What's to Love About Central France?
From the feedback some of you have given me, I know the idea of exploring France outside of Paris can be a little overwhelming. After all, Paris is perhaps the greatest single tourist destination on earth, and you could go there dozens of times without exhausting all the incredible things to see and do in the capital city. (Believe me - Karen and I have tried!) The idea that there are thousands of other possibilities, some more interesting than anything you can find in Paris, can really be intimidating when you're organizing future trips.
And it's certainly true that, for most people in the world, Paris is the single image that comes to mind when someone says "you should see France". It's a natural impulse - other people do it, too. Just mention to a stranger in France that you're from America, and 8 times out of 10 he'll say "Oh, yes, I love New York!" Someone who's spent a month in Shanghai on a business trip may feel she "knows" China. Our big, emblematic cities are so rich in peak tourist experiences that it can be hard to get past them to see what the rest of the country is really like.
Even within France, there's a tendency among French people to stereotype their compatriots from the center of the country. Many of them haven't spent much time in central France themselves, preferring for their vacations to drive straight through from Paris to the Mediterranean beaches down south. And yet, just as it's not surprising to find that
food, culture, language, and history in Louisiana are not the same as they are in New York, it shouldn't surprise you to learn that central France can seem like a different world altogether compared to Paris. "London" is not "England", "Beijing" is not "China" -- and, for sure, "Paris" is not "France"!
Why do I make such a big deal of this? A couple of conversations with friends recently set me thinking (again) about why central France means so much to me – an American from the Great Plains who found himself in late career living in the center of a foreign country. Given all the other, more urgent issues the world throws at us, why spend time and energy on a subject so far outside my “natural” frame of reference and so far from the one dominating vision that everyone else has when they think of France?
As it happens, a big part of the answer came to me a few months ago when I read The Pigeon Tunnel, John Le Carré’s extraordinary autobiography. He’s thought about this puzzle, too, first as a British spy and then as a novelist. Why focus on any “esoteric” subject? Why spend the limited resources of your time and attention on something that only has an abstract value in your life?
For Le Carré’, the question was about German culture and history rather than French – he studied German at Oxford, taught it at Eton, and set several of his best-known books in the swirling Cold War politics of recent German history. But he says something about this life-long obsession with all things “Germanic” that captures perfectly how I feel about my own 20-year engagement with France:
“It gave me my own patch of eclectic territory; it fed my incurable romanticism and my love of lyricism; it instilled in me the notion that a man’s journey from cradle to grave was one unending education – hardly an original concept and probably questionable, but nevertheless.”
There are, of course, other reasons for being a Francophile and learning everything possible about the country's history, culture, cuisine, and people. Some of them are strictly aesthetic -- whether you respond to wild scenes of sharp-edged mountains and forests that make day seem like night, or whether you are inspired by the perfectly mathematical rhythms of classic French architecture, there are things to see around almost every bend of the road in central France.
But enough preamble -- let's get to the concrete reasons why you should look for a way to organize a trip to the "deep heart of France," away from Paris, whether it's for a day or two or for an extended stay:
#1 - It's Rich in Ancient History
Writing about central France – and learning what interests you most as a reader of this blog – has been an education for me in a category by itself. I was formally trained as a historian before I veered off into a long career in corporate I.T., so it’s not surprising to me that the posts about great historical events in the deep heart of France are the ones I’m most passionate about writing. It’s a way of coming back to a subject I’ve loved all my life. It has been nice to learn, though, that you’ve enjoyed them, too.
For example: our visit to Usson, a tiny place near Clermont-Ferrand in the Auvergne, was, for me, one of the most interesting dips into the long history of the country. It's a tiny place, off the beaten path for tourists, but in addition to coming in at #5 on my own "Top 10 List of France's Most Beautiful Villages, Usson was the setting for the dramatic exile of the notorious Queen Margot, isolating her far from Paris during the Wars of Religion that ripped the kingdom apart in the late 1500s.
