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 canals make it “the Venice of Portugal,” […]
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 this corner of […]
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 deep heart of France. We’re in the […]
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 at several points. Archeologists here have […]
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 as the blanks spots […]
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 question was about German culture and […]
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 in spite of the […]
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.
I roll into Souvigny on a hot summer afternoon and it seems the whole town must be taking a siesta. The funk of rich vegetation moldering in the sunlight reminds me of an August afternoon on a farm in Virginia. A couple, murmuring in German as they walk toward one of the old houses, seem to be the only other tourists in town.
People in France (and many other countries, too) are often described these days as being in a high state of anxiety about their physical security in the face of terrorism, crime, and escalating conflict. But try imagining a time when threats were so immediate that everything about your little town was built to ward off the danger. Today’s destination – La Sauvetat, a fortified village in the deep heart of France – transports you back to such a time in the long, violent history of the country. The villagers of La Sauvetat apparently came into their fears early, even before the town had a name. This is in one of the agricultural breadbaskets of France, only 12 miles (20 km) […]
Sometimes, as we all know, words and static images just aren’t adequate to capture a feeling or an impression you get in a faraway place – we need to see movement and the passing of time to get a better feel for what it might be like to visit a place we’ve never experienced for ourselves. Since I started this blog, I’ve put a lot of effort into explaining what the “deep heart of France” means to me. You’ve heard why I love Clermont-Ferrand and the Auvergne, and you’ve seen some of the towns officially recognized as being among “the most beautiful villages of France” – places like Blesle, Charroux, Arlempdes, and Salers.If you’ve stuck with this blog for long, […]
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 […]