What's to Love About Central France?
It’s the first anniversary of this blog, and that has set me thinking (again) about why the deep heart of France means so much to me – an American from the Great Plains who found himself in late career living in the center of a foreign country. Given all the urgent issues the world throws at us, why spend time and energy on a subject so far outside my “natural” frame of reference?
As it happens, right now I’m reading The Pigeon Tunnel, John Le Carré’s extraordinary autobiography. He’s thought about this puzzle, too, first as a British spy and then as a novelist. Why focus on any “esoteric” subject? For Le Carré’, the question was about German culture and history rather than French – he studied German at Oxford, taught it at Eton, and set several of his best-known books in the swirling Cold War politics of recent German history. But he says something about this life-long obsession with all things “Germanic” that captures perfectly how I feel about my own 20-year engagement with France:
“It gave me my own patch of eclectic territory; it fed my incurable romanticism and my love of lyricism; it instilled in me the notion that a man’s journey from cradle to grave was one unending education – hardly an original concept and probably questionable, but nevertheless.”
It's Rich in Ancient History
Writing about central France – and learning what interests you most as a reader of this blog – has been an education for me in a category by itself. I was formally trained as a historian before I veered off into a long career in corporate I.T., so it’s not surprising to me that the posts about great historical events in the deep heart of France are the ones I’m most passionate about writing. It’s a way of coming back to a subject I’ve loved all my life. What is surprising is that you’ve enjoyed them, too.
At the top of the list for this year: our visit to Usson, a tiny place near Clermont-Ferrand in the Auvergne. In addition to being an official member of France’s list of “most beautiful villages”, Usson was the setting for the dramatic exile of the notorious Queen Margot, isolating her far from Paris during the Wars of Religion that ripped the kingdom apart in the late 1500s.
Her story was our most popular post in this first year, but it was joined in the top ten by others focused on other, more cataclysmic events that occurred over the centuries in the “wilderness” of the Massif Central. The story that’s closest to my heart tells how the First Crusade to the Middle East in 1095 was launched from a gorgeous Romanesque church in Clermont-Ferrand; I love the story because of the echoes it sounds even this week in the news of President Trump’s travels, and because I feel a particular aesthetic attachment to Notre Dame du Port, the beautiful ancient building where it all started.
You’ve let me know, too, that you liked other stories about the history of the deep heart of France. There have been people here almost as long as there have been people anywhere in Europe. The Romans came, too, and despite losing an epic battle near Clermont-Ferrand, they stayed and put down roots that are still visible across the region. And the sense of medieval times is present everywhere here, from the remote, romantic castles that seem to top every hill side in the region to the birth of the Bourbon dynasty in places like Moulins, Montlucon, and Souvigny.
But while the emphasis of modern history has certainly shifted north to Paris, it hasn’t bypassed central France – sou you'll also find in our “top ten” posts the stories of Gustav Eiffel’s astonishing constructions in the Cantal and the gorges of the Sioule river, as well as the story that even most French people don’t know about that one day in June 1940 when Clermont-Ferrand was actually the capital of France!
Central France is a Wildnerness Paradise
This rich history is evident everywhere – but it might not be the first thing you notice when you visit the deep heart of France for the first time. This is, in fact, one of the wildest and most beautiful parts of the country, very lightly populated compared to other regions and marked by spectacular natural scenes. The Cantal is rugged and isolated, a remote wilderness for skiers and fishermen; the Puy-de-Dome is memorable for its iconic chain of extinct volcanoes; the Allier is paradise for hikers, campers, and cyclists making their way through its deep river gorges and rich agricultural zones.
In fact, several of the official “most beautiful villages” we’ve seen this year in central France are notable as much for their spectacular natural setting as for the obligatory historical sites they contain. Arlempdes is like that, perched on a volcanic needle in the mountains of the Haute Loire. So is Montpeyroux, looking out over the vast open plain of the Limagne to the blue mountains of the Chaîne des Puys, the 80+ dormant volcanic peaks on the horizon. Apremont-sur-Allier counts in this category, too – it’s a postcard-perfect little town sitting on a bend of the Allier river at the end of a small departmental road, and our visit there also made our “top ten” list for this year.
I know for certain that the natural beauty of the landscape is part of the region’s appeal for me. I grew up in Oklahoma, on land as flat as my kitchen table and frankly with about as much aesthetic interest. For the most part, there are only two extended seasons there – one really hot, the other really cold – and outside the verdant northeast corner of the state, not much to look at on the horizon.
We were living in north Texas when I got the offer to move to France, and the contrast was immediate and breathtaking. This is a photo I took from the front steps of our second house in Clermont-Ferrand, capital city of the Auvergne, and it captures for me everything I love about central France –
the Puy-de-Dome looms over the city, changing color and appearance with the seasons. [It comes with a dose of that rich history, too – that’s a Roman temple to Mercury you see next to the telecom towers on top of the volcano!]
Want to see exactly what I’m talking about? Fortunately, the internet is well-supplied with professional videos that show how ancient and how gloriously beautiful central France can be. You can see examples in this post, which landed at #2 in our top ten; be sure to check out the flyover of the Cantal and the timelapse video of Clermont-Ferrand and the Chaîne des Puys to get a taste of why you might fall in love with the deep heart of the country.
It's a Great Place to Live
So there’s a lot in central France to appeal to the traveler who wants to get far from the beaten tourist paths that are so well known in other parts of the country. But there’s one other element that pushed me to start this blog, and it’s one to which many of you have responded positively – especially those among you who are expats living in France. It’s the differences in lifestyle, the differences in the way people act and in what’s important to them that we find so fascinating.
That fascination is also reflected in this year’s list of most popular posts. Whether we’re talking about the realities of the 35-hour work week, the things we loved about living and working in central France, or the stereotypes other French people hold about the region, it’s true that French style and French culture are interesting to many of us. Their legal system is not at all the same as those in America or England.; their approach to preserving and expanding upon ancient buildings is not like our experience in the U.S.
My personal favorite post in this category, though, was a reflection on a dinner experience I had in the little town of Moulins. In a single summer evening I found myself swept away by all the elements that make French cuisine so exceptional: quality ingredients prepared flawlessly and presented professionally (with strong support from a fine bottle of Bordeaux red wine). The unhurried service, the attention to detail, and the beautiful setting in an ancient Auvergnat town made the evening unforgettable – and landed this post in the “top ten” for this first year!
It's truly "the deep heart of France"
That’s a quick recap of this first year of writing about why you should go see central France. As year two begins, I'd love to hear from you. What should I be doing differently? What would you like to see more of in coming months? Do you have specific questions about French life and culture that you’d like to see discussed here? Many of you have been kind enough to comment on what I’ve written this year, and I’d be grateful to hear from you either in the comments section below or in an e-mail to me at firstname.lastname@example.org .
As I said in one of the very earliest posts on this blog,
“I want to write about and share my love of ‘the other France’ – the ‘deep heart of France’ –with other people who like the country and its people for whatever reason. I want to point out the stereotypes associated with Paris and show how people really live in the rest of France. I want you to see the gorgeous Romanesque architecture, the rugged mountains, the traces of Rome, the internecine feudal wars, the “great moments in history”, the continuity of life in places occupied since the first humans appeared on the continent – all things which are not even really well known to most French people. […] I'm proudly American, but I am a Francophile and proud of that, too. With DeepHeartOfFrance.com I want to share what I love – and to learn from you along the way!"
Do you feel a special affinity for France? How did you come to feel that way? What's your experience in the country? Please join the conversation below! (And please use the buttons for your preferred social-media platforms to share this post with everyone you know who might also be interested!)
With my sincere thanks for your time,