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 the Auvergne. The difference? This village is built on a mountain of arkose, the mixture of sandstone and feldspar that gives the place a Provencal feel. (Most other towns in this part of France’s deep heart have a much more somber tone reflecting the black lava stone quarried in the region’s volcanoes and used to build so many houses and public places.)
Arkose lies behind the town’s name – “Montpeyroux” is an evolution from “mont pierreux”, or “rocky mountain” in French. Given the way the hill crops up from the plain below, the stone is abundant and easily available. It is also fertile ground for growing wine grapes.
Those two facts account for much of Montpeyroux’s economic history. Its shallow arkose quarries supplied building materials for local buildings for hundreds of years but also for great works like the incredible Notre Dame du Port in Clermont-Ferrand and the fine Romanesque churches in Issoire and Saint Saturnin. The wine industry was important, too, but as in so many places across Europe it was completely destroyed in 1875 by the invasion of tiny yellow phylloxera bugs. And the decline of wine-making led to more general decline, with the big arkose quarries finally closing in the 1930s.
Today, Montpeyroux owes much of its status as tourism center and a “most beautiful village” to a complex series of restoration projects undertaken over a period of 40 years. By the 1950s, the town was down to only 244 permanent residents (more or less where it stands today), and was in serious decline, but a program of investment and concerted architectural restoration have brought it back.
Of course, you’ll find the required historical buildings that give so much interest to all of France’s “most beautiful villages”. The village’s church, although “only” 170 years old, is a loving imitation of the area’s Romanesque basilicas and a beautiful place to visit for a moment.
Vaulted passageways date to the 12th and 13th centuries, as does the great donjon tower so visible to all the world. And Montpeyroux was present for some of the “glory days” of the history of the Auvergne in the 16th century, when Catherine de Medici ruled the area and Quenn Margot lived in exile down the road in Usson.
But it’s ultimately the views that are most rewarding when you make the detour to this little jewel of a village. Climb up the stairs in the donjon tower to the viewing platform and you can see one of the greatest cross-sections possible of “the deep heart of France.”
The vast plain of the Limagne surrounds you with agricultural riches that go back to the dawn of human history in France.
And this view is framed by the gorgeous Chaîne des Puys – the chain of 80 or more dormant volcanoes that characterize the center of France, with the iconic Puy-de-Dôme dominating the skyline behind Clermont-Ferrand in the distance. I promise – it’s worth the trip up the mountain!
What about you – which of the great scenic vistas of France appeal most to you? Where do you go to see them? Please tell us your experience in the comments section – and I’d be grateful if you’d take a second to share this post with others interested in France by clicking on one of the social-media “share” buttons below!