A fine year in La France Profonde
I'll confess that 2017 was not my favorite year for many reasons that have nothing to do with a blog about traveling around the deep heart of France. In fact, if it weren't for the places I saw and the people met in my travels, I think it would have been easy to be miserable under the weight of the world's problems in 2017!
For this round-up, I've enjoyed walking back through my memories of some of the best, most interesting places I saw this year. These don't necessarily represent most popular posts for 2017 -- just my personal selection of the stories and places I'd like most to revisit in the months ahead.
#6 - Evidence of the Auvergne in Paris
This may seem like a sneaky way to get "Paris" into my list of "best places in the deep heart of France" -- but this story was also a reminder that what we think of as “France” today was built in large part by massive waves of internal migration. And one of the largest of all these “immigrant” populations…came to Paris from the Auvergne!
Karen and I experienced a little of the bougnat culture for ourselves in September when we went for lunch at the Ambassade d’Auvergne (the Embassy of Auvergne) at 22, rue du Grenier Saint-Lazare, near the Pompidou Center in the 3rd arrondissement. Open since 1966, it has a rustic interior reminiscent of some of our favorite auberges in the center of the country. And the food… the food is pure Auvergnat, from the showy presentation of aligot (a gooey mash of cheese and potatoes, one of the real “comfort foods” of France) to the quality pork and beef sourced from the Auvergne.
It was a classic experience in cuisine from the deep heart of the country, and proof once again of the persistent influence of the bougnats and their descendants in Paris. It’s estimated that 500,000 people living in the capital city today can trace their roots to the Auvergne and the Aveyron and the great waves of migration that started there more than 200 years ago.
The national TV chain, TF1, reported on their influence in 2015. “Paris wouldn’t have the same face without the Bougnats!”, the reporter claimed. “It’s the liveliest and most structured community in the capital.” All the evidence I’ve seen shows that it’s still the case today!
#5 - Brantome: A church in an ancient cave in "the Venice of the Perigord"
Even as the real city of Venice looks for ways to reduce the throngs of visitors who come every year, tourist boards everywhere else seem anxious to declare their locales to be “the Venice of” wherever they happen to be. In addition to the beach in California, for example, Aveiro’s canals make it “the Venice of Portugal,” and the tour boats on the Canal St. Martin invite you to explore “the Venice of Paris.” So when I heard that Brantôme, a town on the Dronne River in the Dordogne, is sometimes called “the Venice of the Perigord,” I had to go see what it was about for myself.
Even on first glance, I was intrigued by the history of this town. It’s one of those rare medieval sites in France with roots going back to the time of Charlemagne. In 769 A.D., the story goes, Charlemagne founded the Abbey here and gave it the relics of Saint Sicaire– or, at least, that’s what the legend says. But I was unprepared for what I found once I bought my ticket at the site’s entrance: behind the Abbey’s Renaissance façade lies a complex of caves carved into the cliff that rises behind Brantôme. And this is not just any cave dwelling – it’s a remarkably moving spiritual site, a church carved in the face of the rock, a dwelling for hermits and pilgrims.
In any case, I found this whole visit to be one of the most surprising, and most interesting stops on my tour of the Dordogne. Brantôme is a lovely small village, and the whole history of troglodytic life in this region is certainly worth exploring.
The day I was there was hot – 360 C/ 970 F – and it was a real labor to get from the town’s parking to the centre ville in the heat. What a pleasure it was, then, to feel a stream of naturally chilled air pumping out of the cave complex, giving relief even 40 meters from the entrance to the grotto. On top of that, to learn that the classic Renaissance façade hides a history that stretches back to Charlemagne, and even further into the obscurity of our Neolithic ancestors – well, that made my day in Brantôme well worth the detour!
#4 - Souvigny is a medieval gem off the beaten path in the deep heart of France
I rolled into Souvigny on a hot summer afternoon and it seemed the whole town must be taking a siesta. The funk of rich vegetation moldering in the sunlight reminded me of an August afternoon on a farm in Virginia. A couple, murmuring in German as they walk toward one of the old houses, seemed to be the only other tourists in town. This is the Allier, the ancient region of France long governed by the Dukes of Bourbon. And if the nearby towns of Moulins and Montluçon represent the political power of this family, with their palaces and prisons, Souvigny is the spiritual center of the Bourbonnais. (To be fair: Souvigny was also the first capital city of this noble family. Aymard, the first known ancestor of the Bourbon line, lived here in the early 900s A.D., and the family didn’t relocate its headquarters to Moulins until the 13th century.)
At the town’s center, you’ll find the largest complex of religious buildings in the Auvergne. Here the Bourbon aristocrats invested in expanding the great network of churches associated with the Abbey at Cluny; here the Dukes and their families came for 400 years to be baptized, married and – inevitably – entombed in the priory church.
Souvigny is one of those places in France where the whole history is laid out graphically in the buildings that remain. As even the local tourism websites acknowledge, it is a little off the beaten path for tourists, even for a region of France that itself is not much on the radar of tourists from other countries. But it’s an authentically important and lovely place to spend an afternoon, and my objective on this blog is to introduce you to places and experiences you might otherwise never discover. If you’ve made it as far already as the Bourbonnais, if you’re visiting the great pop music museum in Montluçon or spending an enchanted evening in Moulins, it’s worth a trip up the D945 or the D138 to see this jewel – officially, since 2003, the “great Romanesque sanctuary of the Auvergne”.