Her story was among our most popular posts over the past 2 years, but it was joined by others focused on other, more cataclysmic events that occurred over the centuries in the “wilderness” of the Massif Central. The story that’s closest to my heart tells how the First Crusade to the Middle East in 1095 was launched from a gorgeous Romanesque church in Clermont-Ferrand; it's fascinating to me because of the echoes it sounds almost every week in the Nightly News, and because I feel a particular aesthetic attachment to Notre Dame du Port, the beautiful ancient building where it all started.
There have been people here almost as long as there have been people anywhere in Europe. The Romans came, too, and despite losing an epic battle near Clermont-Ferrand, they stayed and put down roots that are still visible across the region. And the sense of medieval times is present everywhere here, from the remote, romantic castles that seem to top every hill side in the region to the birth of the Bourbon dynasty in places like Moulins, Montlucon, and Souvigny.
But while the emphasis of modern history has certainly shifted north to Paris, it hasn’t bypassed central France – so you'll also hear the stories of Gustav Eiffel’s astonishing constructions in the Cantal and the gorges of the Sioule river, as well as the story that even most French people don’t know about that one day in June 1940 when Clermont-Ferrand was actually the capital of France!
Move a little further to the west (we've expanded our coverage in recent months!), and there are more stories in the Limousin and Dordogne regions than I can count. Some of the most turbulent periods in French history were acted out on this stage -- see the evidence of the Hundred Years War in the fine museum of medieval warfare at Castelnaud-la-Chapelle, for example. At Brantôme you'll find an ancient church carved out of a cliffside cave and an abbey going back to the time of Charlemagne. And at La Roque Gageac (another of the "most beautiful villages"), early settlers profited from the existence of a cave big enough to build a fortress that protected the town for centuries.
Still, my favorite historical places in these 2 regions are wildly different:
I loved my recent visit to Les Tours de Merle -- a kind of "gated community" for medieval aristocrats with seven different family castles clustered together on one rocky plateau in the Correze...
... and Karen and I especially loved the day we spent wandering through the Gardens of Marqueyssac. While the history here is perhaps not as "deep", the exotic sculptured boxwoods are worth the trip. From here, you can see at least 4 of France's "most beautiful villages", and there are enough family activities on the program to give everyone something to do all day long!
And by the way, since this is a post about "why Paris is not France" -- and since we're talking about history -- it's interesting to note that Auvergnat people have often had perhaps more influence on the capital than the other way around. This is, after all, the region that gave France its great Bourbon dynasty of kings! And the waves of people who migrated from here to Paris after the French Revolution have left a lasting imprint -- still very much visible today -- on the history and culture of Paris!
#2 -Central France is a Wildnerness Paradise
This rich history is evident everywhere – but it might not be the first thing you notice when you visit the deep heart of France for the first time. This is, in fact, one of the wildest and most beautiful parts of the country, very lightly populated compared to other regions and marked by spectacular natural scenes. The Cantal is rugged and isolated, a remote wilderness for skiers and fishermen; the Puy-de-Dome is memorable for its iconic chain of extinct volcanoes; the Allier is paradise for hikers, campers, and cyclists making their way through its deep river gorges and rich agricultural zones.
In fact, several of the official “most beautiful villages” we’ve seen in central France are notable as much for their spectacular natural setting as for the obligatory historical sites they contain. Arlempdes is like that, perched on a volcanic needle in the mountains of the Haute Loire. So is Montpeyroux, looking out over the vast open plain of the Limagne to the blue mountains of the Chaîne des Puys, the 80+ dormant volcanic peaks on the horizon. Apremont-sur-Allier counts in this category, too – it’s a postcard-perfect little town sitting on a bend of the Allier river at the end of a small departmental road, and our visit there also made our “top ten” list for this year.
