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 […]

Brantôme Dordogne Troglogyte

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

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,” […]

Autumn Auvergne France

Autumn Color From the Deep Heart of 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 this corner of […]

Mont Mouchet Auvergne Resistance Maquis

At Mont Mouchet, the Largest Gathering of the French Resistance

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 […]

Bourbon Chateau Billy Auvergne

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

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 […]