#3 - MOULINS - Another Medieval Center of Power in the Deep Heart of France
I’ll always have a spot in my heart for Moulins. I had written before about how one wonderful evening in this town captured the essence of French food culture for me. This year, though, I had the chance to revisit Moulins as one of the most interesting, historically rich small towns in the deep heart of France.
This is the Bourbonnais, and this town was something like a second capital of the whole French kingdom during the reign of the great Bourbon dukes, who took Moulins as their capital city.
This incredible family included some of the most powerful figures in French history. First showing up in the 10th century, they married into the royal family in 1272. Since then, not only have several of the Dukes been intimate counsellors and officers to the King of France, their family name lives on through a network of connections that spread across Europe and lives on today. Henry IV, Louis XIII, Louis XIV (the “Sun King”), Louis XV, and Louis XVI all ruled in the name of the “House of Bourbon.” Even now, in the 21st century, the current King of Spain and Grand Duke of Luxembourg are Bourbons, too!
Moulins isn’t a big city – only around 30,000 people live there now – but it is fiercely proud of the leading role its people played in the modern history of France. And it’s always busy these days, whether in the little central square at Jacquemart or in the big, open Place Allier; there’s quite a café culture and evidence of real vitality in the commercial areas of town. For me, the combination of this modern energy and the beautifully preserved remnants of the past make Moulins one of my favorite places to visit in the deep heart of France!
#2 - Charroux is one of France's "Most Beautiful Villages"
As in many of France’s “most beautiful villages”, there’s a lot of rough and bloody history behind the quaint medieval facades you see today in Charroux.
It’s largely been turned into a pedestrian zone, so you can park at the town walls and walk the whole area in a few hours.
There are plenty of fine buildings to see from every period of Charroux’s history, including the Clock Tower and its belfry and other vestiges of the town’s defensive fortifications.
As Charroux has developed its “touristy” side, it has grown local artisanal industries in jellies, preserves and candle making, but they’ve been making exotic mustards here since at least 1790, when the Poulain brothers started distributing their little pots. We especially liked the concoction of apples “a la moutarde de Charroux”, and the “purple” mustard made from the local red wines of St. Pourcain, but you can also find flavors of green pepper, basilic, estragon, and others in the local shops.
Like other “most beautiful villages” of France, Charroux makes a wonderful day trip or long weekend in the agricultural heartland of the country. We’ve gone back repeatedly and always found something new to see in its narrow streets.
#1 - The great fortress at Castelnaud-la-Chapelle
For the past several months, our coverage of the ‘deep heart of France’ has expanded to include parts of the region known (since the consolidation of 2016) as Nouvelle Aquitaine. This recent agglomeration is the largest of the new administrative regions of France, so we're focusing just on the western parts – those that are still called the Limousin and the Dordogne.
One of our first visits in this area -- and my #1 favorite destination for 2017 -- is Castelnaud-la-Chapelle, another on the official list of France’s “most beautiful villages”. The Perigord Noir in Dordogne is one of the most historically rich corners of France, in an area inhabited for as long as there have been humans in Europe, a self-contained microcosm of the country’s past.
Castelnaud-la-Chapelle is only 20 minutes from the medieval center of Sarlat; three other “most beautiful villages of France” (Beynac, Domme, and La Roque Gageac) are less than 30 minutes away, and the fabulous boxwood gardens of the Chateau de Marqueyssac are visible from here, too.
But the castle is the main reason to come. This is not one of those small family keeps that are sprinkled on almost every hill in the deep heart of France – this is a massive fortress, one of the great military outposts that figures in so much of French history. In the beginning (in the 1100s C.E.), it was a Cathar stronghold, stolen away in 1214 by Simon de Montfort, the brutal warrior, veteran of the Fourth Crusade and newly-appointed leader of the crusading army that swept through the Cathar territories of southwestern France.
It’s somehow fitting that this great fortress, scene of so many violent encounters over the centuries, is home (since 1985) to an exceptional Museum of Medieval Warfare. There’s a collection of exotic weapons and armor, including some pieces unlike anything I’ve ever seen – the “organ” with 12 gun barrels fanned out to cover a huge swath of the battlefield, for example, a couple of “portable” cannons, and a giant crossbow capable of firing a massive bolt over 200 meters.
Among the more common weapons, the Museum has an amazing collection of crossbows, axes, spears, and harquebuses (predecessors to muskets). Many of these are little works of art in themselves, with ivory inlays and fine carvings giving an air of elegance to what would otherwise be a brutal instrument of war.
From the castle walls you can take in the spectacular views from a turret overlooking the Dordogne. The castle at Beynac is visible a little further down the river – itself an impressive, hulking fortress, one-time headquarters of Richard the Lionhearted and a formidable rival to this chateau. It’s easy to imagine for a moment the great rivalries that tore this region apart over a 600-year period, but a little hard in this green, settled landscape to imagine the bloody battles that were the literal expression of those rivalries.
Castelnaud-la-Chappelle turned out to be one of my favorite discoveries among the “most beautiful villages” in the deep heart of France -- and my #1 favorite destination of all my travels in France for 2017. Do you have a favorite village or town or historical site? What do you look for in choosing your destinations as you travel around the country? Please share your experience in the comments section below – and, while you’re here, please take a second to pass this on to others using your preferred social-media “share” buttons!