here, for me, is the best reason to go to Montferrand: to take in a game featuring the legendary ASM Rugby Club in the stadium named for Marcel Michelin (the team’s founder). ASM Rugby teams have participated not just in the Top 14 championship league of France, but in other great competitions as well – runners-up 3 times in the European Rugby Champions Cup, runners-up 6 times in the Challenge Yves du Manoir.
They won the European Challenge Cup in 1999 and 2007, and the short-lived Coupe de France in 2001. The national title of “Champions of France” eluded them, over and over, until they finally brought home the Brennus Cup in 2010; when they won again last year, a crowd of 100,000 people made such a noise in the Place de Jaude in downtown Clermont that it registered on seismometers around the region! And earlier this month the players of the ASM Clermont Auvergne rugby team came home from England to celebrate their victory over La Rochelle (by a dominating score of 36 - 16) to claim the European Challenge Cup for 2019!
4. And while some people think the massive presence of Michelin’s factories lend a depressingly industrial air to this quartier of Clermont-Ferrand, the company’s museum – L’Aventure Michelin – has become one of the truly outstanding tourist attractions in central France. Michelin has one of the longest, most remarkable stories in business history, and if you love cars as much as I do – in fact, if you love any kind of vehicular transportation – you’ll want to spend at least 2 or 3 hours at L’Aventure Michelin. It’s one of the best-curated collections of its kind I’ve seen anywhere.
Faded glory, but worth your time
It’s true that Montferrand has receded greatly in importance over the centuries, and that Clermont is definitely the more impressive, more dynamic part of the hyphenated town. (In fact, it's more accurate to say that the two are so fully integrated at this point that you'd hardly know they had ever been separate, opposing forces!) But Montferrand has particular charms that make it worth a visit. Two fine museums, an ensemble of medieval buildings, and a first-class sports franchise have given this little town a new life in recent decades, and if you’re traveling through central France it’s worth the time to explore its cobblestone streets in more detail.
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