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.
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).
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.
(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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.