Murol Chateau Castle Auvergne Cantal France Medieval Renaissance

Is Murol the coolest medieval castle in the deep heart of France?

A user on Quora recently asked me “What are the best castles in France?”  I listed some of my favorites — Beynac, Castelnaud-la-Chapelle, Polignac, Les Tours de Merle – with a focus on places removed from the “standard” touristy sights of the Loire Valley.  But as I worked on my answer, it struck me that I have never actually written about my favorite chateau in all of France — the massive defensive fortress of Murol, in the mountains of the Cantal. Today’s post is meant to correct that error and introduce you to one of the best overall tourist destinations in the deep heart of the country. I’ve made several visits to Murol just for the pleasure of photographing it.  […]

St-Julien-Aux-Bois Xaintrie Medieval Farm Correze France

Think your life is hard? Check out the medieval farms at Xaintrie in the deep heart of France!

I’ve always loved the “living history” sites we’ve found in different places around the world.  In the U.S., Colonial Williamsburg is perhaps the most famous, but my personal favorite is the Plimoth Plantation [sic], operating since 1947 near Plymouth, Massachusetts. It’s populated by people who have taken on the names and identities of the 17th-century colonists who came to this place on the Mayflower, and they’re happy to talk to you and answer questions, intelligently and at great length, about how they grow food, the hardships of their lives, their aspirations in coming to America, and their relationships with the Native American Wampanoags. (Just don’t ask them about anything that happened in the world after about 1622 CE.  The actors […]

ASM Clermont Auvergne Rugby Vercingetorix

It’s ASM Rugby Season in the Deep Heart of France!

My heart beats a little faster every year as September approaches – I don’t regularly watch any other sports on TV the rest of the year, but when college football season starts every autumn I am there for hours every Saturday!  So on a recent September Saturday in the deep heart of France, I was excited to see first-hand what gets people there excited:  the opening game of the Top 14 Rugby League’s season in Clermont-Ferrand. The team is called “ASM Clermont Auvergne”.  “ASM” stands for “Association Sportive Montferrandaise” (it used to mean “Association Sportive Michelin” in honor of the company that founded the club, but the name was changed in 1922 when the governing body of French rugby got […]

Turenne Corrèze France Auvergne Dordogne Chateau Castle

TURENNE is officially one of the “most beautiful villages in France”

When you travel around the countries we call “France” or “Germany” or “Italy”, it’s easy to forget that these national entities are fairly recent constructs in the grand scale of history.  As Graham Robb points out so well in The Discovery of France, 80% of that country’s population still lived outside towns and cities even as late as the Revolution; even with a King as the “head of state”, the country was still a collection of old provinces and fiefdoms far from the government of Paris.   “Being French was not a source of personal pride, let alone the basis of a common identity.  Before the mid-nineteenth century, few people had seen a map of France and few had heard […]

Pascal Paris Auvergne Clermont-Ferrand Computing Calculatrice

UPDATE: Blaise Pascal was a towering genius from the Deep Heart of France

      Even after more than 40 trips to Paris over the last three decades, Karen and I always find something new and wonderful to see there.  On our most recent visit, the winner in this category is the restoration work going on at the abbey church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés on the Left Bank.  It’s only half finished at this point, but the work already done has painted the church in rich colors and gold leaf showing how gloriously beautiful it was centuries ago. But we also found two other “new” sites (new to us, that is), both with a connection to one of my personal heroes from the deep heart of France – Blaise Pascal. The incredible thing about […]

Place de Jaude Bartholdi Clermont Clermont-Ferrand Auvergne Vercingetorix Sculpture

The Secret Life of Clermont’s Place de Jaude

La Montagne – the daily newspaper chain that serves most of the villages and cities in the deep heart of France – recently put together a list of “things you don’t know about the Place de Jaude” in Clermont-Ferrand. Some of the historical tidbits cited by Simon Anthony in his article were already familiar to me:  the fact that the statue of Napoleon’s General Desaix is not much appreciated by locals, and the fact that the city’s Opera was deliberately built in white-colored stone mostly to combat Clermont’s reputation as “la ville noire” because of all the black lava stone used in so many public buildings.  I had heard before, too, how a great ‘urban renewal’ project had been undertaken […]

