Tours de Merle Correze Medieval Castle Chateaux Castrum

A Must-See in Central France: The Tours de Merle, a “gated community” for medieval aristocrats

“C’est magnifique” The site of Les Tours de Merle has everything I love most about traveling in the “deep heart of France”: castles, a little medieval mystery, a little wild nature, and a challenging hike up a very steep hill.  On the day I came to town, I stopped on the side of the sharply winding “D” road to photograph the towers when a French motorcyclist pulled up next to me.  “Mais qu’est-ce que c’est?” he demanded.  I explained what I knew already about the site.  He stared for a long, quiet minute, then drew in his breath.  “C’est magnifique,” he said softly, “c’est vraiment magnifique”.  I couldn’t agree more.    It’s not a castle! The first thing you have […]

France Auvergne Puy de Dome Volcano

How to see the Puy de Dome – Icon of the Deep Heart of France

The Puy de Dome – actor on the stage of French history Napoleon III came to Clermont-Ferrand in 1862, and everyone wanted to make a great impression.  Why not take advantage of the great volcanic peaks that rise behind the city’s skyline and produce something spectacular for such a rare and important visitor?  A great artificial eruption was organized at the top of the Puy de Dome, with 600 piles of wood and a one-ton mix of resin and oil.  But when the great moment arrived…pffft.  The “eruption” fizzled.  The emperor and his wife were puzzled to see great clouds of black smoke roiling up from the mountain top instead. It’s not the only time the Puy de Dôme has […]

Marqueyssac Dordogne Perigord Gardens France

The Gardens at Marqueyssac – one of France’s great tourist destinations in the Dordogne

A long walk on a perfect day A well-traveled cynic might call the Chateau de Marqueyssac a “manufactured” tourist experience.  For Karen and me, though, these extraordinary gardens in the Périgord Noir (Dordogne) are among the best-managed, most family-oriented places we’ve found anywhere in the deep heart of France.  And they are the perfect setting for a long walk on a spring afternoon. The same family has owned this property since 1692, and they take pride in saying that Marqueyssac has been “laid out for the pleasure of taking a walk.”  We’re 130 meters (427 feet) above the Dordogne, looking out across the great river’s valley.  From here you can see at least four of France’s official “most beautiful villages” […]

Vic-sur-Cère Auvergne Cantal France

Vic-sur-Cère is a taste of royal history in the deep heart of France

A trip to a little-known corner of France Vic-sur-Cère is a good example of the places I find most interesting as I travel around the deep heart of France.  It’s not on the official list of France’s “most beautiful villages” – although it probably could be, if residents made the effort.  It’s not a tourist mecca during the August vacations, although it gets a 1-star recommendation in the Michelin Green Guide for the region.  It’s the kind of place that, when you do a search for “things to do in Vic-sur-Cère”, you get a list of all the nearby towns where there really are “things to do.” In fact, this little village appears to live quietly with its rich history, […]

Brantôme Dordogne Troglogyte

There’s a Huge Surprise Behind this Medieval Façade in Brantôme

Brantôme – the “Venice of the Perigord” Our coverage of the ‘deep heart of France’ has expanded to include parts of the region known (since the consolidation of 2016) as Nouvelle Aquitaine.  This recent agglomeration is the largest of the new administrative regions of France, so we’ll confine our attention just to the eastern parts – those that are still called the Limousin and the Dordogne by old-timers like me!  Even as the real city of Venice looks for ways to reduce the throngs of visitors who come every year, tourist boards everywhere else seem anxious to declare their locales to be “the Venice of” wherever they happen to be.  In addition to the beach in California, for example, Aveiro’s […]

Autumn Auvergne France

Autumn Color From the Deep Heart of France

Fall in France Color is not the only signal that autumn has arrived in central France.  The smell of wood smoke becomes pervasive in the areas just outside town, early-morning frosts form on the windows.  At work, the first chilly day means a cold day in the office as the radiators clank and wheeze their way back into action after the long summer.  People in the street shiver in winter clothes (even though the temperature is still in the 50s or 60s [12 – 18 C]) , woolly scarves wound around their necks up to the bridge of their noses, heavy layers of sweaters and pea-coats covering the rest.  It’s harvest time, too, and as people have been doing in […]

Mont Mouchet Auvergne Resistance Maquis

At Mont Mouchet, the Largest Gathering of the French Resistance

A battlefield on top of a mountain Old battlefields are sometimes hard to decipher.  As the years pass, even deep shell craters lose their sharp definition, bullet marks on stone walls are worn down, and the whole landscape takes on a settled, green calm that belies the violence that once marked the place.  A great effort of imagination is required to reconstruct troop movements and the profound drama of long-ago conflicts. That’s especially the case today as I finally arrive at the top of the hill at Mont Mouchet.  In early June 1944, at the same time all hell was unleashed on the beaches of Normandy far to then north, another battle was unfolding in this unlikely corner of the […]

Bourbon Chateau Billy Auvergne

DESTINATION: The Chateau de Billy and Bourbon-l’Archambault

A surprising town in the Haut-Allier I’ve come to Bourbon-l’Archambault on a market day, which means there’s not a parking place left in town and traffic stops completely while people weave around the cars to cross the street.  In fact, I came here to see the Chateau de Billy, the town’s most prominent feature.  But it’s quickly clear that the Chateau is in its own separate little village, although effectively merged with Bourbon-l’Archambault.  And it’s quickly clear, too, that there’s much more than I’d imagined to this community in the Haut-Allier region of the Auvergne. It all starts with the water – hot and full of minerals, bubbling up at a constant 1310 Farenheit (550 Celsius) from underground volcanic sources […]

Julien Brioude Auvergne

St Julien’s in Brioude Gets a Third Michelin Star

When History Is Silent Whether you’re in Paris or driving through a small town in the deep heart of France, you may wonder about the big gap in the history that’s still visible.  There are spectacular Roman ruins, then a jump forward to medieval buildings everywhere, but almost no evidence that anything happened in between; you know there were people living there in the 3rd and 5th and 8th centuries, but it’s as if they never built anything.  Today’s post is about someone who lived in that era.  (Historians these days are reluctant to use the old term “Dark Ages” because it sounds pejorative and civilization was in a high state of evolution during the period – but as far […]

Central France - Auvergne - Clermont-Ferrand

Why You Need to Go To Central France

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 […]

Montlucon Bourbonnais Auvergne

Montluçon – Medieval Home of the Bourbon Dukes

A Saturday Afternoon Event A wedding is about to start when I arrive in Montluçon on a humid Saturday afternoon.  The church – the Eglise Saint Pierre – was built in the 12th century, so I do the math.  If you assume 1 wedding a week (and that’s probably estimating on the low side), that means more than a thousand couples have gotten married here over the centuries – and this is only one of several significant churches in town. A family crowd is gathered in the little square by the main doors of the church.  The bride, her train held off the cobblestones by a teenage girl, is being tended by her mother, who’s wearing a long black gown […]

Royat Auvergne

Travel back to the Belle Epoque — Visit ROYAT in the Deep Heart of France

A scene from a Renoir painting To understand the little town of Royat, imagine yourself strolling through an elegant park with a crowd straight from a painting by Renoir – men in straw boaters and morning coats, women in flowing dresses with bright flowers and velvet hats.  Imagine, as the local guides say, “walking in the footsteps of Napoleon III, the Empress Eugénie, the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), King Leopold II, or the Maharajah of Patiala…”  In short, imagine yourself stepping back into the glory days of Belle Époque France – but in a place far from the chic salons of Paris. Postcard from Royat, c. 1895 At first glance, Royat is a town trapped in time and […]