MOULINS – A Medieval Center of Power in the Deep Heart of France

I’ll always have a spot in my heart for Moulins.  I’ve written before about how one wonderful evening in this town captured the essence of French food culture for me.  Today, though, we’re revisiting Moulins as one of the most interesting, historically rich small towns in the deep heart of France. When you roll into town on the D945 you know immediately this place is different.  Traffic flows constantly through the main square, with the pretty Town Hall on one side and a starburst of restaurants and medieval buildings on the other side of the road.  It’s a fine place for a long lunch and watching people on a sunny afternoon, but be sure to catch the showy chiming of the […]

Never Throw Anything Away – An Intro to the French “Plan d’Urbanisme”

A few weeks ago I was in Souvigny, a postcard-perfect town in the Allier, and it made me think of computer systems.  Well, in a roundabout way… The main square in Souvigny I first heard the phrase “plan d’urbanisme” when I was working in the Information Technology department of a big manufacturing company in France.  While it literally means “city planning”, in the context of IT it meant trying to figure out the thorny problem of how to integrate new applications and new technologies into an existing mass of old systems. But it set me thinking about how profoundly important the idea is for every town in France.  How do you put a subway underneath an ancient city like Paris […]

Castles - Central France

“Chateau” or “Big Country House”?

As you drive through the “deep heart of France”, you’ll regularly come across a massive house, usually sitting on top of a little hill or bluff and looking as though it’s been there forever.  There may be some evidence of fortifications – a guard tower, a thick wall around the garden, sometimes even a moat.  But is this a “chateau”?  Or just a big, old house in the country? The answer may be a little more complicated than you think.  Part of the issue comes from how freely the word “chateau” is used in French to describe many different types of dwelling.  It’s not just reserved for the traditional medieval castle – that’s a château fort in French and still […]

Medieval Montpeyroux is a “Most Beautiful Village of France”

Sometimes I come across one of the “most beautiful villages in France” that apparently gets more points for the vistas it overlooks than for what it actually contains.  Montpeyroux, for me, is one example. Not to say you shouldn’t visit – you should!  It is a lovely, neatly-kept little town with its own rich history deep in the Auvergne.  It’s easy to find, too; its prominent castle tower is visible to thousands of cars every day as they zip along the A7 (“La Méridienne), the major autoroute that connects Clermont-Ferrand to Béziers down on the Mediterranean coast. Within the city walls the first thing you’ll notice is how much lighter and brighter Monypeyroux looks compared to many other towns in […]

Lapalisse – The French Town Made Famous By A Pun

Well, you can’t miss THAT as you drive into town!  More than most places in France, Lapalisse is dominated – almost overwhelmed – by the great chateau that stands at its center.  Strangely, though, the town’s celebrity is due mostly to a mundane pun about one of its most famous historical figures. Not that many years ago, it was almost impossible to avoid Lapalisse if you went travelling through the Allier, one of the great “breadbasket” agricultural regions of France.  The first time I saw it was on a company bus trip from Clermont-Ferrand to see our factory in Montceau-les-Mines.  I woke up an hour into the trip to see this massive landmark with all the little local businesses clustered […]

Is That A Rooster on Your Church?

In almost every French village you’ll find a church.  And whether it’s old or new, Romanesque or Gothic, urban or rural, your eyes will be drawn up to the cross at the highest point on the church — and on top of the cross you’ll see … a rooster? I asked a French friend why this symbol is so pervasive on French churches.  After a little hesitation, he brightened and said “because a rooster is the symbol of France!”  Which is true – you’ll also see roosters perched on top of war memorials, town gates, and old coins.  But is that why it appears on top of the cross? Nope!  That response didn’t seem right to me, so I dug […]

On Working With the French 2 – The 35 Hour Work Week

I’ll bet every expat working in France has heard the same thing from a friend or relative during a holiday visit back home: “Wow, so you’re only working 35 hours a week!  What a sweet life that must be!” As you’ve already gathered from things I’ve written here and there, it can indeed be a sweet life to live and work in France.  But the misconceptions about how much French people actually work and how productive they are can make you crazy if you focus on them. Where do the misconceptions begin?  Everyone knows about the famous “35-hour law” passed in February of 2000.  Its main goal was noble: reduce unemployment, which in France was at 9.8% in the year […]

Medieval Charroux is one of France’s “Most Beautiful Villages”

  Occasionally you’ll pass through a French town that proclaims itself to be “une ville franche” – a “free city”.  There are even a couple dozen towns in France actually named some variant of “Villefranche” or (in the areas nearer to Germany) “Fribourg”, which means the same thing.   Charroux is officially “one of the most beautiful villages of France”.  There’s been a town here since Gallo-Roman times, but Charroux has also been one of these “free cities” since at least 1245 AD.  That means it shares the characteristics of many of the other French towns that have this distinction: It was given its autonomy from the feudal lords who controlled its region.  In an area frequented by war, famine, […]

Destination: Saint-Pourcain-sur-Sioule

The day was a little gloomy when I came to town, but Saint-Pourcain-sur-Sioule still managed to give me a lively, cheerful first impression. It’s a commune of about 5,000 people in the Allier département , about halfway between Moulins and Vichy.  If you’ve heard of it, it’s likely for the nice wines produced in the region – like those of the nearby Loire valley, they’re on the light side, with Gamay and Pinot Noir dominating the reds produced in this AOC.  (They also have some nice Chardonnay!) But for me, a couple of other things stand out as highlights of my time in Saint-Pourcain-sur-Sioule: The medieval church (the Eglise Saint-Croix) is worth the detour for several reasons.  Built in the […]

Clermont-Ferrand in Central France

Blaise Pascal – Towering Genius from the Deep Heart of France

The incredible thing about Blaise Pascal is… well, for me, almost everything.  He was one of those extraordinary intellects who come along too rarely in history, but like Mozart, like Shelley and Keats, he died before he turned 40, leaving us to wonder what else he might have done if he’d lived longer. I first encountered him when, as a young professor of computer science, I was asked to teach a class on “Pascal”.  In the 1980s it was a new, structured language for computer programming, a predecessor to some of the languages still used to write code.  It turned out that this very modern programming language was named for the 17th-century scientist and philosopher because, among his other inventions, […]

Clermont-Ferrand in Central France

8 Things We Love About Clermont-Ferrand

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 […]

Medieval Blesle is One of France’s Most Beautiful Villages

Hello – and best wishes to all of you for a healthy, successful New Year in 2017 (or, as the French say, “Meilleurs vœux pour ce nouvel an – que 2017 serait une année de bonne santé et la réussite de tous vos projets”). We start the new year in another of the most interesting places “off the beaten path” in the deep heart of France.  The first thing to know about the medieval town of Blesle is how to pronounce its name:  it’s BLELL, with no mention of the “s’.  This is officially one of the “most beautiful villages in France,” an hour south of Clermont-Ferrand in the rugged volcanic mountains of the Haute-Loire. The second thing to know:  […]