Belvès Dordogne Perigord France

Belvès is officially one of France’s “Most Beautiful Villages”

Most towns on France’s official list of “Most Beautiful Villages” are meant to look pretty from the first moment you see them.  (Some cynics would say that at least some of the plus beaux villages de France are actually “engineered” to give a good first impression.)  My initial experience in Belvès was the exception to that rule.   I came to Belvès (in the Dordogne region, east of Bordeaux, about halfway between Limoges and Toulouse) on a blazing hot summer afternoon…and found the town over-run with visitors.  Clearly some kind of street market was underway, and I had to park just over a mile away from the center of town and walk back.  The sun bore in on the back […]

Chaine des Puys Auvergne Volcano UNESCO

Big News from UNESCO for the Deep Heart of France!

They’ve waited over 11 years and been denied twice before, so Auvergnats were understandably excited when the big news finally came on Monday:  the Chaîne des Puys has officially been named a UNESCO World Heritage natural site. As regular readers of the blog know, this chain of 80 volcanic peaks is one of my favorite parts of France.  The chain is about 45 km (27 miles) long, and forms the backdrop to Clermont-Ferrand, sweeping up dramatically from the flat Plain de Limagne that stretches off to the east.  We’ve always looked forward to the moment when, after a long drive through flat wheat fields and low hills, the A71 autoroute from Paris climbs sharply and the whole Chaîne des Puys […]

Lafayette Hamilton Chavaniac Auvergne Haute-Loire France History Revolution

A July 4th Memory from the Deep Heart of France

Karen and I got to see Hamilton in London last month – and it was as dazzling as we expected!  (It’s also a bargain compared to the usurious after-market prices for tickets in places like New York and Chicago – we had seats in the 16th row for about $75 each, and we even encountered people who found it cheaper to buy an economy airfare to see the London show than to get comparable tickets in the U.S.  God bless Ticketmaster UK for their “no scalping” system – I only wish they could teach their American counterparts how to do it!) Of course, one of the many reasons to love the performance was to see James Pennycooke playing the role […]

Eyzies Dordogne Perigord France Cro-Magnon Prehistoric cave Font de Gaume Combarelles

At Les Eyzies – 400,000 years of human history in the Deep Heart of France

I’m bent over to half my height, but it’s not enough to protect my head from a hard thump from a stone hanging in the dark reaches of the cave at the Font de Gaume.  The light flickering on the wall is from the guide’s flashlight; we try to imagine how much darker it would have been 15,000 years ago, when one of our ancestors crawled deep into this hillside with nothing more than a smoldering torch to cut through the perfect blackness.  As the smoke collected in the narrow spaces around him, he somehow must have wormed his way onto this shelf and, lying on his back, started to daub pigments in the image of a bison on the […]

Montferrand Clermont Clermont-Ferrand Auvergne Puy-de-Dome France

5 Reasons to Visit Montferrand in the Deep Heart of France

It would be easy to understand if the people of Montferrand carried some kind of grudge.  Its name has all but disappeared as an independent entity from maps of France.  When people talk about Montferrand these days, it’s mostly considered a quartier or neighborhood in the larger urban context of Clermont-Ferrand.  But buried in that hyphenated name is a rich history of conflict and royal intervention — and some modern-day attractions that make Montferrand worth a visit all by itself. The first thing to know about Montferrand is that it was a deliberate creation, not like other French towns that grew over time because they are at an advantageous bend in a river or on some natural defensive placement.  No, […]

Monpazier Dordogne Perigord France Bastide

Monpazier is officially one of France’s “Most Beautiful Villages”

Lots of French towns are surrounded by walls.  Some of them look easy to breach; they were meant mostly to control access to the town so taxes and tolls could be collected and outsiders could be excluded.  Other walls, though, clearly mean business – they were put there centuries ago for more obvious military purposes, in a time when even remote places lived under constant threat of pillage and destruction. It’s true that our current age is an anxious age.  A quick reading of any online forum reveals the concerns felt by people in France (and many other countries, too) about their physical security in the face of terrorism, crime, and escalating conflict.  But try imagining a time when threats […]