Arnac-Pompadour Pompadour Arnac Corrèze Nouvelle-Aquitaine Horse Horses Castle Chateau France Travel

DESTINATION: Arnac-Pompadour and the ‘National Stud Farm’ in the Deep Heart of France

For centuries, France had a king and thousands of titled aristocrats – that’s not surprising news.  What might be surprising, though, is how often the vestiges of that old royal system still pop up in travels around the country today. That struck me particularly last summer as I drove north from Brive-la-Gaillarde when I saw a sign pointing off to Arnac-Pompadour and “l’haras national de France”.  I love horses, so I knew what the word meant – a haras is a stud farm.  But really, a national stud farm?  Where else but in France would you find such an unusual institution? That got the best of my curiosity, so I took a serendipitous detour from my intended destination and headed […]

Limoges porcelain Limousin France

See the whole history of Limoges porcelain in the Deep Heart of France

As scandals go, this one was not the classic “tempest in a teapot”.  You’d have to call it more a “tempest in a touristy coffee mug”.  In any case, it got a surprising amount of coverage in the French press last month when the gift shop at the Elysée Palace discovered souvenir mugs stamped “Made in Limoges” were not made of Limoges porcelain at all.  In fact, they may not even have been manufactured in France! The Elysée is President Macron’s official residence in Paris, so that automatically made this news a “political” subject.  Still, it struck me that there’s a kind of sad undertone to this story.   In fact, it reminded me of something I read in an […]

Murol Chateau Castle Auvergne Cantal France Medieval Renaissance

Is Murol the coolest medieval castle in the deep heart of France?

A user on Quora recently asked me “What are the best castles in France?”  I listed some of my favorites — Beynac, Castelnaud-la-Chapelle, Polignac, Les Tours de Merle – with a focus on places removed from the “standard” touristy sights of the Loire Valley.  But as I worked on my answer, it struck me that I have never actually written about my favorite chateau in all of France — the massive defensive fortress of Murol, in the mountains of the Cantal. Today’s post is meant to correct that error and introduce you to one of the best overall tourist destinations in the deep heart of the country. I’ve made several visits to Murol just for the pleasure of photographing it.  […]

Montferrand Clermont Clermont-Ferrand Auvergne Puy-de-Dome France

5 Reasons to Visit Montferrand in the Deep Heart of France

It would be easy to understand if the people of Montferrand carried some kind of grudge.  Its name has all but disappeared as an independent entity from maps of France.  When people talk about Montferrand these days, it’s mostly considered a quartier or neighborhood in the larger urban context of Clermont-Ferrand.  But buried in that hyphenated name is a rich history of conflict and royal intervention — and some modern-day attractions that make Montferrand worth a visit all by itself. The first thing to know about Montferrand is that it was a deliberate creation, not like other French towns that grew over time because they are at an advantageous bend in a river or on some natural defensive placement.  No, […]

Sarlat-la-Canéda Sarlat Dordogne Perigord France Europe

5 Reasons to Make Sarlat-la-Canéda Your Vacation Headquarters

We’ve been to Sarlat-la-Canéda (most people just say “Sarlat”) several times, and each visit reveals more to love about this fine medieval town in the Dordogne region of France.  Yes, it can be crowded and touristy on peak days in peak season – that’s why one of our favorite trips was in late February, when the market days are quieter and the chill wind makes passing an evening with a good bottle of local wine and a plate of fresh foie gras all the more inviting.  Even if you can only go at the height of the summer, though, it’s one of those sites that genuinely merits your attention. Here are 5 great reasons to plan your next holiday using […]

Polignac Chateau Castle Auvergne Velay France

4 Things We Learned at the Great Chateau at Polignac

When I wrote my first post for this blog back in 2016, I focused on the choice we made for our very first weekend after we moved to the Auvergne for our initial expat assignment, now more than 20 years ago. Our plan was to take a daytrip to Le Puy en Velay but we got so distracted by the extraordinary sight of the crumbling ruins of a great castle, the Chateau de Polignac, sailing like a clipper ship on a plateau of basalt near the highway, that we took a detour to explore it first.   The sun’s brightest rays seemed to settle on it, and we could see from miles away how unassailable this powerful fortress must have […]

The surprising secret at Saint Menoux – could it be a medieval cure for a modern problem?

Karen and I will see Hamilton when we get to London in a couple of weeks, so I’ve been reading the Ron Chernow biography of Alexander Hamilton that inspired the hit musical.  Among many new discoveries, it’s reminded me over and over again that nothing in history is ever really new or original.  Think the idea of “fake news” is something modern?  Thomas Jefferson said of the press in early America, “nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper.”  And if you’re distressed by the crassness of public discourse in the age of Twitter, you might find some comfort in knowing our forefathers routinely engaged in the kind of invective that would make a Russian bot blush. […]

Le Puy en Velay Auvergne Haute-Loire Compostella France

You must see Le Puy en Velay – a Medieval Treasure on the Pilgrim’s Route to Compostella

The broad stone steps are still slippery from the rain as I start up the side of the rocky needle toward the Chapel of St. Michel d’Aighuile.  I pick my way carefully as I climb…97…98…99….100.  The building up at the top is tiny, meant for dozens of people, not a crowd.  It’s 269 feet in the air, overlooking the city of Le Puy en Velay and the valley of the Haute-Loire.  The Romans probably came up here to worship at an altar dedicated to Mercury, and the original Christian shrine was likely much smaller than what we see today – a graceful little 12th-century chapel with a claustrophobic Romanesque vault and several ancient frescoes still visible on the wall.

Tours de Merle Correze Medieval Castle Chateaux Castrum

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

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.    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3E1lKf3bjSo The first thing you have to know – the site’s […]

France Auvergne Puy de Dome Volcano

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

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 figured in French history.  More notably, it was an important part of […]

Marqueyssac Dordogne Perigord Gardens France

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

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

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, proud of the role it played in the […]