A surprising place for a museum about a fish
The ocean is 450 miles away (by river) from Brioude. The mighty Loire River, known to every tourist who ever took a daytrip out from Paris to see the fabled chateaux of the Loire valley, begins as a trickle in the Allier River up in the mountains just 60 miles away. Odd, then, to find a monument to the salmon, one of the world’s most popular ocean-going fish, in this town in the Haut-Allier, part of the larger region of the Auvergne in the deep heart of France.
But the Atlantic salmon has a long and distinguished history in this part of the country, and that’s why it’s worth a visit to the Maison de Saumon (“the house of salmon”) in Brioude.
The fish is protected now – you can’t legally take them out of the rivers here. After centuries of over-fishing, the number of fish counted in the Allier had dropped to 250 in 1996. They’re coming back, although slowly – the number now is just over a thousand a year.
The "King of the Fishes" in history
In the past, though…well, Pliny the Elder wrote about “this king of the fishes” abounding in the rivers of central France as early as the 1st century A.D. By the 10th century, commercial fisheries began appearing along the headwaters of the Allier here, and a dam was built at Brioude in 1312 to help harvest the salmon.
The real cause of the salmon’s decline, though, may have been the development downstream of the Loire River and its tributaries beginning in the 1800s. Dams were built – at first, to make it easier to navigate the river, then in the 1900s, to generate electricity. As the dams got higher, it became impossible for the salmon to make their way upstream to spawn in their home waters deep in central France.
A new tourist industry is born
Still, these great fish were persistent enough that a few made their way all the way home to Brioude – and some of them were large enough to be legendary. Real sports fishing (catching the fish with a hook and line one at a time) started here around 1909, when the stories say a certain Lieutenant Dubois took two and a half hours to land a combative 23-pound salmon. Before that time, people believed it would be impossible to catch such a fish on a single line (Dubois had actually been fishing for trout). The story was picked up by the national press, and a new tourist industry was born in Brioude.
Of course – this is France, after all – the appetite for fresh salmon caught in the river also supported many local restaurants who became famous for their methods of cooking the fish. But by 1986, only 75 Atlantic salmon were caught from the Allier, and a conservation movement began in earnest to work on protecting the “king of fish”.
Visiting the "House of Salmon"
At the aquariums of the Maison du Saumon in Brioude, you can see many examples of the Atlantic salmon along with the other fish that populate these rivers. The museum is at pains to note, though, that not one of its salmon is a wild fish taken from the Allier; instead, these were all raised in fresh-water salmon farms, making them all somewhat smaller than their cousins who still make their way up the rivers to Brioude.
If you are interested in this kind of thing, the museum has more than 800 fish in its aquarium tanks representing the 35 different species present in the area – trout, char, brill, and catfish in addition the salmon. (And most of these can be caught by the sports fishermen who still love this part of the Auvergne for its wild beauty and natural riches.)
Brioude is worth the visit, too. Its Romanesque church is one of the great historical treasures of the deep heart of France, and we’ll be coming back to visit it and the other medieval riches of the town in a future post.
But if you have the opportunity, stop by the Maison du Saumon to see the fish, look at the incredible historical photos and collections of fishing gear, and dig into the different ways conservationists are working to restore the Atlantic salmon to its former glory in the region.
What museums and unusual sights have you discovered in places that surprised you? Do you have a “fish tale” to tell about your experiences in the rivers of France? Please tell us about them in the comments section below. And please take a moment to share this post with others using your preferred social media forum(s) by clicking on the buttons below.