This week I’m missing my “second home”: Clermont-Ferrand, capital city of the Auvergne, one time capital of France for a day, and the largest city in the deep heart of France.
We lived there for seven years (split between two different expat assignments), and I’ve spent several weeks there every year when we weren’t living there for the last 19 years. Why do I like this place so much? Here are my 8 favorite things about Clermont-Ferrand:
Notre Dame du Port. This is the older of Clermont’s two main churches, and it is rich in history – Pope Urban II launched the first of the Crusades during a conference here in 1095. So although I’m not at all Catholic I love the sense that people have been coming here for almost a thousand years, week in and week out.
I love, too, the Romanesque aesthetic of the building – it’s thick walls make it a great retreat from the summer heat, and its perfectly-proportioned arches, painted chapels, and ornamented columns give me a feeling of calm and quiet. No wonder I spent so many of my lunch hours sitting in one of its little wicker chairs contemplating the church’s interior!
Several local restaurants. If I had to pick one, it would be Fiesta Grande, in rue des Chaussetiers. It’s tiny and reservations are essential – they’ve been selling out both seatings almost every night for at least the last 19 years. But when we moved from Texas to France, we were grateful to find such an excellent Tex-Mex place with an owner who’s always been congenial and a killer freshly-made Margarita.
Other great choices: The 1513 (so named because that’s when the Renaissance house it occupies was built) is high on local ambiance and specializes in the heavy cheese-potato-bacon truffaude that’s the most characteristic dish of the Auvergne. And I’ve especially come to appreciate L’Avenue, another small place (although they’ve just finished an expansion) run by a young couple who seriously know how to cook and serve classic French cuisine.
The medieval streets of the centre ville – and particularly the sweep of the Rue de Gras up to the steps of the “black” cathedral (Notre Dame de l’Assomption). It’s true that Clermont-Ferrand has something of an industrial character once you’re outside the city’s center – but true, too, that its medieval quarter is large and well-preserved. As in so many European towns, there are places where you can walk down a small street and touch the walls on both sides. There are half-timbered houses and a few Renaissance gems. And, as everywhere else in the Auvergne, many of the buildings are built of the characteristic gray/black lava blocks quarried from local volcanic sites, all giving the city a distinctively somber cast.
The Jardin Lecoq. This is the place to go when you need fresh air and something brighter to see. There’s been a formal park open to the public since 1865; twice a year, 25,000 annuals are planted to complement the 300 or more ancient trees that shade the area. There’s a small brasserie where you can stop for ice cream, a nice fountain in the pond, and the relocated portal to Blaise Pascal’s birthplace. The Jardin is open most of the daylight hours and is a great place for a long walk, a long quiet hour of reading on one of the benches, or (if you have little ones) a session on the play stations.
Place de Jaude. The beating commercial heart of the city, the Place de Jaude is a vast open space surrounded by stores, cinemas, and restaurants. On any reasonably nice day (even Sundays when most stores are closed) crowds of people stroll the square, which is book-ended by the 17th-century Church of Saint-Pierre-des-Minimes at one end and by a multi-story, contemporary shopping complex at the other. In between: the great statue of Vercingetorix (French hero of the Roman wars) done by Bartholdi and a statue to Napoleon’s famous general, Desaix.
Sunsets. We never got a definitive explanation on why sunrises and sunsets were so much more spectacular in Clermont-Ferrand than anything we ever saw back in Texas … but they are! My suspicion is that it’s a combination of the angles produced at such a northern latitude and in such a hilly region – but if you have a better explanation I’d love to hear it. In any case, they came so regularly that we consider this one of the best parts of life in central France. In our second expatriation, we were lucky enough to find a house on the hill looking southwest over the city and were rewarded with some of the most spectacular light shows nature can offer.
Just writing about these aspects of Clermont-Ferrand and looking through these photos has sharpened my desire to get back there again as quickly as possible – time to start planning now, I think!
What are your favorite sights and experiences in this part of France? Please take a second to share what you’ve seen in the comments below – and please don’t forget to share this post with others using one of the social-media buttons below.