It’s a wet, gloomy day in central Texas, so I’m happy to spend it remembering a much brighter (and hotter) day Karen and I spent in the heart of France in the little village of Sainte-Croix-en-Jarez. It’s a village with an unusual history: from its layout and all the architecture, you would deduce that this is really a monastery. But the French Revolution brought an end to its long vocation as a religious site and turned Sainte-Croix into a secular village. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jfV7-EroSsk
I’ve had the good luck to visit more than 100 castles and châteaux in our travels around France over the past 24 years (and I’ve written about more than 20 for this blog). Most of them fall into one of four categories: The famous castles that line the Loire River’s valley and the great royal châteaux like the ones at Versailles and Fontainbleau. (There’s a slightly smaller one of these palaces at Hautefort in the deep heart of France, the region I cover here. They’re called châteaux, but many of these really seem more like palaces.) Serious military fortresses like Castelnaud, Beynac, and (my favorite chateau in the Auvergne) Murol. These are closest to the popular image of “medieval […]
As I walked into the little village of Orcival on a bright autumn morning, I was momentarily distracted by a dog standing in the 2nd-story window of an old house. This alert little guardian interested me enough to stop to take his picture. As I started to put away my camera, though, I was startled by a loud voice in the upstairs window behind me. “Hey, you – you that likes taking all those photos of my house.” Uh-oh, I thought; he must be offended that I might be invading his privacy. So I was surprised when he went on. “Why don’t you turn around and have a look at my door, too?” What followed was one of […]
Given the number of old churches that show up on this website, you might think I’m Catholic. I’m not – I’m not even conventionally religious — so why do I love the ancient basilicas and medieval abbeys scattered across the landscape of the deep heart of France? I found myself thinking about that question again when I parked a few blocks away and made my way through a dense leafy walkway to the great abbey of Mozac. It’s surrounded these days by houses and school buildings, so your imagination has to work overtime to reconstruct what this place must have been like at its origins. (The whole town is now folded in as a suburb of Riom.) As I […]
It’s easy enough, when you’re bouncing around the deep heart of France, to experience this remarkable country in fragments, to imagine each castle and medieval abbey and little village existing in deep isolation, each tucked in its own private corner and invisible to the rest of the world. It’s easy to experience the country as Graham Robb describes it in The Discovery of France (one of my all-time favorite history books): After the Revolution, almost a third of the population (about ten million people) lived in isolated farms and cottages or in hamlets with fewer than thirty-five inhabitants and often no more than eight. […] Many recruits from the Dordogne in 1830 were unable to give their recruiting sergeant their […]
The debate started almost the same day the Notre Dame fire in Paris was brought under control: Should this great cathedral be rebuilt “as it has always been”? Or should the fallen spire and fire-ravaged roof be “updated” to integrate more modern elements? Ideas for the restoration have already started to proliferate — here’s an example of one firm’s vision, and you can see several more by following this link. Predictably, traditionalists push back hard on the idea of putting a greenhouse under a glass roof or creating a new crystal spire for Notre Dame de Paris. But predictably, too, they ignore some key points in the history of the ancient building: It has not, […]
Every year around this time, the France 3 television network invites people to vote on the “most preferred village in France”. (Last year, the winner was Cassel, up in the north near Dunkirk and the border with Belgium.) When the candidates for 2019 were announced this week, I was thrilled to find Souvigny among the 14 nominees — it’s there as the representative of the Auvergne in the deep heart of the country, and it’s easily one of the most photogenic and historically interesting places I’ve had the fortune to visit in recent years. You can vote yourself for your own “most preferred village”. Just click here and you’ll go to the France 3 site, where you just click on […]
On this frigid, dark winter day, I’m thinking back to another time… It was summer, 86 degrees and humid in Clermont-Ferrand, headed to 90 later in the week… Most offices and houses here don’t have air conditioning, so any respite from this oppressive heat was welcome. For me, one of the best places to be on days like this is inside the ancient basilica of Notre Dame du Port. I leave my room, already hot as a car in a Texas parking lot by lunchtime, and labor up the sharp little street from Place des Carmes to spend an hour in the cool dark interior of this medieval wonder. Rebuilt in its current form beginning in 1185 C.E. — but […]
Drive into almost any town in the central Auvergne, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that there’s something dark and a little foreboding about it. It might take a moment, but you’d quickly arrive at the reason: many of the houses, the big public buildings, and the fountains in the central square all have the same gray-black tone. The somber air of the whole region comes from this pervasively common building material: the pierre de Volvic – lava rock from the village of Volvic. You can see it particularly in the great Cathedral of Notre Dame de l’Assomption in Clermont-Ferrand, known to many as “the only black cathedral in France”. As you look at the dark stone blocks that make […]
Sometimes, as we all know, words and static images just aren’t adequate to capture a feeling or an impression you get in a faraway place – we need to see movement and the passing of time to get a better feel for what it might be like to visit a place we’ve never experienced for ourselves. Since I started this blog, I’ve put a lot of effort into explaining what the “deep heart of France” means to me. You’ve heard why I love Clermont-Ferrand and the Auvergne, and you’ve seen some of the towns officially recognized as being among “the most beautiful villages of France” – places like Blesle, Charroux, Arlempdes, and Salers.If you’ve stuck with this blog for long, […]
A few weeks ago I was in Souvigny, a postcard-perfect town in the Allier, and it made me think of computer systems. Well, in a roundabout way… I first heard the phrase “plan d’urbanisme” when I was working in the Information Technology department of a big manufacturing company in France. While it literally means “city planning”, in the context of IT it meant trying to figure out the thorny problem of how to integrate new applications and new technologies into an existing mass of old systems.
As you drive through the “deep heart of France”, you’ll regularly come across a massive house, usually sitting on top of a little hill or bluff and looking as though it’s been there forever. There may be some evidence of fortifications – a guard tower, a thick wall around the garden, sometimes even a moat. But is this a “chateau”? Or just a big, old house in the country?