Enfin c’est le printemps !
It feels like winter has fought to hold on longer than it should this year in France. There’s been snow from Paris to the Mediterranean several times over the last few weeks, and the temperature tonight in Clermont-Ferrand will likely be close to freezing.
In fact, the arrival of spring in France this year reminds us of a lesson we learned the first time we moved there. We arrived in the Auvergne in early March 1997, and the weather was glorious – warm, brilliantly sunny, and welcoming. “Wow,” we thought, “we are REALLY going to like it here!”
A few weeks later, on Easter Sunday, we awoke to snow blocking out the sun, and when we went to the ancient church of Notre Dame du Port the cold radiated up through the stone floors and through our shoes as we wore our overcoats through the entire service.
Assuming the best for 2018
We’ll hope, though, that spring really IS here now that the official date has passed, because there are some great events to suit every taste coming to the deep heart of France this season. No matter what the weather brings, springtime is when people in almost every small village to empty their attics for the annual vide grenier sales, and most parts of the country already have plans for all kinds of festivals to celebrate the return of sunshine and warmth. Here’s a sampling of some of the best, most interesting things you can do when you visit:
April 1-2 : Hunt for Easter eggs in one of France’s most spectacular gardens
The Gardens at Marqueyssac are simply one of our favorite places to visit anywhere in France. Only 15 minutes from the medieval treasures of Sarlat-le-Caneda, surrounded by several villages on the list of France’s “most beautiful villages”, the exotic boxwood gardens at Marqueyssac have activities for everyone in the family.
On Easter Sunday and the Monday after, though, the price of admission will include a hunt for 6,000 brilliantly colored eggs. Children from 2 to 12 years old are welcome to participate in the event, which will also include workshops for coloring eggs and decorating Easter baskets.
Be aware, though: you must sign up in advance (click here to enroll) , and you should expect big crowds.
While you’re in the area, you should also visit at least one of the great castle fortresses at Beynac-et-Cazenac and Castelnaud-la-Chapelle, or rent a canoe on the Dordogne River to get the best views of La Roque Gageac.
April 28-30 : Take a virtual tour of some of France’s best culinary sites
One of our first “destination weekends” when we first moved to France was to Salers, another “most beautiful village” deep in the Auvergne. This spring would be a good time to go back for the village’s 21st Annual Expo of “Sites Remarquables du Goût” (“Remarkable Sites of Taste”).
The official program is still being finalized, but you can expect to encounter more than 35 artisanal food producers from every region of France with samples of their most exceptional specialties – wines from Alsace and St. Emillion, Bresse chicken, watercress from Méreville, Billom’s best garlic, truffles from Lalbenque, mussels from Mont St-Michel, olivettes from Nîmes, Le Puy en Velay’s famous green lentils… I may have to stop for lunch before I can go on!
Comté cheese will be the “honored invitee” for the event, but you can also sample the cheeses from Roquefort, St-Nectaire, and Salers itself. (In fact, plenty of local products will be on display at the expo, including the town’s eponymous liqueur and some of the best “red label” beef in France.)
In addition to all the vendor booths, you can expect to see fireworks, animal exhibits, and demonstrations of French rural traditions.
May 10-11 : The “Journées du Terroir" in Sarlat-le-Caneda
If you’re further west, you can catch a similar event if you’re willing to brave the crowds in the beautiful medieval streets of Sarlat in the Dordogne. The focus of their expo is much more local; the town promises to showcase “the richness of Périgordine gastronomy” – and, since the Périgord is home to some of the richest, most distinctive food in France, that’s saying a great deal indeed. Featured this year will be strawberries, nuts, fat poultry, sausages and hams, truffles, milk, honey, wines, and jams.
Like the expo in Salers, there will be other attractions, although here they’ll have more practical kitchen applications – how to cut up a goose, how to press nuts to extract their oil, how to make jellies, and so on.
May 11 – 13 : The Volvic Volcanic eXperience
The little village of Volvic, up in the volcanic mountains north of Clermont-Ferrand, has two claims to fame – its quarries are the source of many of the black lava stones that were used to construct some of the most distinctive landmarks in the Auvergne, and its springs produce over a billion bottles of the Volvic water that get shipped to more than 60 countries around the world every year.
It’s a great starting point for one of the best possible spring activities in France: the randonnée, or cross-country trek. This May, Volvic elevates the art by organizing an “experience out of time, a discovery of an exceptional territory fashioned by volcanoes, stone, and water…a sensory odyssey for sport enthusiasts and people of all ages.”