I know for certain that the natural beauty of the landscape is part of the region’s appeal for me. I grew up in Oklahoma, on land as flat as my kitchen table and frankly with about as much aesthetic interest. For the most part, there are only two extended seasons there – one really hot, the other really cold – and outside the verdant northeast corner of the state, not much to look at on the horizon.
We were living in north Texas when I got the offer to move to France, and the contrast was immediate and breathtaking. This is a photo I took from the front steps of our second house in Clermont-Ferrand, capital city of the Auvergne, and it captures for me everything I love about central France –
the Puy-de-Dome looms over the city, changing color and appearance with the seasons. [It comes with a dose of that rich history, too – that’s a Roman temple to Mercury you see next to the telecom towers on top of the volcano!]
Want to see exactly what I’m talking about? Fortunately, the internet is well-supplied with professional videos that show how ancient and how gloriously beautiful central France can be. You can see examples in this post; be sure to check out the flyover of the Cantal and the timelapse video of Clermont-Ferrand and the Chaîne des Puys to get a taste of why you might fall in love with the deep heart of the country.
#3 - It's a great place to live - and a great destination for expats and retirees!
So there’s a lot in central France to appeal to the traveler who wants to get far from the beaten tourist paths that are so well known in other parts of the country. But there’s one other element that pushed me to start this blog, and it’s one to which many of you have responded positively – especially those among you who are expats living in France. It’s the differences in lifestyle, the differences in the way people act and in what’s important to them that we find so fascinating.
My personal favorite post in this category, though, was a reflection on a dinner experience I had in the little town of Moulins. In a single summer evening I found myself swept away by all the elements that make French cuisine so exceptional: quality ingredients prepared flawlessly and presented professionally (with strong support from a fine bottle of Bordeaux red wine). The unhurried service, the attention to detail, and the beautiful setting in an ancient Auvergnat town made the evening unforgettable!
There's a lot to be said, too, for the markets that pop up once or twice a week in many of the small towns around central France. Many of them have been in business for centuries -- like the one in Sarlat-le-Caneda , a town in the Dordogne almost perfectly preserved as it would have looked in the 14th century; all the buildings in the center have authentic roots in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. They've had a market here for over 800 years, and when we revisited it a few months ago we were once again overwhelmed by the quality and variety of the local foods and wines on offer.
...and there are many other aspects that make life in the deep heart of France attractive to tourists and outsiders. One of the country's best rugby teams (the ASM - national champions again in 2017!) plays in Montferrand. A weekend trip to go parasailing off the Puy-de-Dome is easy to arrange, as is a family outing to the beach that wraps around the historic Chateau de Val. If you're looking for something a little more sedate, the region has plenty to offer in hearty, traditional food and wine -- a fine way to pass a Sunday afternoon. And although there are plenty of other good museums in the region, we especially enjoy a visit to L'Aventure Michelin, an exceptionally well-curated collection in Clermont-Ferrand that tells the 130-year-old story of the Groupe Michelin.
This truly is the "deep heart of France"
As I said in one of the very earliest posts on this blog,
“I want to write about and share my love of ‘the other France’ – the ‘deep heart of France’ –with other people who like the country and its people for whatever reason. I want to point out the stereotypes associated with Paris and show how people really live in the rest of France. I want you to see the gorgeous Romanesque architecture, the rugged mountains, the traces of Rome, the internecine feudal wars, the “great moments in history”, the continuity of life in places occupied since the first humans appeared on the continent – all things which are not even really well known to most French people. […] I'm proudly American, but I am a Francophile and proud of that, too. With DeepHeartOfFrance.com I want to share what I love – and to learn from you along the way!"
Do you feel a special affinity for France? How did you come to feel that way? What's your experience in the country? Please join the conversation below! (And please use the buttons for your preferred social-media platforms to share this post with everyone you know who might also be interested!)
With my sincere thanks for your time,
Unless otherwise noted, all photos in this post are copyright © 2016-2018 Richard L. Alexander