Is That A Rooster on Your Church?

In almost every French village you’ll find a church.  And whether it’s old or new, Romanesque or Gothic, urban or rural, your eyes will be drawn up to the cross at the highest point on the church — and on top of the cross you’ll see … a rooster? I asked a French friend why this symbol is so pervasive on French churches.  After a little hesitation, he brightened and said “because a rooster is the symbol of France!”  Which is true – you’ll also see roosters perched on top of war memorials, town gates, and old coins.  But is that why it appears on top of the cross? Nope!  That response didn’t seem right to me, so I dug […]

Clermont-Ferrand in Central France

Blaise Pascal – Towering Genius from the Deep Heart of France

The incredible thing about Blaise Pascal is… well, for me, almost everything.  He was one of those extraordinary intellects who come along too rarely in history, but like Mozart, like Shelley and Keats, he died before he turned 40, leaving us to wonder what else he might have done if he’d lived longer. I first encountered him when, as a young professor of computer science, I was asked to teach a class on “Pascal”.  In the 1980s it was a new, structured language for computer programming, a predecessor to some of the languages still used to write code.  It turned out that this very modern programming language was named for the 17th-century scientist and philosopher because, among his other inventions, […]

Romanesque Architecture in the Deep Heart of France

Romanesque buildings pop up often in these blog posts because there are so many of them in the deep heart of France — it’s hard to write about most of the small towns and historical centers of this region without mentioning “Romanesque” at least once! The church at St Menoux There are big basilicas and cathedrals like those in Clermont-Ferrand, Issoire, St. Nectaire, Brioude and St. Saturnin.  Some very beautiful examples of the architecture show up in small towns like St. Menoux and Salers.  Country church in the Auvergne There are even some ugly stubs of buildings and little country churches which are technically “Romanesque” even though they don’t conform to the aesthetic principles you might expect to see associated […]

Clermont-Ferrand in Central France

How Caesar Lost a Battle in the Deep Heart of France

The Plateau of Gergovia lies behind the skyline of Clermont-Ferrand The plateau at Gergovia isn’t necessarily the first thing you’d notice when you come to this area.  The great volcanoes of the Massif Central rise in the background and they’re more rugged, more beautiful than this lump of basalt.  Clermont-Ferrand lies at the plateau’s base, its brooding black lava cathedral dominating the city’s skyline.  But go to Google and search for images of “Vercingetorix” and you’ll get an idea why this unassuming mesa holds such mythic power in the history of France. This is the site of the only defeat Julius Caesar ever suffered as he and the armies of Rome swept through ancient Gaul.  Vercingetorix and his Arverni tribesmen […]

That One Day Clermont-Ferrand Was The Capital of France

For one remarkable day, Clermont-Ferrand was the capital of France…and it wasn’t even necessarily the strangest day of a very strange month month for the people who lived there. Things had fallen apart for France at an incredible speed in those earliest days of World War II. As the German armies approached, the French government abandoned Paris in early June, 1940. Président du Conseil Paul Reynaud and his ministers landed first in Tours before ending up in Bordeaux.  This was a government in chaos, shocked by how easy it was for Hitler’s armies to blast past the Maginot Line of defense, and paralyzed by the conflict between ministers who wanted to continue the fight and those who were ready to […]

What Happened In This Medieval Church Echoes in Our Headlines Today

Note to all my readers:  I’ve wrestled with whether or not to publish this post.  It was written just BEFORE the horrible attack of July 26th in which Father Jacques Hamel was murdered and one of his parishioners gravely injured by two terrorists acting  “in the name of ISIL” during services in the church at  Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray.  Then an extraordinary thing happened:  On Sunday July 31st, in churches all across France — including the Cathedral of Notre Dame de l’Assomption in Clermont-Ferrand, just up the hill from the subject of this post — Muslims joined with Christian congregations to demonstrate solidarity and to express their rejection of terrorists.  As one imam of a mosque in Vichy explained, “By our presence, we […]

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 […]