Hérisson village in Bourbon region of France

Hérisson is high on the list of “Villages Preferred by the French”

To be fair, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I came to Hérisson last summer.  For a few months I had seen clips in the French press ranking the town on the list of  “villages préférés des Français.”  But France is among the best in the world at creating labels to promote tourism in towns of every size in every region of the country.  There’s the official list of “Most Beautiful Villages,” for example, but there’s also a designation for “Small Cities of Character”, “Cities of Flowers,” and so on.

So what might I find in  Hérisson?  Would it be a place ready to receive thousands of tourists, like so many towns in France where the medieval charm is laid on thick?  Would it have its own famous regional cheese or some other product – or might it have galleries showing the works of local artists?

The reality is that I found instead a tiny village, quiet and almost empty, even at mid-day at the height of the country’s vacation season.  Its history is rich, though, and its setting on the Aumance river is beautiful.  While its location may have excluded it from the broad currents of 21st-century commercial success, Hérisson makes for a delightful day trip if you happen to be traveling in the region that is the ancestral home of the Bourbon dynasty of French kings.

 

 

 

Hérisson village in Bourbon region of France

A better-than-usual finish in a TV contest

Every year, the France 3 television chain mounts a contest asking viewers to vote for “the village most preferred by the French” (out of a list of 14 nominees, one for each of the country’s 13 administrative regions plus one representing all the overseas departments).

Hérisson village in Bourbon region of France

In 2021, the nomination for the Auvergne-Rhone Alpes region went to Hérisson, a very small village of about 600 people; in the weeks leading up to the big “reveal” of the winner on national television, the town was the object of many flattering reports on TV and in magazines and newspapers.

Sadly, it didn’t win – no village from this region has ever won, for reasons I find hard to understand.  But Hérisson did finish 3rd in the voting, and that’s the highest ranking ever for an Auvergnat town in the ten years they’ve been doing this.

Hérisson village in Bourbon region of France

 

(Voters apparently tend to prefer the overseas departments and the coasts of France.)  Four towns from the Auvergne that are officially designated “Most Beautiful Villages of France” have been nominated in the past:  the medieval gems of Salers, Blesle, Montpeyroux, and Charroux.  Other nominees have included the historic seat of the Bourbon nobles at Souvigny and Saint-Nectaire, famous for its extraordinary cheeses.

 

Hérisson: A history linked to Romans and Visigoths

What then, would put Hérisson in the elite ranks of the “preferred villages”?  It’s largely a question of history, I think.  People have lived here for a very long time, probably beginning around 475 C.E. as the Gallo-Roman inhabitants of Châteloy and Cordes (not far from here) fled from an invasion of Visigoth “barbarians”.  It’s been an important archeological site ever since, as succeeding centuries brought new layers of fortifications and new attacks by a variety of enemies.

Hérisson village in Bourbon region of France

 

Hérisson village in Bourbon region of France

Hérisson village in Bourbon region of France

 

 

The Counts of Champagne built a fort here in the 10th and 11th centuries, but it ended up in the hands of the family most associated with the town today:  the Bourbons, that great dynastic force that rose out of this part of the Auvergne.  They were powerful nobles here in the Allier department for 300 years and held the French throne for 300 more.  Some of the most famous French kings – Henri IV, Louis XIV, Louis XVI – were all Bourbons.  And they’re still around today; the current King of Spain and the Grand Duke of Luxembourg are both from that same noble lineage.

Hérisson village in Bourbon region of France

 

The castle ruins that dominate Hérisson’s skyline are what’s left of construction started here in the 1100s by Archambaud II of Bourbon.  The town, once surrounded by a wall with 22 towers, was one of 17 châtellenies controlled by the Bourbon family.  As signs on the site are careful to point out, though, it wasn’t so much a chateau for family living as it was a powerful little fortress, strategically positioned on the border with the Aquitaine and on a site where all the traffic on the Aumance river could be controlled.

 

And it obviously served these defensive functions well.  The fortress was besieged in 1363 by forces loyal to the English king during the Hundred Years’ War – and again in 1465 when King Louis XI came here to launch his “War of the Public Weal” (la Guerre du bien public) to assert his supremacy as ruler over all the territory of France.

Hérisson’s fortress resisted both these sieges, but it wasn’t finished as a defensive stronghold.  Protestant forces attacked the castle (but failed to take it) in 1568 during the Wars of Religion. When renegade French nobles raised an army in civil war against King Louis XIV, they attacked this chateau (and failed) in 1650, but finally succeeded in overtaking it where others could not in 1651.  (Their success didn’t last long, though.  The King’s armies suppressed the rebellion and took back Hérisson once and for all in that same year.)

