Lapalisse – The French Town Made Famous By A Pun

Well, you can’t miss THAT as you drive into town!  More than most places in France, Lapalisse is dominated – almost overwhelmed – by the great chateau that stands at its center.  Strangely, though, the town’s celebrity is due mostly to a mundane pun about one of its most famous historical figures. Not that many years ago, it was almost impossible to avoid Lapalisse if you went travelling through the Allier, one of the great “breadbasket” agricultural regions of France.  The first time I saw it was on a company bus trip from Clermont-Ferrand to see our factory in Montceau-les-Mines.  I woke up an hour into the trip to see this massive landmark with all the little local businesses clustered […]

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 […]

On Working With the French 2 – The 35 Hour Work Week

I’ll bet every expat working in France has heard the same thing from a friend or relative during a holiday visit back home: “Wow, so you’re only working 35 hours a week!  What a sweet life that must be!” As you’ve already gathered from things I’ve written here and there, it can indeed be a sweet life to live and work in France.  But the misconceptions about how much French people actually work and how productive they are can make you crazy if you focus on them. Where do the misconceptions begin?  Everyone knows about the famous “35-hour law” passed in February of 2000.  Its main goal was noble: reduce unemployment, which in France was at 9.8% in the year […]

Medieval Charroux is one of France’s “Most Beautiful Villages”

  Occasionally you’ll pass through a French town that proclaims itself to be “une ville franche” – a “free city”.  There are even a couple dozen towns in France actually named some variant of “Villefranche” or (in the areas nearer to Germany) “Fribourg”, which means the same thing.   Charroux is officially “one of the most beautiful villages of France”.  There’s been a town here since Gallo-Roman times, but Charroux has also been one of these “free cities” since at least 1245 AD.  That means it shares the characteristics of many of the other French towns that have this distinction: It was given its autonomy from the feudal lords who controlled its region.  In an area frequented by war, famine, […]

Destination: Saint-Pourcain-sur-Sioule

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 […]

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, […]

Clermont-Ferrand in Central France

8 Things We Love About Clermont-Ferrand

This week I’m missing my “second home”: Clermont-Ferrand, capital city of the Auvergne, one time capital of France for a day, and the largest city in the deep heart of France. We lived there for seven years (split between two different expat assignments), and I’ve spent several weeks there every year when we weren’t living there for the last 19 years.  Why do I like this place so much?  Here are my 8 favorite things about Clermont-Ferrand: Notre Dame du Port.  This is the older of Clermont’s two main churches, and it is rich in history – Pope Urban II launched the first of the Crusades during a conference here in 1095.  So although I’m not at all Catholic I […]

Medieval Blesle is One of France’s Most Beautiful Villages

Hello – and best wishes to all of you for a healthy, successful New Year in 2017 (or, as the French say, “Meilleurs vœux pour ce nouvel an – que 2017 serait une année de bonne santé et la réussite de tous vos projets”). We start the new year in another of the most interesting places “off the beaten path” in the deep heart of France.  The first thing to know about the medieval town of Blesle is how to pronounce its name:  it’s BLELL, with no mention of the “s’.  This is officially one of the “most beautiful villages in France,” an hour south of Clermont-Ferrand in the rugged volcanic mountains of the Haute-Loire. The second thing to know:  […]

Clermont-Ferrand in Central France

Save Short Film If You Can! Clermont-Ferrand’s International Short Film Festival is Coming

Every winter, Clermont-Ferrand hosts “the second most important film festival in France” (after the well-known event in Cannes).  This February will bring the 29th edition of the International Short Film Festival, showcasing works from filmmakers around the world in addition to two thematic programs on the art of short film in Colombia and works of “black humor”. La Jetee is home to the International Short Film Festival in Clermont-Ferrand The 29th annual International Short Film Festival and 39th National Short Film Festival will be held from February 3rd to February 11th, 2017.   Ticket packages and information about hotels  are available on the Festival’s website. Read more about this exceptional event in my article on FranceToday.com , one of the best […]

The Chateau d’Avrilly and the Crash of La Republique

What do I love most about driving the back roads of central France?  Discovering a little corner of history that I would have missed if I only stuck to the guidebooks.  When I set out that day in September, my objective was the mysterious church at St Menoux, passing through Villeneuve-sur-Allier (and regular readers will know how badly that went!).  Early in the day, though, with the fog still settled in the valleys around the D133, I came to a sign pointing off into the woods and promising “Chateau d’Avrilly / XVè – XIVè”.  Great!  I was in a fine mood after my evening in Moulins, the September day was bright and warm, and I had no deadline to constrain […]

Medieval Apremont is a “Most Beautiful Village” – but is it “authentic”?

Apremont-sur-Allier is, without question, one of the most beautiful villages in France (“un des plus beaux villages de France”) – and not just because it’s on the official list.  But as tourists demand more and more “authenticity” in their travel experiences, I wonder how Apremont stands up to the test. There’s no doubt that it has all the requirements, and everything is arranged in one of the most aesthetically perfect settings I’ve seen anywhere in France.  It’s authentically medieval; quarrymen in the Middle Ages were cutting stones here and sending them on boats down the Allier to the Loire to be used in buildings like the great Cathedral at Orleans. The town church was built in the 13th century.   A […]

Castles - Central France

A Medieval Ruin Among the Sunflowers

Driving through the département of the Allier in central France can be like driving through Iowa or Illinois in summer.  You’re surrounded by the agricultural richness of the region – vast yellow fields, giant bales of hay ready to be loaded and stored, barns and farmhouses clustered in little compounds alongside the road.  The biggest difference?  There aren’t that many ancient châteaux in Iowa and Illinois! I was enjoying a drive like this a few weeks ago, taking the long way back from the extraordinary church at St Menoux to Moulins, when a medieval vision suddenly loomed over the little D-road in front of me.  It was the Château de Fourchaud (curiously spelled Fourchault on the road signs in the […]