Wow! That translates into a program of vigorous activities highlighted on May 12th by 4 separate hiking and race running courses (3 of which are certified by the International Trail Running Association). They range in length from 15 km (9 miles) up to 83 km (about 49 miles), so you’ll need to be adequately in shape for the challenge you’re taking on (and if you want to participate in the additional sporting activities alongside some of the trails you’ll need to sign up in advance by clicking here. But Volvic promises an experience adapted to everyone, and this is one of the most beautiful natural areas in all of France, so plan to get there if you can!
May 19 : The “European Night of Museums”
To be fair, this special day is not at all limited to the deep heart of France – it applies to many of the museums in Paris and every other corner of the country, and even throughout Europe. For the 14th year running, more than 2,000 museums in 30 different countries will open their doors for free on the night of May 19th.
There are, of course, plenty of fine museums in central France. My personal recommendation makes a nice day trip from either Paris or Clermont-Ferrand: the terrific MuPop (Museum of Popular Music) in the ancient Bourbon capital of Montlucon.
Even if you’re not in the “deep heart” of France, though, be sure to check online to see whether your favorite museum will be participating in this night of free admission.
May 20 : OVERCOME! at Castelnaud-la-Chapelle
Back on your feet for another strenuous day of activity for the whole family in the setting of one of the most interesting castles I’ve encountered, this time in the Périgord region of the Dordogne. Castelnaud-la-Chapelle is officially one of France’s “most beautiful villages”, but the main attraction is the great fortress perched on top of the village bluff. Here you’ll find another of the most interesting museums I’ve seen, the Museum of Medieval Warfare (replete with working full-size reproductions of trebuchets and examples of every other possible medieval weapon you might imagine.)
On Sunday, May 20th, though, the castle will host OVERCOME!, a full day of family games and obstacle courses. (You can choose between 18 obstacles spread over 6 km [3.6 miles] or 26 obstacles along a 10 km [6 mile] course.) For the price of admission, you get access to the courses, a couple of gifts per person, and both lunch and dinner. Pricing is based on the date when you call to enroll, and enrollment is available only by telephone at +33.(0)126.96.36.199.42
Promoters of the event promise an “uncommon” day “from the sweat to the mud”, so dress accordingly and be prepared for huge crowds.
June 1 – 3 : Jumping Days at Moulins
If you prefer watching others perform (rather than getting in the “sweat and mud” yourself), the fine Allier town of Moulins will host an international Horse Jumping competition at the beginning of June.
I confess that the town is among m favorite places anywhere in the Auvergne. It’s one of the main capitals of the Bourbon family that dominated French and European royal politics for centuries, and a particular meal I enjoyed at the Hotel le Parc remains among my best memories of all my travels in the region.
In June, the central square in the National Center for Theater Costume will be converted into a ring to host an obstacle-jumping competition for horses and riders from around the world.
June 29 – September 22 : The 3rd «Concours d'épouvantails » at Brantôme
Of all the events on this list, this one sounds the most intriguing to me. An épouvantail is a scarecrow, and the beautiful village of Brantôme is hosting an ongoing display of original scarecrows in the town’s botanical gardens starting in late June and continuing through the summer. The public will vote on their favorites and prizes will be awarded in September.
The town itself, on the Dronne River in the Dordogne, is worth a trip. It’s sometimes called (at least in touristy brochures “the Venice of the Périgord,” and while a couple of gondolas on the river may not convince you, it’s the great abbey that will catch your attention. Supposedly founded by Charlemagne himself in 769 A.D., behind the abbey’s façade lies a complex of caves carved into the cliff that rises behind the village. 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.
… and if you just want to improvise…
If at some point this spring you find yourself with a free weekend and a desire to get outside into the sun, there’s always something you can find in the deep heart of France to make a sortie worthwhile! We loved browsing through the vide grenier sales in all the little towns around Clermont-Ferrand, but it’s also fun to check out the more “professional” markets in the city; the Saturday market at Place du 1ere Mai is heavier on antiques and decorative pieces, while the Sunday market at Place du Salins has a more authentic “flea market” vibe.
A huge number of the towns in central France are enrolled on the list of “villages fleuries” (“flowering villages”), so a free walk around the middle of town can also be a very pleasant way to spend a Saturday afternoon. In any case, I hope you enjoy this most beautiful and most promising season of the year wherever you find yourself in France!
Do you have a favorite springtime event in France? A place you recommend for enjoying the season? Please mention it in the comments section below…and please share this post with someone else who might be interested in French travel, culture, and history.