A somber episode at the end of World War II
Several newspaper stories over the past 2 weeks have commemorated the 75th anniversary of the liberation of France at the end of World War II -- but they tend to focus on DeGaulle and the Allies marching through the streets of Paris. The local papers in the deep heart of France, though, have a different, darker memory of the events of August 1944.
For people in Moulins the war wasn't over when those triumphant scenes played out in Paris. On the same day the Nazi garrison surrendered in the capital, 56 men, 9 women and a 7-year-old child were dragged from their cells in the tower known as "Mal-Coiffée", a 14th-century dungeon used as a prison by the occupying German army. As La Montagne reported this week, this group included Jews, members of the French Resistance, and some who were just "unlucky" to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Instead of being liberated, as they should have been under the terms of Germany's surrender, they were crowded onto trains and sent east, the men to Buchenwald, the women and child to the concentration camp at Ravensbrück. Only 35 survived the experience.
All this history came alive again last weekend, as local officials hosted a somber commemorative ceremony at the site of the Mal-Coiffée and remembered especially the last survivor of that miserable prison, Alphonse Rodier, a French Resistant who died at the age of 96 on August 16th this summer.
Moulins: a medieval masterpiece in the deep heart of France
All this news brought my thoughts back to Moulins, a place for which I will always have a spot in my heart. I’ve written before about how one wonderful evening in this town captured the essence of French food culture for me. Today, though, we’re revisiting Moulins as one of the most interesting, historically rich small towns in the deep heart of France.
When you roll into town on the D945 you know immediately this place is different. Traffic flows constantly through the main square, with the pretty Town Hall on one side and a starburst of restaurants and medieval buildings on the other side of the road. It’s a fine place for a long lunch and watching people on a sunny afternoon, but be sure to catch the showy chiming of the hour in the ancient clock at the top of the Jacquemart Tower.
Begun in 1451, the clock's little family of automated bell-strikers (Jacquemart the father, Jacquette the mother, and their boy and girl, Jacquelin and Jacqueline!) have been working since the 1600s; the children strike every 15 minutes, and the parents do the hours.
From this square it’s an easy walk to all of the other historical riches of Moulins. I’d start with the Cathedral, a small flamboyant Gothic masterpiece begun in 1468 (although there’s been a Christian church on the spot since at least the 800s AD). Inside you’ll find several pieces also considered to be important in the history of art, especially one of the Auvergne’s several “black virgin” statues and a triptych by Jean Hey, the “master of Moulins”.
The historic capital of the House of Bourbon
And how did a great 15th-centruy Flemish painter show up in a town so deep in the heart of France? Because this is the Bourbonnais, and this town was something like a second capital of the whole French kingdom during the reign of the great Bourbon dukes, who took Moulins as their capital city.
I've written quite a bit more about this family in another post, but as you look around Moulins it’s important to know that these were some of the most powerful figures in French history. First showing up in the 10th century, they married into the royal family in 1272. Since then, not only have several of the Dukes been intimate counselors and officers to the King of France, their family name lives on through a network of connections that spread across Europe and lives on today. Henry IV, Louis XIII, Louis XIV (the “Sun King”), Louis XV, and Louis XVI all ruled in the name of the “House of Bourbon.” Even now, in the 21st century, the current King of Spain and Grand Duke of Luxembourg are Bourbons, too!
The family legacy is easy to find in Moulins today. Many of the half-timbered medieval houses and Renaissance hôtels particuliers in the town’s core can be traced to advisers and officials associated with the Bourbon dukes. In fact, one of France's earliest examples of Renaissance architecture can be found here.
It happened when Louis XI’s daughter Anne married Pierre de Beaujeu, one of the Dukes of Bourbon, and she brought to town with her a crowd of painters, sculptors, and architects in 1500 AD for the construction of this jewel of a small palace.
It’s easy to visit, since it has been a museum of fine art since 1910. (The man responsible for turning it into a museum was Louis Mantin, and as a very interesting side visit it’s worth trying to see the house he built for himself just next door. Mantin’s furniture and personal collections have been preserved as they were in the 1890s. It’s hard to get in – you need to make a reservation somewhat in advance of your visit – but worth it to see a slice of life as it was in the French provinces at the beginning of the 20th century!)
The Masion Malcoifée - a castle transformed into a notorious prison
Also next door to the old Duke’s palace is an odd tower with an even odder name: the Masion Malcoifée. Built in the late 1300s, it was the dungeon to an older castle belonging to the Bourbon dukes. The name is meant to be funny – Louis II looked at the blocky tower and said “it’s pretty, but it’s unfortunately topped [or badly capped]”. Its history, though, is somewhat dark.
Turned into a prison sometime before the French revolution, it remained one until 1984 – including a particularly dark time during World War II when the Germans used it to hold resistors and “undesirables”. This is where the 66 last prisoners were before they were sent east to concentration camps when the war ended -- but the Wermacht had held as many 408 captives only a year earlier. This is where Alphonse Rodier was whipped, torutred, and humiliated by Nazi guards demanding that he reveal the names of other Resistants in his network. (He did not comply.)
Today, La Malcoifée is also open to visitors, but again an advance reservation is required; it remains a sobering reminder of the awful events that occurred there only 75 years ago.
Moulins - a great destination in central France
Moulins isn’t a big city – only around 30,000 people live there now – but it is fiercely proud of the leading role its people played in the modern history of France. And it’s always busy these days, whether in the little central square at Jacquemart or in the big, open Place Allier; there’s quite a café culture and evidence of real vitality in the commercial areas of town. For me, the combination of this modern energy and the beautifully preserved remnants of the past make Moulins one of my favorite places to visit in the deep heart of France!
What’s your favorite small town in France? What appeals to you about it? Please share your experience in the comments section below – and I’d be grateful if you’d click on one of the “share” buttons, too, to pass this post on to your other social-media friends who are interested in the people, places, culture, and history of central France.