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 […]
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 […]
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 […]
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, […]
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 […]
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 […]
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 […]
When you hear the words “cave dweller”, your mind likely goes immediately to images of the sloping foreheads and protruding teeth of the Cro-Magnons of textbooks and Geico commercials. In fact, though, people have been living in caves in the deep heart of France for tens of thousands of years. Karen and I have had the thrill of being among the very few visitors allowed in each day to see the prehistoric paintings on the wall of the caves at Font de Gaume and Combarelles. We’ve seen examples like the defensive fort built in a cave above La Roque Gageac, and the remarkable network of troglodytic chapels that make up the ancient church behind the Abbey at Brantome.
I grew up in Oklahoma, a completely land-locked state where most of the “rivers” are spindly streams running only a few inches deep most of the year. I can still remember what a big deal it was when we got our own real seaport in the early 1970s; great ships from the Gulf of Mexico could come up the Mississippi to the Arkansas River almost all the way to Tulsa, handling millions of tons of imports and exports every year. So I found it particularly interesting to see how Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère, a lovely little village in the Périgord Noir in the deep heart of France, can trace its history as a port town all the way back to the early 19th […]
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. […]
Almost every town you visit in your travel around western Europe will have some kind of prominent religious building in the center of the city. But it can be difficult sometimes to figure out what you’re looking at, at least according to the taxonomy of the Catholic church. Is it a cathedral? Or a basilica? Just a regular “church”? Or something more exotic like an abbatiale, a collegiale, or a chapelle? Here’s a quick guide with some examples drawn from the area I love most, the “deep heart” of central France. (And yes, I do know that there are many other houses of worship, including mosques, temples, and Protestant halls, even here in France. But they are rarely the […]
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.