Valence France

VALENCE: France’s “Gateway to the South” has a big-city feel

I’m not a jaded traveler – but neither am I easily surprised.  Valence did it, though, more than most of the places I’ve visited in France in the past year.  It’s a lovely small city that feels much larger and more urban than I expected.  It’s sophisticated for its size – one of its leading families put the city on the map as one of the great destinations for gourmet dining in France!  And with one foot in the Midi and the other in the deep heart of the country, it’s ideally positioned to be your base for exploring a part of France you might never see otherwise.     https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nIqAy4oN1KQ Some of Valence’s sophistication is easily explained: this is […]

Délicieux – a good story about good food set in the deep heart of France

OK, it’s not actually a true story – but the 2021 film Délicieux is a good story (“93% fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes), and for the purposes of this blog it’s a perfect story because it unfolds in the Cantal, one of the most beautiful regions in the deep heart of France.  Directed by Eric Besnard, the comedy is available now to stream on Amazon Prime and YouTube Movies. In the movie, Grégory Gadebois plays Manceron, an extraordinary, if sometimes temperamental, chef who gets dismissed from his position cooking for a French duke.  What did he do wrong?  For a banquet with the duke’s distinguished guests, he made a dish (one of 40!)  that includes potatoes at a time when the […]

Château de Commarque

Visit Commarque – an incredible ruined castle with prehistoric roots

Since 2016, I’ve written more than 160 posts exploring the exceptional places I’ve seen in the deep heart of France, so I don’t say this lightly: the Château de Commarque is unique among the most moving experiences I’ve had traveling in this region.  I’ve taken hundreds of detours down country roads and visited dozens of other old castles over the last 25 years; by my count, I’ve written about 34 of them just for this blog.  But after a while, many of them start to look similar – they are piles of rocks where the outlines of a castle remain, perhaps, or slightly shopworn old family manors. Don’t misunderstand — just about every château is interesting in some way.  But […]

Saint-Nectaire is not just about that world-famous cheese

My first impressions of Saint-Nectaire formed during a freezing, dark winter week I spent there several years ago – and those impressions weren’t necessarily all positive. For obvious reasons: the place is remote, 50 minutes southwest of Clermont-Ferrand, and the town relies heavily on summer tourism. We were there for a series of meetings with my company’s business partners, and by the time our day had finished everything except our hotel’s restaurant and a single pizza place was closed, and none of the other local attractions was available to visit.       Last summer, though, I finally saw Saint-Nectaire as it is meant to be seen – and this time around I was charmed.  The shops and tourist sites […]

Hérisson village in Bourbon region of France

Hérisson is high on the list of “Villages Preferred by the French”

To be fair, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I came to Hérisson last summer.  For a few months I had seen clips in the French press ranking the town on the list of  “villages préférés des Français.”  But France is among the best in the world at creating labels to promote tourism in towns of every size in every region of the country.  There’s the official list of “Most Beautiful Villages,” for example, but there’s also a designation for “Small Cities of Character”, “Cities of Flowers,” and so on. So what might I find in  Hérisson?  Would it be a place ready to receive thousands of tourists, like so many towns in France where the medieval charm is […]

Building a new “medieval” castle at Guédelon

Before I went to Guédelon, I’d never really heard much about “experimental archeology.”  For me, archeology seemed more a discipline based on pre-existing evidence – concrete objects, things you find in the ground or at the bottom of the sea.  The interpretation of those objects is often open to conjecture (is this pottery shard part of a wine jar or was it a piece of the sculpture of some deity?), but in most cases you couldn’t really devise an experiment to prove the theory one way or the other. As on so many subjects, though, I was wrong.  There’s a whole formal branch of archeology devoted to testing our conjectures about how people lived and how they made things by […]

Le-Chambon-sur-Lignon – a “Righteous City” in the Deep Heart of France

Most of the places I cover in this blog have something concrete that evokes an emotional response in me – old buildings in which I can feel the weight of history, a festival or a market that makes me feel connected to a place’s daily life, or some spectacular natural site that overwhelms my senses.  My visit to Le-Chambon-sur-Lignon was not like that, though. This is a town that moved me profoundly, not because of its “touristy” attractions, but because of the power of its reputation.  It’s a reputation for kindness and care in the face of great evil – a reputation that places Le-Chambon-sur-Lignon among the rarified company of places known as a “Ville des Justes Parmi les Nations” […]

Saint Flour is a “Town for All Centuries” in the deep heart of France

Cet article est dédié à Marie-Thérèse, Sanfloraine exceptionnelle et le professeur qui m’a appris à parler français et à profiter au maximum de notre expatriation en France. There are several towns in central France that are famous mostly for “being medieval”.  Many of them are immaculately restored; they give you an idea of how they must have looked in the 13th or 14th centuries.  (Think of the incredible ensemble of medieval architecture in Sarlat-la-Caneda or the settings right out of The Three Musketeers in the “most beautiful village” of Pérouges.)  They exist now primarily as tourist attractions where the curious traveler can have a window into life as it might have been in the distant past.   And on first […]

Is Vichy a destination? Or a regime? (Part 2)

On June 22, 1940, a somber caravan of cars and trucks arrived in Vichy, a spa town in central France.   They brought with them the principal political luminaries and the mechanics of bureaucracy for what remained of the French government after the Nazi army occupied Paris.  Eight decades later, the town still struggles to restore its image as one of Europe’s most historic luxury resorts. In last week’s post, I talked about all the great reasons to visit Vichy in the deep heart of central France:  it’s a resort town with a rich history, a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its amazing thermal spas, a city full of remarkable examples of Belle Epoque architecture and first-class recreational opportunities.  On […]

Is Vichy a destination? Or a regime? (Part 1)

On June 22, 1940, a somber caravan of cars and trucks arrived in Vichy, a spa town in the deep heart of France. They brought with them the principal political luminaries and the mechanics of bureaucracy for what remained of the French government after the Nazi army occupied Paris. Eight decades later, the town still struggles to restore its image as one of Europe’s most historic luxury resorts.   Karen and I have spent a lot of time in Vichy over the years, but I’ve hesitated to write about it because it’s still hard for me to understand all the real complexities that make up the character of the place.  On the one hand, it’s the lovely and luxurious spa […]

Explore the link between Coco Chanel and the ancient Abbey at Aubazine

How did a 900-year-old abbey deep in the heart of France become associated with Coco Chanel, one of the most iconic names in 20th-century fashion?  Today, we’re visitng the great abbey at Aubazine in the Corrèze, that département that lies wedged between the very popular tourist destinations of the Dordogne and the rugged peaks and valleys of the Cantal.  Like the Cantal, the region of Corrèze is not one of the most common destinations for American and British tourists – but it has its own history and a gorgeous, wild landscape that merit closer attention.     https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_3Zgk8S5njw In that sense, Aubazine is a typical example of the region.  This video will give you the sense of how isolated the […]

Royat Auvergne

Lupin – the most popular show ever on Netflix – may have roots in the deep heart of France

Karen and I just watched all five episodes of Lupin, the French series that is dominating the Netflix popularity charts around the world.  We love a good “heist” story – and Lupin starts with a very good one – but it evolves into something even better:  a story about a “gentleman thief”, a hero who operates outside the law but is driven by a bigger sense of justice and “doing the right thing”.  (Think The Equalizer but with some elegance and a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor.)  The series also makes for a good opportunity to practice your French, if you’re inclined that way; you can watch it dubbed in English, or reset the language to French and turn on English […]