Hérisson village in Bourbon region of France

 

 

If you go today

Unfortunately, the powerful little fortress, having withstood so many brutal attacks over the centuries, could not survive in peacetime.  After that civil war, Louis XIV’s chief minister, Cardinal Mazarin, ordered the chateau to be destroyed in 1652.  The story after that is familiar to anyone who’s visited many other old castle sites in France:  the buildings went into 250 years of decline, essentially becoming a rock quarry for anyone in the area to use in building their houses, barns, fences, and shops.

Hérisson village in Bourbon region of France

All that remains are the ruins that dominate the village of Hérisson today.  Driving into town on a cool July afternoon, I was reminded of the impression I had when I first saw the Tours de Merle, that medieval “gated community for aristocrats” in the Correze:  you bounce along a featureless route départementale for a while when suddenly the great site appears.  (I was also reminded of our visits to the castle at Polignac, also largely in ruins, where there are many signs about the dangers of climbing around on loose rocks and crumbled buildings, but almost no barriers to prevent you from actually doing it!)

The little town surrounding the ruins is beautifully situated in a bend of the Aumance river, and it has other sites worth seeing, too.  I thought the most interesting of these was another ruin:  the bell tower of Collegiale Saint-Saveur.  Built in the 13th century on the demand of a Bourbon lord, it was deconsecrated during the French Revolution, and everything but the bell tower was torn down.  It now serves this function again, though, ringing its bells on behalf of the 19th-century Eglise Notre Dame 200 meters away.

Hérisson village in Bourbon region of France
The old bell tower of Saint-Saveur
Hérisson village in Bourbon region of France
Eglise Notre Dame

 

There are several B-and-Bs and gîtes in Hérisson, but no real hotels in the village itself.  (To be fair, there are some hotels within 10-15 miles, and there are even a couple of castles like the fine Château de Peufeilhoux which offer luxurious guest accommodations.)

When I came into the village just after noon, I found only 2 restaurants open for lunch, and they were both already overbooked.  The whole town was quiet, with very few shops and none of the galleries or souvenir places you might expect to find in a “most preferred village.”

The locals say that Hérisson never really developed commercially because of its position in the little bowl surrounded by the Aumance.  It was too far from regular trade routes, and when the railroads came in the 19th century, they went to Cosne-d'Allier, just up the road.

Hérisson village in Bourbon region of France
High noon in Hérisson

Still, a place with this much history (and this much fighting spirit during its glory years!) is worth a visit – a fact recognized by all those French travelers who voted it into third place among all the “villages préférés des Français.”  It’s a good destination for a day out in this heartland of the Bourbon dynasty, and one I found completely worth the trip.

Have you ever visited one of the places on the list of “most preferred villages”?  What was your experience like?  Please share your memories in the comments section below – and please take a second to share this post with someone else who is interested in the people, places, culture, and history of the deep heart of France.

Hérisson village in Bourbon region of France

10 thoughts on “Hérisson is high on the list of “Villages Preferred by the French”

  1. Thank you so much for your informative emails. I had been interested in the families that had lived in the Tours de Merle because I’m a Le Merle, adrift since 1810 in the U. S. where there is one other Le Merle family. I was looking for their origins

    1. Thanks for writing! The Tours de Merle is one of the most spectacular historic sites I’ve ever visited. It would be most interesting to be able to trace your roots to that part of France!

  2. I enjoy receiving these peeks into France very much. I would like to move to France and am curious if you or anyone who follows, can direct me to a site that will give me yearly weather cycles. I am planning to live in a location in France that has 4 full seasons, Agreeable to horses, gardens and my personal preference for solitude? Would love to know if such a place comes to mind?
    Your photos are beautiful and your writing is pleasing. The posts always excite my imagination. Thank You

    1. Thanks for your very kind words — I appreciate your reading! For annual weather cycles for many French cities, try https://www.climatestotravel.com/climate/france . My favorite region in central France — the Cantal — also happens to touch on most of your preferences, I think. You could look up AURILLAC or CLERMONT-FERRAND on the weather site to get an idea of the area’s seasonality, and there’s lots of open countryside and (to my taste) the most beautiful places to find solitude in all of France. Good luck with your search!

  3. Hello Richard, I really enjoyed reading your blog post about Hérisson! Many, many years ago, I spent nearly a month on a volunteer project in the charming village. If you’d like to take a look, I’ve written blog posts about my experience there. Thank you for sharing your impressions and beautiful pictures. I’m glad to hear that it’s still a quiet place. It’s nice to see what Hérisson looks like now.

    1. Bonjour Darlene. Thanks for reading — and thanks very much for your kind comment! I spent some time browsing your site — it’s really very nice, and I recommend it to anyone who shares our interest in all things French. (Your book reviews in particular appealed to me.) For others: you can check out Darlene’s blog here.

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