Souvigny

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.  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; […]

La Sauvetat - Auvergne - Deep Heart of France

Destination: La Sauvetat, a fortified town in the deep heart of France

People in France (and many other countries, too) are often described these days as being in a high state of anxiety about their physical security in the face of terrorism, crime, and escalating conflict.  But try imagining a time when threats were so immediate that everything about your little town was built to ward off the danger.  Today’s destination – La Sauvetat, a fortified village in the deep heart of France – transports you back to such a time in the long, violent history of the country. The villagers of La Sauvetat apparently came into their fears early, even before the town had a name.  This is in one of the agricultural breadbaskets of France, only 12 miles (20 km) […]

Usson - Deep Heart of France - Central France

Usson – the scene of Queen Margot’s 20-year Exile – is officially one of France’s “Most Beautiful Villages”

We’re having lunch in Usson – officially one of France’s “most beautiful villages”.  Our table is on the terrasse of the Auberge de Margot, hanging on the edge at the top of the hill that gives Usson its spectacular views across the plains and stretching to the blue chain of extinct volcanoes 30 miles away.  And as we’re finishing off our meaty cabbage rolls, it hits me that Sarah Vowell** is right: “The more history I learn, the more the world fills up with stories.”    Usson – this quiet little village in the deep heart of France – is overflowing with stories from its rich history.  Without them, it would be a delightful sunny spot, almost like a town […]

Cantal - Deep Heart of France

7 Videos to Make You Fall in Love With the Deep Heart of France

Sometimes, as we all know, words and static images just aren’t adequate to capture a feeling or an impression you get in a faraway place – we need to see movement and the passing of time to get a better feel for what it might be like to visit a place we’ve never experienced for ourselves. Since I started this blog, I’ve put a lot of effort into explaining what the “deep heart of France” means to me.  You’ve heard why I love Clermont-Ferrand and the Auvergne, and you’ve seen some of the towns officially recognized as being among “the most beautiful villages of France” – places like Blesle, Charroux, Arlempdes, and Salers. If you’ve stuck with this blog for […]

MOULINS – A Medieval Center of Power in the Deep Heart of France

I’ll always have a spot in my heart for Moulins.  I’ve written before about how one wonderful evening in this town captured the essence of French food culture for me.  Today, though, we’re revisiting Moulins as one of the most interesting, historically rich small towns in the deep heart of France. When you roll into town on the D945 you know immediately this place is different.  Traffic flows constantly through the main square, with the pretty Town Hall on one side and a starburst of restaurants and medieval buildings on the other side of the road.  It’s a fine place for a long lunch and watching people on a sunny afternoon, but be sure to catch the showy chiming of the […]

Never Throw Anything Away – An Intro to the French “Plan d’Urbanisme”

A few weeks ago I was in Souvigny, a postcard-perfect town in the Allier, and it made me think of computer systems.  Well, in a roundabout way… The main square in Souvigny I first heard the phrase “plan d’urbanisme” when I was working in the Information Technology department of a big manufacturing company in France.  While it literally means “city planning”, in the context of IT it meant trying to figure out the thorny problem of how to integrate new applications and new technologies into an existing mass of old systems. But it set me thinking about how profoundly important the idea is for every town in France.  How do you put a subway underneath an ancient city like Paris […]

Castles - Central France

“Chateau” or “Big Country House”?

As you drive through the “deep heart of France”, you’ll regularly come across a massive house, usually sitting on top of a little hill or bluff and looking as though it’s been there forever.  There may be some evidence of fortifications – a guard tower, a thick wall around the garden, sometimes even a moat.  But is this a “chateau”?  Or just a big, old house in the country? The answer may be a little more complicated than you think.  Part of the issue comes from how freely the word “chateau” is used in French to describe many different types of dwelling.  It’s not just reserved for the traditional medieval castle – that’s a château fort in French and still […]

Medieval Montpeyroux is a “Most Beautiful Village of France”

Sometimes I come across one of the “most beautiful villages in France” that apparently gets more points for the vistas it overlooks than for what it actually contains.  Montpeyroux, for me, is one example. Not to say you shouldn’t visit – you should!  It is a lovely, neatly-kept little town with its own rich history deep in the Auvergne.  It’s easy to find, too; its prominent castle tower is visible to thousands of cars every day as they zip along the A7 (“La Méridienne), the major autoroute that connects Clermont-Ferrand to Béziers down on the Mediterranean coast. Within the city walls the first thing you’ll notice is how much lighter and brighter Monypeyroux looks compared to many other towns in […]

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, […]