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 11th and 12th centuries, it’s an early example of the Gothic style, but it’s vaulted ceiling is constructed entirely of wood. It’s a striking effect, particularly when you’re accustomed to the high stone vaults in all the ancient Romanesque churches that appear so frequently in this part of the deep heart of France.
It’s interesting, too, that this is a rare example of what once was common in towns like this: since real estate in the centre ville was so highly valued, the walls of the north side of the Eglise Saint-Croix are encrusted with shops and houses built right onto the side of the church! This was common practice in medieval towns, but in most cases elsewhere the church walls have been cleared of all these extra structures so you can see the main building. Here, though, they’ve largely been left standing, and you can get a real sense of just how dense and crowded the place would have been in the Middle Ages.
The other thing that struck me about Saint-Pourcain-sur-Sioule? Sadly, the town was the site of an internment camp where Jews, Gypsies and others were held during World War II. (At least 11 such camps were set up in the Allier during the war, usually as first points of detention before their victims were sent East to the larger Nazi prisons.)
In most places, there’s no recognition at all of this fact, but Saint-Pourcain has at least made the first effort to recognize this ugly stain on its history by constructing a monument to those who were deported. Given the general impulse to sweep this history under the rug, I found this small memorial to be quite moving in its own way.
Of course, there are other notable things to see in a town this size. Saint-Pourcain-sur-Sioule had the good fortune to be the site of a royal mint in the Middle Ages, and when Louis XI “emancipated” the town from Church rule, its residents built the Tour de l’Horloge (the Clock Tower) to celebrate.
Since this is a wine-making region, there’s also a good museum on the history of Saint-Pourcain wines. It’s in a 16th-century house just off the main square, and features several rooms dedicated to the processes and tools used to make the town’s signature product.
Several cafes by the main road give you an opportunity to absorb a little more of Saint-Pourcain’s ambience (and some of the aforementioned signature product, if you want!).
You can watch, too, as the Sioule River flows past along the edges of the centre ville on the way to its intersection with the Allier. And no matter which direction you take when you leave town, you can consider this a few hours well spent on your journey through the deep heart of France!
What’s your favorite destination in central France? Please let us know in the comments section below – and if you would, please take a moment to share this post with others on Facebook, Twitter, StumbleUpon or Flipboard.