Destination: Souvigny, a medieval gem off the beaten path in the deep heart of France

Coming into Souvigny

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. 

Souvigny - Allier - Bourbonnais - Deep Heart of France

A woman, formally dressed in a business suit and white starched blouse, comes out from the church to a public fountain in the village square, pumps just long enough to fill a small plastic pitcher, and ducks back into the cool of the church’s interior.  A car door slams somewhere on a side street; otherwise, at 2:00 on a Tuesday afternoon, this town of just under 2,000 people is taking shelter from the heat rising in waves from the cobblestone streets.

Souvigny - Allier - Deep Heart of France

First capital of the Bourbons

We are in the Allier, the ancient region of France long governed by the Dukes of Bourbon.  And if the nearby towns of Moulins and Montluçon represent the political power of this family, with their palaces and prisons, Souvigny is the spiritual center of the Bourbonnais.  (To be fair: Souvigny was also the first capital city of this noble family.  Aymard, the first known ancestor of the Bourbon line, lived here in the early 900s A.D., and the family didn’t relocate its headquarters to Moulins until the 13th century.)

Architecture that grows organically

At the town’s center, you’ll find the largest complex of religious buildings in the Auvergne.  Here the Bourbon aristocrats invested in expanding the great network of churches associated with the Abbey at Cluny; here the Dukes and their families came for 400 years to be baptized, married and – inevitably – entombed in the priory church.   

Souvigny is one of those places in France where the whole history is laid out graphically in the buildings that remain.  Exhibit one: the priory church of St. Pierre and St. Paul.  There was a Christian church here as early as 920 A.D., but it began to morph into the giant complex you see today sometime after 1060.  A second campaign of building in the 12th and 13th centuries added five more naves, a couple of towers, and several Romanesque chapels.  As these structures began to decay, another campaign in the 15th century restored all the main features and added more ornamentation, more great art, more tombs for successive Dukes of Bourbon.  Beginning in 1769, another building – a Baroque sacristy – was added on to the front of the great church.

Lou Messugo

Want to read some of the best bloggers writing about France?  Click on the button about to go to the "All About France" Link-Up!

Souvigny - Allier - Bourbonnais - Deep Heart of France

Gardens and the Museum

Even with the “cut and paste” of its architecture, the overall effect of this building (now grown to the size of an aircraft hangar) is pleasing and impressive.  The cloister next door is also worth a visit to see the private chapels in which the Dukes are buried, as well as an extensive museum collection devoted to the history of the priory.  (Also worth seeing in the permanent collection:  the exhibits about the great glassworks of Souvigny, which even as late as the 1970s was supplying custom art glasses to Air France for use aboard the Concord.  Sadly, the business yielded to economic realities and closed permanently in 1979.)

Souvigny - Allier - Bourbonnais
The tombs of 2 early Abbots of the Abbey at Cluny, buried at Souvigny in 994 and 1049. Their presence here made the town a frequent destination for religious pilgrims in the Middle Ages
Souvigny - Allier - Bourbonnais - Deep Heart of France
Interior of the Priory Church of St. Pierre and St. Paul

After touring the church and the museum, I recommend spending some time walking the gardens behind the church.  Even in the intense heat of summer, the greenery provides a pleasant alternative to baking on the streets of Souvigny’s town center.  There’s a chambre d'hôtes with a few rooms for rent and a luxury suite with Louis XIII furnishings and a private garden inside the gates at the back of the church,

and a little herbisterie dedicated to “medicinal plants, essential oils, and fleurs de Bach”.  [Fleurs de Bach are a ‘system’ of 38 homeopathic remedies catalogued by Dr. Edward Bach in the 1930s – aspen, for example, to treat “fear or anxiety from an unknown source,” beech to counteract “intolerance”, or vervain to relieve “excesses of enthusiasm and revolt in the face of injustice.”  I couldn’t, though, find the one dedicated to stopping profuse sweating and sunstroke!]

Stores along the main square in Souvigny. (A rouennerie is a seller of a particular kind of pink/violet/red cloth 1st made in Rouen.)

Far from tourist centers - but worth the drive

As even the local tourism websites acknowledge, Souvigny is a little off the beaten path for tourists, even for a region of France that itself is not much on the radar of tourists from other countries.  But it’s an authentically important and lovely place to spend an afternoon, and my objective on this blog is to introduce you to places and experiences you might otherwise never discover.  If you’ve made it as far already as the Bourbonnais, if you’re visiting the great pop music museum in Montluçon or spending an enchanted evening in Moulins, it’s worth a trip up the D945 or the D138 to see this jewel – officially, since 2003, the “great Romanesque sanctuary of the Auvergne”.

What hidden gems have you discovered in your travels around France?  What are your favorite “out of the way” tourist sites?  Please tell us about them in the comments section below.  As always, I’d be grateful if you’d share this post with others who might be interested in discovering “the deep heart of France” by clicking on the button(s) for your preferred social-media platform(s), too!


Lou Messugo

Want to read some of the best bloggers writing about France?  Click on the button about to go to the "All About France" Link-Up!

5 thoughts on “Destination: Souvigny, a medieval gem off the beaten path in the deep heart of France

  1. I love reading about your off the beaten path discoveries as realistically it’s the nearest I’ll get to most of them, there are just too many places to explore in this great country! How absurdly niche is the rouenerrie! A whole shop for a type of red cloth….incredible! I don’t imagine that’s what it still is, is it? Thanks for linking to #AllAboutFrance

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