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: the age and unusual character of Blesle’s historic buildings. Last September, Karen and I went looking for its most interesting feature: this is a town that has “a church with no steeple and a steeple with no church.”
The abbey’s church is remarkable for several reasons. It is elaborately decorated, with bright colors and ornamentation not often seen in this part of the Auvergne. And it has the widest vault of any Romanesque church in the region. This was the church reserved for church officials and the nobility.
The “church with no steeple” (or not much of one, anyway) is the Eglise St. Pierre. There’s been an abbey here since 849 A.D., when the Countess Ermengarde set up a Benedectine community for women with a very restrictive entrance requirement: to get in, you had to be able to demonstrate that you were descended from at least four generations of nobility on your father’s side of the family.
Just down the street, we found the “steeple with no church” – the Eglise Saint-Martin. This was the church for everyone else in the village, charged with taking care of baptisms, marriages, and the other needs of its parishioners. During the French Revolution, the church was deconsecrated and sold off to a man who decided to tear down most of the building in the 1830s. However, since the bell tower at St. Pierre had been destroyed sometime earlier, the new owner of St. Martin decided the town needed a bell tower so he preserved this one from the 14th century.
One of the things that struck us most as we walked through this “most beautiful village” was how odd this community must have been during its medieval heyday. This was, after all, a place founded as a religious order made up exclusively of the daughters of aristocrats. Beginning in the 1400s, the requirement to live inside the convent was dropped, and members of the order built the fine houses that still constitute the core of the village.
So Blesle was a “church” town – but its prominence attracted other noble families, especially the powerful barons of Mercoeur who controlled this area from the 12th to the 14th centuries. As the town’s official history acknowledges, there were “a certain number of quarrels” that erupted over who got to make and enforce laws. It’s easy to imagine the kind of gossip and hostility that might have crisscrossed the narrow streets in the confines of a tiny village like this!
Today there are plenty of other medieval and Renaissance facades to see as you walk through Blesle – mostly bits and pieces of earlier structures, like the Tower of Massadou (the donjon of what used to be a 13th-century castle belonging to another noble family).
But one of the most interesting – the ancient hospital, begun in the 1100s – is also one of the most unusual museums we’ve ever encountered in France: the Musée de la Coiffe, or Museum of the Headdress.
Here you’ll find more than 700 examples of caps, bonnets, hats, ribbons, and dresses from all over the “deep heart of France” over the past 200 years. The museum is open from May to September, and it’s a surprisingly interesting insight into the way people in this region have lived since the time of the Revolution.
Blesle’s most glorious days are long gone – the Abbey eventually got absorbed into the Cluny infrastructure in 1625 (800 years after its creation), then disbanded altogether during the French Revolution. Its population – once at almost 2,000 – is down to around 650 in the most recent census. And unlike some members of the official list of “most beautiful villages", it’s not overwhelmingly pretty in any aesthetic way. But more than most, it has a history and a patrimoine of extraordinary medieval buildings that justify its presence in this most distinguished company!
Have you visited any of France’s “most beautiful villages”? What did you like most about what you saw there? Please share your experience in the comments section below – and I'd be grateful if you'd take a moment to share this post with others on Facebook, Twitter, Flipboard, or StumbleUpon. And for great travel writing about all things French, please click on the button below and head over to the link-up at All About France!