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 […]

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 […]

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:  […]

Clermont-Ferrand in Central France

Save Short Film If You Can! Clermont-Ferrand’s International Short Film Festival is Coming

Every winter, Clermont-Ferrand hosts “the second most important film festival in France” (after the well-known event in Cannes).  This February will bring the 29th edition of the International Short Film Festival, showcasing works from filmmakers around the world in addition to two thematic programs on the art of short film in Colombia and works of “black humor”. La Jetee is home to the International Short Film Festival in Clermont-Ferrand The 29th annual International Short Film Festival and 39th National Short Film Festival will be held from February 3rd to February 11th, 2017.   Ticket packages and information about hotels  are available on the Festival’s website. Read more about this exceptional event in my article on FranceToday.com , one of the best […]

The Chateau d’Avrilly and the Crash of La Republique

What do I love most about driving the back roads of central France?  Discovering a little corner of history that I would have missed if I only stuck to the guidebooks.  When I set out that day in September, my objective was the mysterious church at St Menoux, passing through Villeneuve-sur-Allier (and regular readers will know how badly that went!).  Early in the day, though, with the fog still settled in the valleys around the D133, I came to a sign pointing off into the woods and promising “Chateau d’Avrilly / XVè – XIVè”.  Great!  I was in a fine mood after my evening in Moulins, the September day was bright and warm, and I had no deadline to constrain […]

Castles - Central France

A Medieval Ruin Among the Sunflowers

Driving through the département of the Allier in central France can be like driving through Iowa or Illinois in summer.  You’re surrounded by the agricultural richness of the region – vast yellow fields, giant bales of hay ready to be loaded and stored, barns and farmhouses clustered in little compounds alongside the road.  The biggest difference?  There aren’t that many ancient châteaux in Iowa and Illinois! I was enjoying a drive like this a few weeks ago, taking the long way back from the extraordinary church at St Menoux to Moulins, when a medieval vision suddenly loomed over the little D-road in front of me.  It was the Château de Fourchaud (curiously spelled Fourchault on the road signs in the […]

Hidden Gems by Gustav Eiffel in the Deep Heart of France

The more I read about Gustav Eiffel, the more amazed I am at the variety and number of projects he and his company executed.  Among his early projects, I knew that the beautiful red arc of the Viaduct at Garabit was one of the most important things he did long before he built that famous tower in Paris. Viaduct de Rouzat But I was surprised to find that Eiffel was active in the deep heart of France long before even that.  As I drove the country roads along the great gorges of the Sioule river in the Auvergne, I caught a glimpse of a graceful dark line appearing from the trees on one side of the river and shooting across […]

AT SAINT MENOUX: A MEDIEVAL CURE FOR WHAT AILS US NOW ?

It’s worth going to Saint Menoux just for its fine Romanesque church.  In fact, there’s not much more to see in this bright little hilltop village near Moulins in the Allier département.  But my curiosity was heightened as I drove west on the D945 on a brilliant sunny morning in September.  As in so many places around France, there are big brown road signs signaling the attractions you can see in the area around you.  These are usually straightforward: “Château de Billy,” for example, or “Forêt de Tronçais”.  The sign for Saint Menoux was a puzzle, though.  Featuring a line drawing of something that looks like a coffin, it says (with no other explanation) “Saint Menoux et son débredinoire”. Not […]

DESTINATION: SALERS – One of France’s Most Beautiful Villages

I’ve talked elsewhere about towns that are designated as one of the “Most Beautiful Villages in France” (les plus beaux villages de France).  It’s not easy to get the honor — a city really has to work at meeting all the criteria.  This month’s destination — Salers — is one of the 154 French villages on the list.  Like many of them, it’s not somewhere you end up by accident — it’s remote, located in the Cantal region of the Auvergne, southwest of Clermont-Ferrand.  But for me it symbolizes what the designation of “most beautiful village” means.  The first time we went there was on a market day in summer.  The town was packed – local farmers selling the incredible […]

The Puy de Dome – An Icon of Central 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 […]

Central France - Cantal - Deep Heart of France

Eiffel – 5 Years BEFORE That Famous Tower

By the late 1800s, Gustave Eiffel was a busy and  well-known engineer, with projects not just in France but across Europe and as far away as Vietnam, Peru, Bolivia, Mexico and Turkey.  His company managed the construction of an astonishing variety of train stations, grand galleries, and bridges all over the world.  And while we all know something about a certain Tower in Paris, one of his most famous projects brought him to the deep heart of France five years before the Tower opened. Gustav Eiffel in 1888 (Source: Public Domain photo by Nadar via Wikimedia Commons) The Viaduc de Garabit was actually the idea of a bridge engineer named Léon Boyer, an interesting character in his own right who […]

Want to feel a chill in August in a secret corner of France?

One of the things I love most about exploring the “deep heart of France” is finding events and experiences that translate the region’s rich history into something I can taste, touch, see or hear for myself.  Today’s post is about one of the most extraordinary experiences you can have in central France, one which lets you go very far off the beaten path and be absorbed into one of the country’s hidden artistic delights. I’m talking about the great abbey church of La Chaise Dieu, where this August you can go for the 50th anniversary of an extraordinary classical music festival.   Photo  © 2016 Richard Alexander But…the town is synonymous with its great medieval abbey — the ancient Abbey […]