The Auvergne on the world stage
The Auvergne – that ancient volcanic region near the center of France – doesn’t seem at first glance like a place that would feature prominently on the stage of great world events. Even many French people don’t know what goes on there; they hold a number of odd stereotypes about the people who live there, many of which imagine Auvergnats as a species of rural rubes. And they’re always surprised when they actually visit the place to find how interesting, how beautiful, and how utterly civilized it is.
You might be surprised, too, to know how often significant historical events have arisen in the history of the deep heart of France. During our 20 years of alternately living in and traveling around the Auvergne, I’ve found many examples of times when people and places in this region have had an impact on the broader history of the world, including:
- The only time the ancient Gauls defeated Julius Caesar in battle as his Roman legions swept through France
- The creation of Michelin, one of the world’s great industrial companies, founded in Clermont-Ferrand in 1888 by a couple of brothers looking for a solution to bicycle tires that went flat
- The one day in World War II when Clermont-Ferrand became the capital of France for 48 hours
And when Auvergnats were not being influential within their own region, their influence spread to other parts of the world. I’ve written elsewhere, for example, about how people migrated from the Auvergne to Paris after the French Revolution and ended up having a profound influence on the famous café culture in the capital. So it was only mildly surprising, I suppose, to find traces of an outpost of the Auvergne when we landed on the ancient island of Rhodes near the end of our cruise around the islands of Greece this summer.
The Greek Connection through the Crusades
Of course, the Auvergne had already played an important part in the launch of the First Crusade sent from Europe, ostensibly to retake the city of Jerusalem from its “occupation” by Muslim forces. Pope Urban II came to Clermont-Ferrand (the capital city of the region) in 1095 to exhort the assembled knights of France to “take up the Cross” and fight their way to Jerusalem. “Deus lo volt!”, he thundered, and the Crusade organized in the aftermath has profound implications in the conflict(s) between Muslim countries and the alliance of western powers that dominate today’s headlines.
Even when that first Crusade campaign arrived in the Middle East, there was already a well-known 400-year-old hospital to care for Christian pilgrims who made the long journey to Jerusalem. Gerard Thom (“the Blessed Gerard” in church history), a Benedictine brother, happened to be in charge of that hospital when the new Kingdom of Jerusalem was established there in 1099 C.E.; he is generally given the credit for founding the “Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem” – the famous “Knights Hospitallers”.
In a classic case of “mission creep”, these knights expanded their role in the region – not enough just to provide medical care for Christian pilgrims, they added “military escort to accompany pilgrims” to their job description. And where there’s a military escort, there grows a need for military hierarchy, a demand for more soldiers, and all the trappings of a real army, all operating under the blessing of several successive Popes.
When the Kingdom of Jerusalem disintegrated in 1291, the Knights need a new headquarters. They chose Rhodes, that ancient island which belongs to Greece today but is in fact only a few miles off the coast of modern Turkey. It took them four years to conquer the island, but once it was done they made the city of Rhodes a powerful walled fortress, and they stayed here for 200 years, fighting off the Barbary pirates and occasional invasions from Egypt and the Byzantine Empire. They were finally driven off the island when Suleiman the Magnificent showed up in 1522 with more than 100,000 soldiers to take on the 7,000 Knights Hospitallers. They eventually resettled in Malta and persisted in different outposts around Europe until Napoleon dispersed the military version of the Order in 1799.
Finding Auvergnats in Rhodes
When our ship landed in Rhodes this summer, we ended our tour in the heart of the walled medieval city. We spent an interesting hour in the great Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Saint John, built in 1309 but restored during World War II to be used as a “vacation home” for King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy and the Italian dictator, Mussolini.
As we continued our walk through the old fortress town, we started noticing medieval buildings with names like “Provence,” “Italy”, “France”, “Germany”, “England” and “Spain”… and at the very end of our tour: the “Auberge of the language of Auvergne”. Obviously this required some explanation!
Our guide told us that the Knights Hospitallers had organized themselves into seven separate “houses” or “auberges”, where the knights segregated themselves according to their native tongues. It’s an interesting commentary on the limited reach of the French king that Rhodes had different auberges for France, Provence, and Auvergne, reflecting not only the differences between the langue d’Oc and langue d’Oeil in medieval France but also the different power centers that controlled that part of Europe at the time.
The Auberge of Auvergne
Armed with this little history, we headed straight for the auberge of the Auvergne as soon as our tour group broke up. The building itself is integrated into one of the main gateways into the core of the medieval city. It’s a beautiful (although perhaps a little run-down) old building with a Gothic arch at the entrance and a gallery of Romanesque arches looking down over the interior courtyard. At the center of the garden is a magnificent old tree giving shade to the whole area.
This is not a museum, though – it’s a working bar/restaurant combination called the Café Auvergne. We took a table in the courtyard and ordered a carafe of wine, taking in the mix of tourists and locals having a late lunch here. The menu includes sweet or savory pancakes, sandwiches, and meat or fish done in a kind of Greek-Cretan fusion of flavors. Posters advertised upcoming concerts by pop singer/songwriters.
If you visit Rhodes…
There are, of course, many other reasons to go to Rhodes – we’re already plotting how to find our way back there for an extended stay. This was, after all, an important outpost of ancient Greek civilization from at least 500 B.C.E., powerful enough to build one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the great statue of the Colossus of Rhodes. (It’s long since disappeared, but the mystique remains; while in legend the Colossus was big enough to straddle from shore to shore of the city’s harbor, our guide explained how physically unlikely that would have been!)
An hour south of the walled city, we passed through an ultra-modern beach resort area and stopped for lunch next to the impossibly blue sea. We also spent a few hours exploring the little town of Lindos further south. It claims to be the “2nd most visited archeological site in Greece”, and for good reason: it has its own ancient Acropolis with temple ruins from the 4th century B.C.E. and a view over Saint Paul’s Bay, where the Apostle Paul reputedly landed his boat as he returned from one of his missionary trips. (The Knights of Saint John were here, too – they added their own castle fortifications to the Acropolis at Lindos.)
So the auberge of the Auvergne may not be your first stop if you visit the island. It really sparked my imagination, though, after seeing the mighty walls around the city, the great Grand Master’s Palace and its expression of the power of the Hospitallers, and the other auberges organized by nationality for the Knights of Saint John. To find this particular outpost with a deep connection to the heart of France reminded me, yet once more, of the profound reverberations that pulse outward from that wild corner of France and how they echo in the history books of the rest of the world!
What’s your experience? Have you found echoes of something in France elsewhere in the world? Please share your story in the comments section below – and please take a second to share this post with someone else who’s interested in the places, history, and culture of central France. Thank you for reading!